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NATO Boosts Presence in Eastern Europe as Turmoil Continues in Ukraine

  • Zlatica Hoke

Turmoil in eastern Ukraine continued Tuesday, a day after the United States and Europe announced new sanctions against Russia for failing to take steps to de-escalate the crisis in its neighbor to the west. Pro-Russian demonstrators in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk seized government buildings and the local television center, after similar actions in Donetsk and Slovyansk. NATO is boosting defense in member nations bordering Russia to allay their growing concerns about Moscow's territorial ambitions.

Several thousand protesters stormed the regional administration building in Luhansk Tuesday after a group of youths broke windows with metal bars and let the crowd in. The rebels replaced the Ukrainian flag with a Russian one, while riot police stood by.

In the capital, Kyiv, acting president Oleksander Turchynov lashed out at the country's law enforcement for failing to act.

"The overwhelming majority of law enforcement bodies in the east are incapable of fulfilling their duties to defend our citizens. New heads of the Security Service of Ukraine have already been appointed in Donetsk and Luhansk [eastern Ukraine]. The leadership of the special forces "Alpha" has been totally replaced," said Turchynov.

Ukraine and its allies have accused Russia of fueling the crisis in eastern Ukraine to clear the way for another incursion into the region after annexing the Crimean peninsula. NATO member nations bordering Russia have asked the alliance for additional protection.

Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Adrian Bradshaw visited Latvia Tuesday to discuss measures to strengthen NATO's presence in the Baltic region.

"Our judgment is that the actions that we've taken at the moment are proportional and appropriate to the changed security dynamic that we face. It gives a very clear indication on NATO commitment to the region, but the things we are doing could not be considered threatening to anybody outside the region," said Bradshaw.

NATO already has increased its air policing and naval presence in the Baltics. Last week, 450 U.S. paratroopers were deployed in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and another 150 in Poland. NATO military exercises are taking place across the region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday said NATO is sending a clear message to Moscow that its territory is inviolable. He also called on NATO members to meet their financial obligations.

“We cannot continue to allow allied defense budgets to shrink. Clearly, not all allies are going to meet the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP overnight, or even next year. But it’s time for allies who are below that benchmark to make credible commitments to increase their spending on defense over the next five years, and if we’re going to move the trend line in a positive direction, this has to be an alliance-wide effort,” said Kerry.

Russia has accused the West of stirring unrest in the region, but some eastern Europeans who still recall Russian invasions say they feel safer with an increased NATO presence. Lithuanian student Ernestas Tuzinas said he wants even more.

"These are only the first steps. NATO should set up a permanent military base in Lithuania," said Tuzinas.

The Baltic states spent five decades under Soviet occupation until 1991 and joined NATO in 2004. Poland joined in 1999 and was among the first eastern European NATO members.

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