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Feb 14, 2019: NATO defense ministers wrestle with developments triggered by United States

NATO - Defense ministers of the Alliance meet in Brussels with an ever-lengthening list of challenges that include the threat to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and U.S. troop drawdowns in Syria and Afghanistan. The fate of the treaty is likely to have been decided by the time the ministers meet.

Whoever lands the job of United States Defense Secretary – Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan appears to be the frontrunner – might be on the defensive at the meeting. It is widely reported that the Alliance was not forewarned about several recent pivotal U.S. decisions, which include President Donald Trump’s moves against the INF and plan to pull all U.S. troops from Syria and most from Afghanistan. James Mattis resigned in December in opposition to Trump’s Syria plan.

Trump said in October that the United States would withdraw from the INF treaty if Russia continues to violate its terms. Russia denies the violations, and accuses the United States of non-compliance. The Alliance echoes Trump about the violations, but appears resolute on trying to save the treaty: if it dies, Europe becomes a potential battlefield between the United States and Russia.

China’s signature on the treaty could rescue it, according to many analysts, but there is no sign the country is willing to join.

Russia will be a main topic for the meeting. NATO preoccupations include the country’s alleged transgressions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, and the recent incident involving Russian warships firing at Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch strait.

NATO member Turkey has applauded Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria because it will facilitate Turkish operations against Syria’s Kurds. Other NATO members are reported to see the withdrawal as a strategic bonanza for Russia, Iran and the Islamic State.

The reaction to the planned drawdown of some 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan is more difficult to predict. NATO has been heavily invested in the country since Oct 2001, when the United States moved in to capture the perpetrators of the Sep 2001 terror attack. Its present Resolute Support Mission numbers 16,000 personnel from 39 NATO member states and partner countries. Its options include folding the mission or boosting it to offset the loss of 7,000 U.S. troops.

#22928 Updated: 01/17/2019 UPDATED JAN 17 TO ADD NAME OF LIKELY US REPRESENTATIVE AT THE MEETING, PATRICK SHANAHEN.

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