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NATO Defense Chiefs Meet, Ukraine a 'Significant Concern'

The U.S. military says Russia has "funneled hundreds of pieces of Russian military equipment" to Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. The comments from the spokesman of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came today, on the first day of a two-day defense chiefs meeting at NATO headquarters here.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who is attending the NATO meeting, is "closely following" reports of Russian activity inside Ukraine, said spokesman Air Force Col. Ed Thomas.

"Among the most pressing issues for the group is NATO's planning and readiness to secure its eastern flank. It's been a dominant factor for the alliance since Russian forces entered Crimea," Thomas said.

He declined to discuss specifics about the reports of Russian activity, but did acknowledge a Russian role in the ongoing conflict.

"Since the September 5th Minsk ceasefire, Russia has funneled hundreds of pieces of Russian military equipment and materiel to Russia-backed separatists, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery pieces," Thomas said.

"Russian military forces still operate in eastern Ukraine, where they play a coordinating role and provide command and control support to pro-Russian separatists," he said.

NATO Focus on Russia

In the opening session today, the chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Danish Gen. Knud Bartels, said Russia's "illegal military intervention" in Ukraine remains a "significant cause for concern."

The events in Ukraine are "shaping our thinking on NATO's security challenges," he said.

"We have seen in Ukraine the use of hybrid warfare which combines traditional, conventional and paramilitary operations, as well as sophisticated disinformation campaigns," the Danish general said.

Because of the developments in Ukraine, the Ukrainian chief of defense was "forced at very short notice to cancel his attendance" at the meeting, Bartels said.

The centerpiece for NATO's' response to the recent Russian aggression is cooperation on what the alliance has dubbed the Readiness Action Plan.

NATO heads of state agreed to the plan at the Wales summit in September. Alliance officials say the plan will "significantly enhance NATO's readiness and responsiveness" and ensure that NATO forces remain ready.

In the interim, NATO has established a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force coordinated by Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

NATO has already increased maritime, land and air presence in Eastern Europe as member nations hammer out a final plan. The U.S. has stepped up its presence in Eastern Europe through a variety of reassurance measures to include airborne exercises in Poland and the Baltic nations.

But NATO leaders from countries like Greece and Italy are equally focused on the security of the alliance's southern flank, where U.S. and European officials warn about the flow of extremists and the danger it poses to the region.

"The threat to Europe and the West posed by smuggling and foreign fighters returning from the Middle East requires collaborative solutions," Thomas said. "As the attack on Paris underscored, this is a threat that is real and immediate."

NATO must continue to have the capability and capacity to counter threats to its border, Bartels said.

"The growing instability in the south compounds the challenges facing the alliance," Bartels said.

Afghanistan a topic for alliance members

Coalition commitments to Afghanistan's long-term success are on the agenda, according to Thomas. "We have a willing partner in the government of Afghanistan and U.S. and coalition commitment will remain key," he said.

The alliance has opened a "new chapter" in its relationship with Afghanistan, Bartels said, noting that one year ago the alliance was focused on the International Stabilization Force in Afghanistan.

"This mandate was carried out at significant cost and with substantial success," he said. "We will always remember the sacrifice of the international and Afghan forces, who deserve our respect and our gratitude."

As of January 2015, the alliance is conducting a train, assist, and advise mission in support of the Afghan National Security Forces, Bartels said.

"We are well aware that although this is a non-combat mission, it is conducted in a combat environment," he said.

Threats in North Africa, Middle East

The chiefs of defense were also examining the "dynamic and evolving situation" in regards to regional security challenges in North Africa and the Middle East, Bartels said.

The alliance members had a session Wednesday with the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue partner nations. The group is comprised of seven non-NATO countries of the Mediterranean region: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

Bartels said the Thursday session will provide an opportunity to develop the military advice to NATO's Political Guidance 2015, which will be agreed in June by NATO's defense ministers.

[Source: By Lisa Ferdinando, DoD News, Defense Media Activity, Brussels, 21Jan15]

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