- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Recent Russian military aggression threatens to unravel the fabric of European security, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday.

Russia’s attempt to create a sphere of influence risks sending us back in time,” said Mr. Stoltenberg, who met with President Obama Tuesday as part of a Washington visit this week, “and it could create a sphere of instability for us all.”

The remarks come two days after a “snap” Russian military exercise in the country’s northwest coincided with a long-planned NATO training operation, which ruffled feathers in the organization.

“We urge Russia not to … do these kinds of snap exercises. Every nation has the right to exercise its forces, also Russia, but they should do it in a more transparent and predictable way to avoid any misunderstandings,” the former Norwegian prime minister told reporters at the White House.

The clash over the surprise military maneuvers come amid rising tensions between the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West over Ukraine, as well what NATO officials say are a string of provocative probes by Russian forces against countries in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

“We have nothing to hide, whereas Russia is doing it all it can to minimize the transparency over what its forces are doing,” the NATO chief said.

According to Mr. Stoltenberg, Moscow’s unannounced exercises included over 250 aircraft and more than 700 pieces of “heavy equipment.” In other exercises, Russian pilots have been ordered to turn off their transponders in crowded civilian airspace.

The secretary-general told a briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday that Russian aircraft activity has increased 50 percent in recent years.

Moscow’s actions have brought Russian relations with the U.S. and Europe to “their lowest point in decades,” he said.

While the maneuvers and Russia’s annexation of Crimea are “deeply troubling,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, “they are part of a disturbing pattern of Russian behavior that goes well beyond Ukraine,” citing Russian military aggression in the 2008 Georgia conflict and the placement of troops in Moldova.

Efforts by Ukraine and Georgia to join the EU and NATO respectively have been “met by force,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “These nations are not ‘buffer zones.’ They are independent, sovereign states.”

But despite rising tensions, NATO still “fully supports the efforts of the US, Germany and France to find a political solution” to the situation and that “we do not seek confrontation with Russia, nor do we seek its isolation,” he said. “This is a European challenge, but it is also a global challenge.”

Mr. Stoltenberg said that the future of transatlantic security rests on three major points: Reinforcing NATO’s collective defense; managing relations with a resurgent Russia; and “standing with our European neighbors.” The secretary-general backs a doubling of the NATO response force, whose spearhead division can deploy in as little as 48 hours.

Mr. Stoltenberg praised the continued U.S. commitment to NATO, thanking the Obama administration for its “quick and substantial contributions.” But he said the rising tensions in Europe with Russia require constant scrutiny.

“We are in a changing security environment,” Mr. Stoltenberg told the audience, “and the very fabric of our security is at stake.”

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