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NATO will boost military defenses especially on the eastern flank nearest Russia


Leaders from the U.S., Canada, Turkey and Europe are set to approve this week at a summit in Madrid what could be the biggest overhaul of NATO's defenses since the Cold War. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the military alliance plans to grow its quick response force from 40,000 to more than 300,000 troops. This move aims to address threats from Russia and other regional security issues. I spoke earlier with retired Admiral James Stavridis, who served as NATO's supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013, and I started by asking what this major increase will look like.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: This would include sailors in ships, airmen in aircraft, cyber expertise, every realm of military activity to include special forces, unmanned vehicles. All of that is encompassed. So when you hear that top-line number go from 40,000 to 300,000, you have to recognize that all that equipment, all that hardware - the ships, the aircraft, the drones - all comes with it. So the short answer is you can do about seven times more than you can with only 40,000.

MARTÍNEZ: And it sounds, Admiral, that you would have a lot more flexibility...


MARTÍNEZ: ...And the ability to expand on ideas and plans that you might not have been able to before.

STAVRIDIS: Indeed. And all of this is categorized in a defensive way militarily. What we don't want to do is somehow give the sense that NATO is getting ready to go on the offensive. That's not the case. The war plans are very specific.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, currently, where are the rapid reaction forces based? And what kinds of scenarios have they been trained to react to?

STAVRIDIS: Generally speaking, these forces will still be assigned for bivouac, for staying in their forts and in their garrisons in the nation that is providing them. What is changing is the nation that is going to provide them has to provide the capability to move them rapidly forward. So this is not suddenly 260,000 new troops along the NATO-Russia border; this is more about troops in existing places that are capable of flowing forward. Some will be moved forward into the Baltics, Poland, Romania, but the bulk of these troops will be on standby, like our 82nd Airborne is here in the United States, to mount up on aircraft, fly into an area and engage in combat.

MARTÍNEZ: Admiral, I was in Ukraine when Russia was holding exercises in Belarus right before they invaded Ukraine, and I remember how tense that made things for people in Kyiv. If these forces have to conduct exercises in the home defenses, in the places where they're going to be stationed at, how much could that possibly agitate Russia?

STAVRIDIS: Certainly, Russia will take notice of it. But I would put it this way, A - one person's agitation is another person's deterrence. The fact that 260,000 troops are exercising, are operating, are highly skilled, highly trained, the idea is not to agitate Russia but to deter Russia. And I think it will do that.

MARTÍNEZ: Finland and Sweden are also going to participate in the summit, and they have remained, officially, nonmilitary partners to NATO. How might their presence affect the alliance and its response to Russia?

STAVRIDIS: It will complicate things for Russia. Bringing them into the alliance creates, if you will, a whole new flank of NATO that runs to the north. It also opens the Arctic. And the military capability of the Swedes and the Finns, I can assure you, is remarkable. They deployed troops to Afghanistan. They operated in the war in Libya. They have had troops in the Balkans. We know them well in NATO. We've worked with them for decades. They will be most welcome and will be nothing but a plus for the alliance militarily.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm wondering, Admiral, the eastern part of Ukraine - what can Ukraine do at this point to try and get some footing there?

STAVRIDIS: Exactly what they're doing, which is take the military capability that we are placing in the hands of the Ukrainians and fight like hell. And this is their nation. They are going to have to carry this fight. Our job is to give them the tools so that if and when they decide they want to negotiate, they can be in the best position to negotiate.

MARTÍNEZ: Admiral, does it almost seem inevitable at this point that Ukraine will lose territory to Russia in this war?

STAVRIDIS: I think in war, nothing is inevitable. War is the most unpredictable of human activities. It's too soon to say that. However, if you look at the way Russia has dug in, consolidated its forces, it has become a very tough nut to crack militarily in that southeastern strip that they hold today.

MARTÍNEZ: Former supreme allied commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis. Thank you very much for your time.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.