WARSAW: US President Barack Obama on Saturday vowed the United States would always stand by Europe as its NATO allies backed a “hard-headed” policy of deterrence and dialogue with Russia.
“In good times, and in bad, Europe can count on the United States. Always,” Obama said after a NATO summit in Warsaw approved the alliance’s biggest military upgrade since the end of the Cold War in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
The President said NATO was at a “pivotal moment” in the face of threats from the Islamic State group, the crisis in Ukraine, Europe’s biggest migrant influx since the end of World War II and finally Britain’s vote to quit the European Union which had stoked growing fears about the continent’s future.
“In this challenging moment, I want to take the opportunity to state clearly what will never change. And that is the unwavering commitment of the United States to the security and defense of Europe,” he said.
At the same time, Obama, attending his final NATO summit, warned that allies had to do their part too and meet a commitment to devote at least two percent of annual economic output to defense spending.
“The majority of allies are still not hitting that two percent mark … so we had a very candid conversation about this,” he said.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said earlier there were no differences among the 28 leaders over how to counter a more resurgent Russia.
“The alliance is united, we stand together … The united message is that defense and dialogue are what our relationship is based on.”
Some of the allies however, especially France and Germany, have called for NATO to avoid a Cold-War style standoff with Russia.
But unity was the buzzword at the two-day summit after the Brexit vote shocked the allies and raised questions about Britain’s future as a nuclear-armed global power.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he had reassured his peers that Britain was committed to them and NATO, and announced a parliamentary vote on July 18 on revamping Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent to back that up.
“The nuclear deterrent remains essential in my view, not just to Britain’s security but as our allies acknowledge here today to the overall security of the NATO alliance,” Cameron told a news conference.
He said Britain fully backed the measures adopted by NATO in response to the Ukraine crisis “but we must also engage in a hard-headed dialogue with Russia”.
Poland and the Baltic states pressed hard for even tougher action but NATO’s measures finally seem to have reassured them. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, one of the sharpest critics of Putin, said she was “softening” on the need for dialogue.
Russian President Vladimir Putin bitterly opposes what he sees as NATO’s encroachment on his borders.
Formal NATO-Russia talks due Wednesday in Brussels promise to be difficult after the alliance approved deploying four battalions—about 4,000 troops—in Poland and the Baltic states to act as a warning tripwire.
Russia is even more critical of the Ballistic Missile Defense system the United States is building to counter missile threats from Iran or the Middle East, which NATO declared initially operational on Friday.
Around 200 anti-war activists defied heavy security in central Warsaw to protest against the summit, carrying banners saying, “Yes to Peace, No to NATO.”
The summit approved in principle the use of sophisticated AWACS surveillance aircraft to help the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria and Iraq.
NATO leaders meanwhile confirmed pledges to fund Afghanistan security forces until 2020, to combat Taliban rebels putting Kabul under intense pressure.
Stoltenberg said NATO would keep troops in Afghanistan until 2017 to train and advise the Afghan military but could not say when the alliance’s longest engagement might end.
NATO will also expand its training of Iraqi officers from Jordan into Iraq itself and was looking at what could be done to help Libya if the UN-backed government there asked for aid.
At the Warsaw protest, hundreds of activists chanted slogans against the NATO build-up, watched over by around 100 police officers.
“I wish NATO had disappeared with the Warsaw Pact,” said French environmental activist Gerard Levy.
The Polish capital gave its name to the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact, which faced NATO across the Iron Curtain for nearly 50 tense and dangerous years.