As a response to the U.S. and NATO's plan to store heavy weapons in eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia needs a powerful military to fend off threats near its borders, a statement that reflects tensions with the West over the Ukrainian crisis. Speaking at Thursday's Kremlin meeting with graduates of Russian military academies, Putin said that a "powerful army equipped with modern weapons is the guarantor of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia." He vowed to continue a sweeping military modernization effort that envisages procurement of large numbers of new weapons. Putin added that Russia has no aggressive intentions and aims to "settle any disputes exclusively by political means with respect to international law and interests of other nations." Russia-West relations have sunk to post-Cold War lows after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Warning of a return to heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine this summer, NATO on Thursday blamed Russia, and the U.S. and its allies outlined additional support for Kiev, including aid in defusing roadside bombs. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is creating a new trust fund that will help with removing mines and detecting and destroying improvised explosive devices. Those steps, he said, will be vital for saving lives in a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people.
In addition, he said, NATO is working to better secure the airspace in the region. He said Poland, Norway and Turkey will be sharing more airport traffic control data with Ukraine, which is critical because it's "an area which is unstable and where we see fighting going on, on the ground."
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who visited the task force on Monday as part of this Europe trip, said NATO allies are growing more united as they work to increase support for Ukraine and reassure European nations concerned about Russian aggression and the threat of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other terrorists in the region.
During the NATO meeting, allies have insisted they are not looking to restart a Cold War-style arms race with Russia, but are working to address the threats that alliance nations are facing. As a result, they have announced that they will increase the strength of the alliance's Response Force, which was 13,000 at the start of 2015, to as many as 40,000. And they added air, sea and Special Forces units to the force, which includes a highly mobile, multinational "spearhead" brigade of 5,000 ground troops the ministers ordered formed in February so NATO can reinforce any alliance member under threat within 48 hours.
Since Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and Russia-backed crisis in the eastern Ukraine, the tension between Russia and the West has gradually worsened since the Cold War. The West accused Russia of violating Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, according to the 1994 treaty under which Russia agreed to respect Ukraine's borders. The Russian military presence inside Ukraine's border was seen as a breach of the principles of the founding act and a violation of international law, Russia, since the crisis broke out in February 2014, strictly denies allegations over providing support for rebel groups involved in the conflict in the Donbass region. Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine has resulted in the deterioration of the post-Cold War security order in Europe that has been protected under the NATO-Russia founding act signed in 1997, the aim of which was to build peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area.