WASHINGTON - NATO defense ministers on Thursday unveiled plans for expanded military reinforcements by having the ability to deploy 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of aircraft and 30 warships within 30 days to any conflict on the European mainland.
Details of the U.S.-drafted plan remain unclear, though ministers said they aim to have it logistically operational no later than 2020.
The ministers also announced plans to strengthen its new command structure by more than 1,200 personnel spread across a new Atlantic command center based in Norfolk, Virginia, and a mainland Europe conflict logistics headquarters in Ulm, Germany.
Briefly putting aside what NATO’s chief said were “serious differences” within the 29-member alliance, ministers agreed to a plan to protect the North Atlantic against increased Russian naval strength, move troops more quickly across Europe and have more combat-ready battalions, ships and planes.
Notably absent from Thursday’s ministerial debates: a recent White House decision to target Europe on trade, which may further raise tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The European Union, along with Canada and Mexico, have expressed irritation over new U.S. tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, which the administration of President Donald Trump has levied on national security grounds.
“There are differences related to issues like trade, the Iran nuclear deal and climate change,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.
“We have disagreements between NATO allies but we stand together in NATO when it comes to the core task of NATO ... to protect each other.”
July summit agenda
Another challenge facing the alliance are efforts to expand membership in Eastern Europe, where Russia has long opposed NATO’s presence.
Increasing from 12 to 29 member nations through seven rounds of enlargement since 1949, NATO recently updated its website to include four countries that have declared their intent to join the alliance ahead of the July 11 summit. Those nations include Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, and Macedonia
In a May visit to the White House, Secretary Stoltenberg said expansion will help strengthen the alliance.
“We live in a more unpredictable world, we need a strong NATO, and we need to invest more in our security,” he said in an interview with VOA.
Former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, said the United States is working to help applicant nations meet the requirements for membership.
“We are there to give them the standards, to help them get there, and that’s what the open door policy is,” she said.
Former NATO deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow, however, said countering malign Russian influence in the Balkans will remain a vital part of securing membership, citing recent evidence of Russian meddling in Macedonia's domestic politics.
“Russians are perhaps more persistent and little bit more unscrupulous in their methods, but they have been long trying to discourage Western Balkan countries from joining NATO,” he told VOA. “Macedonia, I think, is the prime target right now, because the possibility of breakthrough between Macedonia and Greece on the name issue opens the way to possible negotiations on membership even this year.”
Greece opposes Macedonia's name, saying it amounts to a territorial claim on a synonymous northern Greek region. Western involvement in the name dispute could ease Macedonia's entry into NATO, but only if the country can meet the alliance's strict requirements.
Matthew Nimetz, UN moderator on the Greek-Macedonian name dispute, told VOA that recent talks on the issue were productive.
“These were very workmanlike talks,” he said of recent meetings in New York. “The issues are well defined. The issues have been narrowed. We still don’t have a final resolution of the issues, but both sides are determined to do enough to try to reach an agreement and are working very hard to do that."
Another key requirement for membership: a pledge to spend at least 2 percent of a country's gross domestic product on defense.
Only five member nations — the Greece, Britain, Estonia, Poland, and the United States — currently meet that requirement.
Upon arriving in office, Trump repeatedly criticized NATO member countries for not contributing their fair share to the alliance. In a 2017 speech to NATO members, he failed to reiterate the U.S. commitment to NATO's Article 5 pledge of mutual defense, rattling NATO allies.
The White House on Wednesday said President Donald Trump will travel to Brussels to attend a NATO summit scheduled for July 11-12, followed by a July 13 visit to Britain.
This story originated in VOA's Macedonian Service.