TALLINN (Estonia) - The US will deploy heavy weapons in central and eastern Europe for the first time, Washington has said in the midst of the worst stand-off between Russia and the West since the Cold War, triggered by the crisis in Ukraine.
"We will temporarily stage one armoured brigade combat team's vehicles and associated equipment in countries in central and eastern Europe," US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said on Tuesday at a joint press conference with three Baltic defence ministers on the eve of Nato talks.
"This pre-positioned European activity set includes tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery," he said, adding that Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland had "agreed to host company- to battalion-sized elements of this equipment", which would be "moved around the region for training and exercises".
"While we do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia, we will defend our allies," Mr Carter added.
The Pentagon said the 250 items to be deployed are 90 Abrams tanks, 140 Bradley armoured vehicles and 20 self-propelled howitzers.
"The American move sends a signal to Russia, US allies and other global powers that the US is a leading global military power able to counter Russian threats in the region - that it's not a power in decline," said analyst Marcin Terlikowski of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
The US announcement followed promises by Nato on Monday to step up its military presence in eastern Europe against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine.
Earlier reports about the US plans had prompted Russia to say it would in turn expand its nuclear arsenal.
President Vladimir Putin accused the US-led alliance of "coming to our borders".
Meanwhile, Ukrainian rebels on Tuesday accused government forces of killing three civilians in attacks launched hours before the start of another round of talks in Paris on ways to halt the 15-month separatist war.
Kiev's Western-backed military command reported the death of one soldier and accused the pro-Russian rebels of heavy mortar and artillery fire.
The Paris talks brought together the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, and resulted in a joint statement calling for "a rapid de-escalation" of the latest fighting and an immediate ceasefire, as well as calls to withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines.