NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday vowed that the military alliance would defend “every inch” of its members’ territory, slamming Russia for shattering the peace in Europe.
“NATO is the strongest alliance in history. And make no mistake, we will defend and protect every ally against any attack,” Stoltenberg said during a news conference at the organization’s headquarters in the capital of Belgium.
“Peace on our continent has been shattered,” he added. “We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history.”
Stoltenberg stated that NATO activated the alliance’s defense plan, giving military leaders additional authority to move and deploy combat forces whenever and wherever needed in the eastern part of its territory, also noting that no troops will be sent to Ukraine and the measure is only defensive.
“We have made it clear that we don’t have any plans or intention of deploying NATO troops to Ukraine,” the chief said. “What we have made clear is that we have already increased, and we are increasing, the presence of NATO troops in the eastern part of the alliance, on NATO territory.”
“But what we do is defensive, is measured and we don’t seek confrontation, we want to prevent the conflict and any attack against any NATO-allied country,” he added.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, however, said in a joint statement that the alliance should “urgently provide Ukrainian people with weapons, ammunition and any other kind of military support” so they are able to defend themselves.
During Thursday’s meeting, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia triggered urgent consultations under Article 4 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty. These are launched when “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the (NATO) parties is threatened.”
A first step now could be to activate the NATO Response Force (NRF), which can number up to 40,000 troops. A quickly deployable land brigade that is part of the NRF—made up of around 5,000 troops and run by France alongside Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Spain—is already on heightened alert. NATO already bolstered members’ airspace defense capabilities and put more than 100 warplanes on high alert.
Some NATO members have also sent troops, aircraft, and warships to the Black Sea region, near allies Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. The Pentagon has also put up to 8,500 U.S. troops on heightened alert, so they will be prepared to deploy if needed to reassure other allies.
Stoltenberg said there is a probability the move will result in long-term security effects and NATO’s response will be crucial for future relationships between Moscow and the alliance.
“We don’t have all the answers today but there will be a new reality—it will be a new Europe after the invasion we saw today,” he said.
Russian forces launched an attack on Ukraine by land, air, and sea in the early hours of Thursday—Ukraine local time—after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation.” The attack was feared for months by Western nations and is the largest attack on European soil since World War II.
Ukraine’s leadership said at least 40 people had been killed so far in what it called a “full-scale war,” with multiple cities and bases targeted with airstrikes or shelling from the east, north, and south.
Lithuania, a NATO member, declared a state of emergency in a decree signed by President Gitanas Nausėda in response to Moscow’s attack. The Baltic country’s parliament was expected to approve the measure in an extraordinary session later on Thursday. Lithuania borders Russia’s Kaliningrad region to the southwest, Belarus to the east, Latvia to the north, and Poland to the south.
The measure, in effect until March 10, would allow for more flexible use of state reserve funds and increased border protection, giving border guards greater authorities to stop and search individuals and vehicles in border areas.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.