U.S. President Barack Obama urged NATO leaders on Friday to stand firm against a resurgent Russia over its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, saying Britain's vote to leave the European Union should not weaken the western defense alliance.
In an article published in London's Financial Times newspaper as he arrived for his last summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation before leaving office in January, Obama said America's "special relationship" with Britain would survive the referendum vote he had sought to avoid.
"The special relationship between the US and the UK will endure. I have no doubt that the UK will remain one of NATO’s most capable members," he said, adding that the vote raised significant questions about the future of EU integration.
The 28-nation NATO alliance will formally agree on Friday to deploy four battalions with 3,000 to 4,000 troops in the Baltic states and eastern Poland on a rotating basis to reassure eastern members of its readiness to defend them.
"In Warsaw, we must reaffirm our determination — our duty under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — to defend every NATO ally," Obama said, saying the West must help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by keeping sanctions on Moscow until it fully complies with a ceasefire agreement.
"We need to bolster the defense of our allies in central and eastern Europe, strengthen deterrence and boost our resilience against new threats, including cyber attacks."
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland requested a permanent NATO presence amid fears that Moscow could seek to destabilize their pro-Western governments through cyber attacks, stirring up Russian speakers, hostile broadcasting and even territorial incursions. Critics say the NATO plan is a minimal trip wire that might not deter Russian action.
The Kremlin denies any such intention and says NATO is the aggressor by moving its borders ever closer onto former Soviet territory which it regards as its sphere of influence.
President Vladimir Putin has made several gestures that seem aimed at defusing tension ahead of the summit, even as Moscow highlights its intention to deploy nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between NATO nations.
Putin agreed to a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council next week, the second meeting this year of a consultation body that was put on ice after Moscow's seizure of Crimea in 2014. Russia allowed a U.N. resolution authorizing the EU to intercept arms shipments to Libya in the Mediterranean, and Putin talked by telephone with Obama in the run-up to the NATO meeting.
However, a White House spokesman said they reached no agreement on cooperation in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria during that call on Wednesday.
Outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced his intention to resign after losing the referendum on EU membership last month, will seek to underline active commitment to Western security at his final NATO summit, to offset likely concerns about Europe's biggest military spender leaving the EU.
"The backdrop to this summit is the historic decision taken last month to leave the European Union but this summit will be an opportunity for us to demonstrate the enormous contribution that Britain makes to Europe’s and NATO’s security and that we will continue to do so even outside of the EU," a British government official said.
Ironically, the first agenda item at the summit is the signing of an agreement on deeper military and security cooperation between the EU and NATO. The U.S.-led alliance is expected to announce its support for the EU's Mediterranean interdiction operation.
NATO is also supporting EU efforts to stem a flood of refugees and migrants from Turkey into Greece in conjunction with an EU-Turkey deal to curb migration in return for benefits for Ankara.
Obama and the other NATO leaders will have a more unscripted discussion of how to deal with Russia over dinner in the same room of the Polish Presidential Palace where the Warsaw Pact was signed in 1955, creating the Soviet-dominated military alliance that was NATO's adversary during the Cold War.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sought to temper the beefed-up military deployments and air patrols close to Russia's borders by stressing the alliance would continue to seek "meaningful and constructive dialogue" with Moscow.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters before leaving Ankara to attend the summit that NATO also needed to adapt to do more to fight a threat from Islamic State militants, accused of last week's deadly attack on Istanbul airport.
"As we have seen from the terrorist attacks first in Istanbul and then in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, international security is becoming more fragile," Erdogan said.
"The concept of a security threat is undergoing a serious change. In this process, NATO needs to be more active and has to update itself against the new security threats," he said.
Host nation Poland sought on the eve of the summit to defuse U.S. and European criticism of its moves to shackle the independent constitutional court by rushing through an amendment to its court law, although critics said it did not address the main concerns. The European Commission is conducting an official investigation into the rule of law in Poland over the issue.