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In NATO debut, Biden's Pentagon aims to rebuild trust damaged by Trump

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President Joe Biden’s administration will use a NATO defence gathering this week to begin what is expected to be a years-long effort to rebuild trust with European allies shaken by Donald Trump’s 'America First' foreign policy, write , and

Biden aims to rebuild NATO trust after Trump era

US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity ahead of the event, said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would emphasize US commitment and appreciation for the trans-Atlantic alliance after Trump’s open hostility.

The NATO defence ministers' meeting, to be held virtually on 17-18 February here, is the first major European event since Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20. Biden will deliver remarks at a virtual gathering of the Munich security forum here on 19 February.

After years of Trump’s public ridiculing of NATO allies such as Germany who failed to reach defense spending targets, Biden’s Pentagon will, without abandoning those targets, focus on progress made toward bolstering NATO’s collective defense, officials said.

“Trust is something that can’t be built overnight, is something that takes time. It takes more than words. It takes action,” said a US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s objectives for the NATO meeting.

To underscore Biden's views on NATO, the White House even took the rare step of releasing a video on 27 January of the US president's first conversation with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in which he used the word "sacred" to describe the US commitment to collective defense.

Still, Biden could face an uphill battle in Europe, which saw Washington upend its commitments under Trump, including pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

Trump’s portrayal of NATO as an organization in crisis, dragged down by laggard members, has left many European allies feeling worn down.

“There’s an exhaustion in European security circles from Trump and his unpredictability,” said a European NATO diplomat.

“We’ve just spent four years not talking to each other and the world is very different from four years ago. Biden needs to do a big repair job in Europe.”

Portugal’s Defence Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho, underscoring wariness about the United States, told the European Parliament on Jan. 28 that the Trump years were an “ideological experiment” that had “devastating effects in terms of the credibility of the United States and its strength internationally.”

The deadly 6 January riots at the US Capitol in which pro-Trump followers tried to keep him in power, has also done severe damage to America’s global image as a beacon of democracy, political analysts said.

One of Biden’s biggest challenges will be convincing allies there won’t be a return to another Trump era, or something akin to it, perhaps four or eight years down the line.

“That’s a legitimate fear and a legitimate concern,” said Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security focusing on European security and NATO.

She added it will be a “slow process” to prove the United States can be a reliable ally.

French President Emmanuel Macron has gone so far as to say Europe needs its own sovereign defense strategy, independent of the United States here. Still, eastern European allies such as Poland – fearful of Russia - say European defense plans should only complement NATO, not replace it.

The NATO defense ministerial is expected to broach a range of issues, including efforts to end the two-decade-old war in Afghanistan.

The ministerial is also expected to include discussion of the so-called “2 percent target” which requires NATO members spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024.

Germany, Italy and Spain will all miss the 2024 target, according to initial projections released by NATO in October. Germany has pledged to reach the NATO spending target by 2031, and its failure angered Trump, who ordered a pullout of some 12,000 troops from Germany, declaring: “We don’t want to be the suckers any more.”

Asked about the target, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he expected Austin to emphasize that many allies were meeting the target and others were “striving to get there.”

“I think you’ll see a supportive message from the secretary about how relevant NATO is,” said Kirby, a retired Navy admiral.

Another U.S. official said that even with economic stress on budgets because of COVID-19, the expectation was still for allies to hit 2 percent of their GDP, with Washington likely to make the argument that the health crisis should not be allowed to turn into a security crisis.

“But you’ll hear a substantially different tone and a lot more emphasis on different capabilities,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It won’t be instrumentalized as a political weapon to beat up allies.”

NATO

Russia and Ukraine hold military drills, NATO criticizes Russian troop build-up

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Russia and Ukraine held simultaneous military drills on Wednesday as NATO foreign and defence ministers began emergency discussions on a massing of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border, write Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Robin Emmott.

On the rebel frontline in Ukraine

Washington and NATO have been alarmed by the large build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week.

Ahead of the arrival of the U.S. warships, the Russian navy on Wednesday began a drill in the Black Sea that rehearsed firing at surface and air targets. The drill came a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Moscow to end its troop build-up.

Russia - which said the US naval move was an unfriendly provocation and warned Washington to stay far away from Crimea and its Black Sea coast - says the build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behaviour from NATO. It has said the exercise is due to wrap up within two weeks.

In Ukraine, armed forces rehearsed repelling a tank and infantry attack near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea while its defence minister, Andrii Taran, told European parliamentarians in Brussels that Russia was preparing to potentially store nuclear weapons in Crimea.

Taran provided no evidence for his assertion but said Russia was massing 110,000 troops on Ukraine’s border in 56 battalion-sized tactical groups, citing Kyiv’s latest intelligence.

Fighting has increased in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who held talks in Brussels with Stoltenberg ahead of a video conference of all 30 NATO allies, said the alliance would “address Russia’s aggressive actions in and around Ukraine”, without elaborating.

