NATO faces biggest challenge since World War II: Stoltenberg

The alliance is set to label Russia a ‘direct threat’ and pledges bolstered defence capabilities.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has said the 30-country bloc faces its biggest crisis since World War II, with Russia, in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, posing a “direct threat” to the alliance.

Stoltenberg made the comments on Wednesday as leaders of 30 NATO countries met in Madrid, Spain, where they are set to agree on a new strategic framework that will address Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, as well as the growing military and economic reach of China.

The alliance is also due to launch the largest revamp of its defence and deterrence capabilities since the end of the Cold War, strengthening its forces on its eastern flank and massively ramping up the number of troops it has at high readiness.

Stoltenberg set high expectations, saying the Madrid gathering was set to be “historic and transformative” for the security alliance, which formed in 1949.

“We meet in the midst of the most serious security crisis we have faced since the second world war,” Stoltenberg said.

He added leaders of the bloc will “state clearly that Russia poses a direct threat to our security”.

The rhetoric accompanied early security pledges from the United States, with President Joe Biden announcing Washington would boost its force posture in Europe, including establishing a permanent US base in Poland, two more Navy destroyers based in Rota, Spain, and two more F-35 squadrons to the United Kingdom.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, urged countries who do not hit the target alliance’s current target of spending two percent of gross domestic product on defence to “dig deep to restore deterrence and ensure defence in the decade ahead”.

Just nine of the alliance’s members currently meet that goal.

The summit opened with one of the bloc’s problems solved, after Turkey agreed on Tuesday to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. In response to the invasion, the two Nordic nations abandoned their long-held non-aligned status and applied to join NATO as protection against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Russia – which shares a long border with Finland.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the arrangement would be mutually beneficial, with the “strong democracies” and “powerful armies” of Sweden and Finland strengthening NATO.

She added plans to bolster NATO’s capability did not mean the bloc was seeking a confrontation with Russia.

“It means we are ready when we need it but when we never want to have an escalation with Russia,” she said. “All we want is to live in peace in Europe, and therefore we are making crystal clear that we are ready to defend ourselves and preparing all the structures for what we need … that if in case, we need to be there, we are there.”

For its part, the Kremlin on Wednesday decried Sweden and Finland’s ascension to the bloc as “destabilising”.

The leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand were a;sp attending the NATO summit as guests, a reflection of the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region.

Stoltenberg said China was not NATO’s adversary, but posed “challenges to our values, to our interest and to our security”.

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