The U.S. will support an expanded and more agile rapid reaction force within NATO to counter the growing threat from Russia to Ukraine and Eastern Europe, Pentagon and White House officials said Tuesday.
"It's about making sure a strong message is sent" to Moscow, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said of the proposed improvements for the existing rapid reaction force that will be taken up at the NATO summit in Wales beginning Thursday.
Kirby said that Russian conventional and special forces troops were now operating inside Ukraine and were backed up by thousands of Russian troops on the border.
"We want those troops pulled away," Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing, but Russia showed no signs of backing off from its support of the separatists in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Instead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged that the "party of war" heading Ukraine's government in Kiev was backing away from ceasefire proposals and preparing to join NATO.
"Support for the strengthening of the party of war in Kiev is actively being fueled and stirred up by Washington and certain European capitals," Lavrov said in Moscow. "The most important thing is the need to talk sense into the party of war in Kiev, and in large part only the United States can do this."
Ukrainian troops reportedly were falling back from the combined offensive of the separatists backed by Russian troops and artillery, and the Kiev government announced a new strategy in response.
Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said Ukrainian forces were no longer seeking to root out the separatists but to defend against Russia.
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama backed "a significant increase in the readiness of the response force," but was not ready to announce how many U.S. troops would participate in the new unit.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that the NATO alliance would be designing a "readiness action plan" — complete with a rapid-response force — at its Wales meeting to respond to "Russia's aggressive behavior."
"We will develop what I would call a ‘spearhead' within our Response Force – a very high readiness force able to deploy at very short notice," Rasmussen said at a news conference.
"This spearhead would be provided by allies in rotation, and could include several thousand troops, ready to respond where needed with air, sea and Special Forces support," Rasmussen said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com