Russia’s relations with the United States slumped to a new post-Cold War low last month after US President Joe Biden said he thought Vladimir Putin was a “killer”.

In a phone call with Putin on Tuesday, Biden proposed holding a summit between the estranged leaders to tackle a raft of issues, including reducing tensions over Ukraine.

The Kremlin on Wednesday said it was too early to talk about such a summit in tangible terms and that holding such a meeting was contingent on Washington’s future behaviour, in what looked like a thinly veiled reference to potential US sanctions.

Russia has regularly accused NATO of destabilising Europe by bolstering its troops in the Baltic countries and Poland - all members of the Atlantic alliance - in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

NATO has denied a claim by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that the alliance was deploying 40,000 troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.

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Russia calls US 'adversary', rejects NATO call to end Ukraine build-up

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The United States called on Russia to halt a military build-up on Ukraine’s border on Tuesday (13 April) as Moscow, in words recalling the Cold War, said its “adversary” should keep US warships well away from annexed Crimea, write Robin Emmott and Andrew Osborn.

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fighting has escalated in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

Two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week.

In Brussels for talks with NATO leaders and Ukraine’s foreign minister, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington stood firmly behind Ukraine.

He also said he would discuss Kyiv’s ambitions to one day join NATO - although France and Germany have long worried that bringing the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonise Russia.

“The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Tuesday.

Ryabkov’s remarks suggest that the diplomatic niceties which the former Cold War enemies have generally sought to observe in recent decades is fraying, and that Russia would robustly push back against what it regards as unacceptable U.S. interference in its sphere of influence.

“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good,” Ryabkov said, calling the U.S. deployment a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.

CALL FOR DE-ESCALATION

Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba after Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned what they said was the unexplained rise in Russian troop numbers.

Related CoverageBiden, in call with Putin, voiced concerns about Russian military buildup

Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow was massing forces in its biggest build-up since 2014, since Moscow annexed Crimea. He called Russia’s actions “very provocative”.

“In recent weeks Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.

Russia has said it moves its forces around as it sees fit, including for defensive purposes. It has regularly accused NATO of destabilising Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday Russia had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to near its western borders in the last three weeks, responding to what it called threatening military action by NATO.

Shoigu, speaking on state television, said NATO was deploying 40,000 troops near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.

“In total, 40,000 troops and 15,000 weapons and pieces of military equipment are concentrated near our territory, including strategic aircraft,” Shoigu said.

The Western alliance denies any such plans.

SANCTIONS, MILITARY HELP

Kuleba said Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed separatist forces.

Kuleba appealed for further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military help to Kyiv.

“At the operational level, we need measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions,” Kuleba said after the NATO-Ukraine Commission met at the alliance headquarters.

This could be direct support aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defence capabilities.

Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would chair a video conference with allied defence and foreign ministers on Wednesday. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were expected to be present at NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine, as well as on Afghanistan, the diplomats said.

Austin, on a visit to Berlin, said the United States would ramp up its forces in Germany in light of the friction with Moscow, abandoning former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw about round 12,000 of the 36,000 troops from there.

Kyiv has welcomed the show of Western support, but it falls short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership of NATO.

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Ukraine and Afghanistan in spotlight as Blinken Visits Brussels

EU Reporter Correspondent

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (pictured) headed to Brussels today (13 April) to meet with European and NATO allies on a range of issues, including Russia’s buildup of forces along the border with Ukraine and coalition operations in Afghanistan.

The visit comes three weeks after Blinken was in Brussels for a summit with his counterparts from NATO member states. Blinken spoke of the priority for the United States to focus on strengthening ties with allies during the previous meeting.

“Glad to be heading back to Brussels. The United States is committed to rebuilding U.S. alliances, particularly with our NATO Allies,” Blinken tweeted on Monday (12 April). “We remain steadfast in our support for NATO as the essential forum for Transatlantic security.”

Blinken’s schedule for today includes talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Russia’s recent movement of troops to the border area has raised concerns in the United States and elsewhere.

Blinken spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about the situation Monday and said there was mutual agreement that “Russia must end its dangerous military buildup and ongoing aggression along Ukraine’s borders.”

Philip Reeker, the US acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters in previewing Blinken’s meetings that NATO talks about Ukraine would bring calls for Russia to show restraint and refrain from “escalatory actions.”

Joining Blinken in Brussels is US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Another major topic of discussion will be the situation in Afghanistan just weeks before a May 1 deadline set an agreement between the administration of former US President Donald Trump and the Taliban for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S forces from the country.

Reeker said those talks would be an opportunity to follow up on discussions about Afghanistan from the ministerial meetings last month. Blinken said during the March talks that the United States wanted to “listen and consult” with NATO allies, while pledging to “leave together” when the time is right.

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