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By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The United States and its NATO allies agreed Wednesday to step up air patrols over the Baltic nations and to deploy additional warships in response to Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will also send military personnel to conduct training and exercises in Eastern Europe after allies called for a more visible show of strength from the 28-nation alliance, officials said.

“We have seen a Russian force that … imposed its will on a sovereign nation and now has annexed a portion of that sovereign nation,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, told reporters after an alliance meeting in Brussels. “We need to now take measures to assure our allies of our complete commitment” to their defense.

NATO officials gave no indication, however, that they were preparing to deploy ground forces other than for training purposes, or to open new bases in Eastern Europe, a step that officials of Poland and other countries that border Ukraine have sought.

Concern about the possibility of a civil war and Russian military intervention in Ukraine have grown as Kiev has used troops against armed men who seized control of government buildings in eastern Ukraine, many of them suspected to be Russian paramilitary forces.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that there was no discussion among alliance members about setting up new air bases or naval facilities in the Baltics.

He provided few details about which countries would contribute forces, saying only that the United States and other alliance members would announce deployments soon.

“You will see deployments at sea, in the air, on land to take place immediately,” he said without elaborating.

U.S. military officials in Europe and Washington said that the Pentagon had prepared a menu of force options, but the details were being closely held in keeping with a White House policy to focus on diplomacy and economic sanctions to pressure Russia to pull back its troops from Ukraine’s border.

Breedlove has said that Russia has moved about 40,000 troops near Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his European Union counterparts are scheduled to hold four-way talks with Ukraine and Russia in Geneva on Thursday to address the worsening crisis.

Sending U.S. ground forces into Eastern Europe could give Russia a pretext for sending its troops into Ukraine, American officials said. Some European governments oppose anything but symbolic military moves.

Breedlove said NATO’s actions were defensive and should not be seen as a threat to Russia. Alliance members are being asked to send forces through the end of the year, he said.

There “is always a chance that something might be misinterpreted, but we specifically designed these … to be clearly seen as defensive in nature,” he said.

John Thys AFP

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