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NATO to bolster ranks, help Ukraine counter chemical attack

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference ahead of a NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

BRUSSELS (AP) -- NATO leaders are set to agree to station more forces in Eastern Europe to deter Russia from invading any member of their ranks and to send equipment to Ukraine to help it defend against chemical or biological attacks, the organization's top civilian official said Wednesday.

    Speaking on the eve of a series of Brussels summits focusing on the war in Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said four new battlegroups, which usually number between 1,000-1,500 troops, are being set up in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

    Stoltenberg said the forces will remain in place "as long as necessary." NATO currently has around 40,000 troops from several nations under its command, a number almost tenfold higher than it was a few months ago, military commanders say.

    "Along with our existing forces in the Baltic countries and Poland, this means that we will have eight multinational NATO battlegroups all along the eastern flank, from the Baltic to the Black Sea," Stoltenberg said. The alliance also has 140 warships at sea and 130 aircraft on high alert.

    Russia's actions, he told reporters, have become the "new normal for our security, and NATO has to respond to that new reality."

    Part of that new reality has been veiled threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin about the possible use of nuclear weapons and attempts at what NATO members say could be "false flag" operations to serve as a pretext for using chemical arms in Ukraine.

    Stoltenberg said the NATO leaders are likely to agree to send more assistance to Ukraine, including equipment to help Ukraine defend itself against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. U.S. President Joe Biden plans to attend the NATO meeting, plus summits of the European Union and the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations,

    "Any use of chemical weapons would totally change the nature of the conflict, and it would be a blatant violation of international law and have far-reaching consequences," Stoltenberg said. He declined to say whether such an attack would be a red line that might drag NATO into the war.

    As an organization, NATO is not providing weapons to Ukraine. Its aim is only to defend its own members from Russian attack. The 30-nation alliance refuses to send troops to Ukraine, either for combat or peacekeeping, and has said it will not deploy aircraft to protect civilians or police any no-fly zone.

    But member countries are providing weapons and other assistance, individually or in groups.

    The world's biggest security organization is keen to avoid being dragged into a war with nuclear power Russia. But Stoltenberg said that beyond wreaking havoc in Ukraine, "any use of chemical weapons, or biological weapons, may also have dire consequences for NATO allied countries."

    During Thursday's summit, which is expected to run for about three hours, the leaders are also expected to call on China - which the West accuses of providing moral, if not military, support to Putin - to help bring an end to the war.

    "Beijing has joined Moscow in questioning the right of independent nations to choose their own path. China has provided Russia with political support, including by spreading blatant lies and disinformation, and allies are concerned that China could provide material support for the Russian invasion," Stoltenberg said.

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