The United States has reaffirmed its commitment to defend “every inch” of NATO territory as closed-door discussions by the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group got under way in Brussels.
As members on Thursday pressed ahead with plans to hold a nuclear exercise, Russia bristled and issued warnings should Ukraine ever join NATO.
“Kyiv is well aware that such a step would mean a guaranteed escalation to a World War III,” deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Alexander Venediktov, told the state TASS news agency. “The suicidal nature of such a step is understood by NATO members themselves.”
During Thursday’s talks, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We are committed to defending every inch of NATO’s territory – if and when it comes to that.”
He also announced the latest weapons and air defence systems Washington will provide Ukraine to help aid its war effort.
Fabrice Pothier, head of the political consultancy firm Rasmussen Global, told Al Jazeera that NATO members were attempting to balance their support for Ukraine without worsening an already fragile situation.
“[What they] are trying to get right is responding and pushing back [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s escalation, be it political or military, at the same time not setting off a chain of events that could lead to even worse escalation,” he said. “It’s about being smart about the kind of response that can help corner Putin into his own failure and defeat without triggering the worst response.”
Thursday’s schedule at NATO headquarters includes discussions on how to give a clear signal to industry to ramp up arms production both for internal needs and Ukraine’s defence.
The meeting is being held as global fears of nuclear warfare simmer after Putin’s thinly veiled threats about a nuclear attack and as Russian bombs increasingly pound Ukraine.
On Wednesday, an unnamed senior NATO official told Reuters that a nuclear strike would “almost certainly be drawing a physical response from many allies and potentially from NATO itself”. The official did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, UK defence secretary Ben Wallace said NATO’s nuclear preparedness exercise, planned for next week, “is all about readiness.”
“NATO’s meeting is all about making sure we are ready for anything,” he said. “I mean, that is the job of this alliance – to make sure that the 30 partners together are ready for what is thrown at us. And we have to continue to work at that.”
During the annual exercise, called Steadfast Noon, NATO air forces will practise how to use US nuclear bombs based in Europe by conducting training flights without live weapons.
Cancelling the drills because of the war in Ukraine would send a “very wrong signal”, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.