BRUSSELS • Confronted with its biggest military challenge since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) took steps to strengthen its flanks, while the risk grew that the civil war in Syria could escalate into a new Cold War or even a wider regional war.
Angry about a barrage of cruise missiles that Russia fired at Syrian targets this week without any advance notice, US officials on Thursday spoke in terms that might not have been out of place in the 1980s.
"From the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Pacific through South Asia, into the Caucasus and around to the Baltics, Russia has continued to wrap itself in a shroud of isolation," US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said at a news conference in Brussels. "And only the Kremlin can decide to change that."
SENDING A STRONG MESSAGE
We are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War. All of this sends a message to Nato citizens: Nato will defend you, Nato is on the ground, Nato is ready.
MR JENS STOLTENBERG, Nato's secretary-general
Lately, the Kremlin has seemed more inclined to challenge Nato, violating its airspace frequently in northern Europe, and twice in recent days in Turkey. Nato defence ministers hit back sharply on Thursday, bolstering the alliance's presence in eastern Europe and forcefully stating their commitment to Turkey's defence. Even as US officials said that several Russian cruise missiles had crashed in a rural area of Iran, Mr Carter warned: "In coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer casualties."
A Russian Defence Ministry statement in response to Mr Carter said: "In its assessments of the American military's actions... representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defence not once stooped as low as publicly awaiting the death of an American soldier. Not to mention of any ordinary American."
For all of Nato's tough talk, the reality is far more complicated, in no small part because the United States is led by a president who has made clear he has no intention of getting into a proxy war with Russia over Syria. And in much the same way that President Barack Obama and his European allies baulked at military involvement in response to Russia's incursion into Ukraine last year, Nato is reluctant to become involved in Syria's civil war, particularly when defence budgets are shrinking.
Not wanting to inflame the situation, but also wary of appearing too passive, Western officials have responded cautiously, taking a number of limited steps while raising the rhetorical pressure on Moscow.
But unlike Ukraine, Turkey is a member of Nato, so further Russian violations of Turkish airspace would put additional pressure on the alliance to act - or lose face and credibility. If it fails to come to the aid of Turkey, some member nations have asked, what would it do to stop a Russian incursion into the Baltics?
Perhaps with that and other considerations in mind, Mr Carter and Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said firmly on Thursday that Turkish airspace was, in essence, Nato airspace, and that the alliance was prepared for any threats.
"We are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War," Mr Stoltenberg said. "All of this sends a message to Nato citizens: Nato will defend you, Nato is on the ground, Nato is ready."
Nato has stationed Patriot batteries in Turkey to protect it from missiles emanating from Syria, but those were scheduled to be removed this year. Turkish officials asked the alliance on Thursday to leave some of them, in the light of Russia's recent actions, but both Mr Stoltenberg and Mr Carter played down that possibility.
British officials said up to 150 military personnel would be regularly deployed to the Baltic countries and Poland to support training efforts. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon called the decision part of a "policy of persistent presence and aid for our allies" in response to "Russian aggression and provocation".
NEW YORK TIMES