The UK is deploying hundreds of troops, as well as aircraft and armour to eastern Europe as part of the biggest build-up of Nato forces in the region since the cold war. The deployment is taking place during growing tensions over a series of high-profile Russian military manoeuvres.
RAF Typhoon aircraft from RAF Coningsby will be sent to Romania for up to four months, while 800 personnel will be sent with armoured support to Estonia, 150 more than previously planned, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said. France and Denmark will also commit more troops, the British government said.
The announcement was made soon after a Russian fleet, believed to be bound to take part in the fighting in Syria, passed close to the British Isles. On Wednesday, Russia withdrew a request to refuel its boats in Spanish territory, as Nato put pressure on Madrid to deny permission.
Tensions between Nato members and Russia have been heightened since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine descended into civil war as a result.
The deployment of British troops to Estonia forms part of a wider Nato commitment to station four new battalions, totalling around 4,000 personnel, on the alliance’s eastern flank.
David Cameron confirmed at Nato’s summit in Warsaw in July that the UK was to send 650 troops to Estonia. As well as announcing the extra 150, the MoD on Wednesday gave further details of the deployment, including the Typhoons, a detachment of drones and Challenger tanks.
The UK defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said the first deployments are expected to begin in May next year. Speaking after a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels, Fallon said: “Backed by a rising defence budget this deployment of air, land and sea forces shows that we will continue to play a leading role in Nato, supporting the defence and security of our allies from the north to the south of the alliance.”
The RAF Typhoon fighters will be sent to join the Baltic air policing mission to offer reassurance to the Black Sea allies, the MoD said. It will be the first time RAF planes have been dispatched to patrol Romanian airspace.
The moves are intended to underline the alliance’s commitment to the collective defence of all its members – including the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which, like Ukraine, have significant Russian-speaking minorities as well as acting as a “trigger” in the event of any aggression.
The US and Canada were also preparing to send forces to eastern Europe.
Barack Obama announced earlier this year that the US was deploying a “battle-ready” task-force of about 900 soldiers to Poland, as well as armour across eastern Europe. The country was also preparing to send troops to Norway for the first time.
Canada and Italy were reported to be sending troops to Latvia, while hundreds of German forces were said to be due to move to Lithuania. Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg were also among the countries reported to be ready to commit forces.
“Nato does not seek confrontation with Russia. We don’t want a new cold war and we don’t want a new arms race,” the alliance’s head, Jens Stoltenberg, was quoted as saying. “What Nato does is defensive and it is proportionate.”
He told reporters he was very inspired after a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels because “so many nations made very, very firm and concrete decisions” over their contributions to the four-battalion deployment.
Such commitments were “a transatlantic demonstration of rock solid support for our allies” and the deployment will send an “unmistakable message – Nato stands as one. An attack on one ally will be considered an attack on all,” he said.
The Typhoons will be based at Mihail Kogălniceanu Airbase, Romania, for up to four months in 2017.
The UK deployment is likely to include armoured infantry, equipped with Warrior armoured fighting vehicles and a troop of Challenger 2 main battle tanks.
The US defence secretary, Ash Carter, who was at the Nato meeting in Brussels, said the arrival of US troops in eastern Europe follows the decision taken at the Warsaw summit. “Together, we’re strengthening deterrence here,” he said.
Carter said the United States would also lead a battalion in Poland as part of Nato’s enhanced forward presence.