Taking aim at Russia, NATO's civilian chief said on Wednesday (Belgium time) the alliance is studying a range of options to counter Moscow's alleged missile treaty violations, and America's top diplomat accused the Russians of having "grand designs" to dominate Europe.
In remarks at the outset of a NATO defense ministers meeting, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance is considering ways to counter Russian missiles without sparking an arms race. He called the missiles "a significant risk" to Europe.
In Poland, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Moscow's efforts to divide the European Union and NATO and disrupt western democracies must be countered through boosting NATO's presence.
"Russia has grand designs of dominating Europe and reasserting its influence on the world stage. Vladimir Putin seeks to splinter the NATO alliance, weaken the United States and disrupt Western democracies," he said.
"Russia's invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels this past November and its ongoing hybrid warfare against us and our allies are direct challenges to our security and to our way of life," he added.
Pompeo made the comments while visiting a NATO forward position in northeast Poland about 70km from the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Because of Russia's ongoing involvement in Ukraine, the US and others take seriously the possibility that Moscow may try to open a new front along Europe's eastern flank, Pompeo said. He said that threat underscores the indispensable nature of NATO — a cornerstone of US foreign policy for the past 70 years but the target of harsh criticism by President Donald Trump, who has cast the allies as freeloaders unwilling to foot the bill for their own defense.
Also throwing US support behind NATO, Vice President Mike Pence told hundreds of Polish and US troops in Warsaw, Poland on Wednesday, "We must stand together in defense of our alliance and all that we hold dear."
Against the backdrop of rising Western tensions with Russia, the NATO meeting in Brussels focused initially on the expected demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, known as the INF treaty.
The US signed the pact with the Soviet Union in 1987. The allies are considering how to respond collectively to what they say are Russian violations of the treaty.
The United States on February 2 launched the six-month process of leaving the INF treaty, insisting that a new Russian missile system violates the pact. Russia denies it is in contravention and has announced that it will pull out, too.
The INF bans production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5500km. European NATO allies insist that the pact is a cornerstone of continental security, although after Pompeo announced earlier this month that Washington was beginning the formal process of withdrawal, NATO publicly endorsed the move.
Speaking at NATO headquarters, where defense ministers are discussing what to do if the imperiled treaty is abandoned, Stoltenberg said: "This is very serious. We will take our time."
"Our response will be united," he said. "It will be measured, and it will be defensive because we don't want a new arms race. And we don't have any intention to deploy new nuclear land-based weapon systems in Europe."
Later, in remarks made alongside Pat Shanahan, the acting US secretary of defense, Stoltenberg said, "We need to plan for a world without the treaty and with more Russian missiles."
Shanahan said he planned to brief his fellow ministers on his talks earlier this week in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he met with US commanders and government leaders. NATO has roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shanahan, attending his first NATO meeting, said he also looked forward to talking to his colleagues about the future of the NATO alliance.
"We need to talk more about our vision and what we can accomplish in a world that has so many changing threats," he said.
NATO allies have little insight into Shanahan's views, whereas they felt confident that Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in December, was an unwavering supporter of the alliance. Mattis implied in his resignation letter that President Donald Trump's disrespect for traditional allies was among policy differences that compelled him to quit after two years in the job.
With regard to the expected termination of the INF treaty in August, Stoltenberg said that NATO has "a wide range of options, conventional and other options," but he declined to list them, warning that any speculation "would just add to the uncertainty."
US officials have said there is no plan to deploy in Europe a nuclear-armed INF-class missile. They have said only non-nuclear options are under consideration and that decisions are not imminent.
The Pentagon believes that Russia's ground-fired Novator 9M729 cruise missile — known in NATO parlance as the SSC-8 — could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice. Russia insists it has a range of less than 500km. It claims that US target-practice missiles and drones also break the treaty.
European NATO members are especially keen to avoid any nuclear build-up and a repeat of the missile crisis in the 1980s. NATO allies decided to deploy US cruise and Pershing 2 ballistic missiles in Europe in 1983 as negotiations with Moscow faltered over its stationing of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe.