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Macedonia admitted to NATO after resolving Greece dispute

FEB. 6, 2019

By Clyde Hughes

Feb. 6 (UPI) — Macedonia officially signed on Wednesday to become an official member of NATO, after resistance from Greece was settled last month.

Greece had long objected to membership over a dispute with the Macedonia name, which Athens uses for a Greek region in the north. Last month, the two countries settled the dispute when the country agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. In exchange for the name change, Greece agreed to drop its veto toward Macedonia’s NATO admittance.

The signing allows the Balkan nation to take part in NATO activities as an invitee while the 29 member nations ratify the agreement in their own countries. Macedonia will formally change its name after Greece’s ratification.

“NATO keeps almost one billion citizens across Europe and North America secure and with you joining NATO there will be thirty countries committed to protect each other,” NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

“Your accession will bring more stability to the Western Balkans. This is good for the region and for Euro-Atlantic security.”

Macedonia already contributes to NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan and the alliance’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

“This wasn’t inevitable — this wasn’t even very likely to happen,” Macedonia Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said. “The impossible is actually doable. This is a family that strives to make our world more peaceful and a better place.

“This is a journey that has made us more mature… we have proven that we can assume our responsibility, face a problem, and resolve those problems.”

Macedonia and Greece have squabbled over the name — which has been around since Alexander The Great’s reign in the region during late B.C. — since 1991 when the country broke away from the former Yugoslavia.

Source: United Press International (UPI).



NATO chief says allies keen to avoid arms race with Russia

February 13, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — Taking aim at Russia, NATO’s civilian chief said Wednesday the alliance is studying a range of options to counter Moscow’s alleged missile treaty violations, and America’s top diplomat accused the Russians of having “grand designs” to dominate Europe.

In remarks at the outset of a NATO defense ministers meeting, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance is considering ways to counter Russian missiles without sparking an arms race. He called the missiles “a significant risk” to Europe.

In Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Moscow’s efforts to divide the European Union and NATO and disrupt western democracies must be countered through boosting NATO’s presence. “Russia has grand designs of dominating Europe and reasserting its influence on the world stage. Vladimir Putin seeks to splinter the NATO alliance, weaken the United States and disrupt Western democracies,” he said.

“Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels this past November and its ongoing hybrid warfare against us and our allies are direct challenges to our security and to our way of life,” he added.

Pompeo made the comments while visiting a NATO forward position in northeast Poland about 70 kilometers from the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Because of Russia’s ongoing involvement in Ukraine, the U.S. and others take seriously the possibility that Moscow may try to open a new front along Europe’s eastern flank, Pompeo said. He said that threat underscores the indispensable nature of NATO — a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for the past 70 years but the target of harsh criticism by President Donald Trump, who has cast the allies as freeloaders unwilling to foot the bill for their own defense.

Also throwing U.S. support behind NATO, Vice President Mike Pence told hundreds of Polish and U.S. troops in Warsaw, Poland on Wednesday, “We must stand together in defense of our alliance and all that we hold dear.”

Against the backdrop of rising Western tensions with Russia, the NATO meeting in Brussels focused initially on the expected demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, known as the INF treaty. The U.S. signed the pact with the Soviet Union in 1987. The allies are considering how to respond collectively to what they say are Russian violations of the treaty.

The United States on Feb. 2 launched the six-month process of leaving the INF treaty, insisting that a new Russian missile system violates the pact. Russia denies it is in contravention and has announced that it will pull out, too.

The INF bans production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,400 miles). European NATO allies insist that the pact is a cornerstone of continental security, although after Pompeo announced earlier this month that Washington was beginning the formal process of withdrawal, NATO publicly endorsed the move.

Speaking at NATO headquarters, where defense ministers are discussing what to do if the imperiled treaty is abandoned, Stoltenberg said: “This is very serious. We will take our time.” “Our response will be united,” he said. “It will be measured, and it will be defensive because we don’t want a new arms race. And we don’t have any intention to deploy new nuclear land-based weapon systems in Europe.”

Later, in remarks made alongside Pat Shanahan, the acting U.S. secretary of defense, Stoltenberg said, “We need to plan for a world without the treaty and with more Russian missiles.” Shanahan said he planned to brief his fellow ministers on his talks earlier this week in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he met with U.S. commanders and government leaders. NATO has roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shanahan, attending his first NATO meeting, said he also looked forward to talking to his colleagues about the future of the NATO alliance. “We need to talk more about our vision and what we can accomplish in a world that has so many changing threats,” he said.

NATO allies have little insight into Shanahan’s views, whereas they felt confident that Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in December, was an unwavering supporter of the alliance. Mattis implied in his resignation letter that President Donald Trump’s disrespect for traditional allies was among policy differences that compelled him to quit after two years in the job.

With regard to the expected termination of the INF treaty in August, Stoltenberg said that NATO has “a wide range of options, conventional and other options,” but he declined to list them, warning that any speculation “would just add to the uncertainty.”

U.S. officials have said there is no plan to deploy in Europe a nuclear-armed INF-class missile. They have said only non-nuclear options are under consideration and that decisions are not imminent. The Pentagon believes that Russia’s ground-fired Novator 9M729 cruise missile — known in NATO parlance as the SSC-8 — could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice. Russia insists it has a range of less than 500 kilometers. It claims that U.S. target-practice missiles and drones also break the treaty.

European NATO members are especially keen to avoid any nuclear build-up and a repeat of the missile crisis in the 1980s. NATO allies decided to deploy U.S. cruise and Pershing 2 ballistic missiles in Europe in 1983 as negotiations with Moscow faltered over its stationing of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe.

— AP Diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Poland.

Greece backs Macedonia’s NATO accession, settles dispute

February 08, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s parliament on Friday approved a measure for Macedonia to join NATO, ending a decades-old dispute watched closely by Western allies wary of Russian influence in the region.

Lawmakers voted 153-140 to back the NATO protocol that must now also be approved by all other alliance members. The Greek vote means the former Yugoslav republic will now formally change its name to North Macedonia, settling the spat over the country’s name which Greece saw as a potential threat to its own northern region of Macedonia.

“I would like to again welcome North Macedonia, a country that is friendly toward Greece, a country that must be a supporter — and not an opponent — of our efforts to establish safety, stability, and cooperation in the wider region,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told parliament shortly before the vote.

Western countries strongly backed the deal between Greece and Macedonia, after the country’s bid to join NATO had been shelved for a decade and amid European concerns over Russia’s vocal opposition to the alliance’s expansion further into the Balkans.

“Clearly it is in Greece’s interest to promote a European course for all its neighbors, not just for North Macedonia — and not (back) the influence of third forces in the neighborhood, with different aspirations and pursuits,” Tsipras said.

Tsipras had faced large demonstrations against the deal, while opinion polls showed that more than two-thirds of Greeks oppose it. The agreement also nearly toppled his government last month after triggering the breakup of his coalition with the nationalist Independent Greeks party.

Greek opposition parties argued the agreement made too many concessions to Macedonia. “(We) will vote against the accession protocol because it is, simply, the final act or the final act of a damaging agreement,” conservative opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament to applause from members of his party before the vote.

Greek approval of Macedonia’s NATO accession bid is the final step in the deal. Provided lawmakers vote for the motion, Greece’s foreign ministry will promptly notify the Macedonian government of the result.

Macedonia will then write to the United Nations, its member states and international organizations, formally announcing the name change. Government spokesman Mile Boshnjakovski told The Associated Press this would happen “in coming days.”

Konstantin Testorides contributed from Skopje, Macedonia.

NATO to sign Macedonia accession protocol next week

February 02, 2019

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia will sign an accession protocol with NATO on Wednesday under its new name North Macedonia after parliaments in the tiny Balkan country and its southern neighbor Greece ratified a historic name change deal.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Saturday on Twitter that “on February 6 we will write history: NATO Allies will sign the accession protocol with the future Republic of North Macedonia together with (Macedonian) foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov.” The ceremony will take place at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Greece had blocked Macedonia from joining NATO for three decades because of the name dispute, saying that Macedonia’s name implied territorial claims toward Greece’s northern province. Macedonia expects Greece to be the first NATO member to ratify the accession protocol. It will then start calling itself by its new name.

The Greek parliament is expected to ratify the accession protocol by Thursday at the earliest or Feb. 11 at the latest. All 29 NATO members must ratify in order for Macedonia to join the alliance as its 30th member. This is expected to happen by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020.

Demetris Nellas contributed from Athens, Greece.

Despite Afghan deaths, slow peace efforts, NATO vows to stay

December 05, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Fifteen years after NATO took the lead on international security efforts in Afghanistan, the military alliance’s foreign ministers on Wednesday reaffirmed their commitment to stay the course despite mounting Afghan casualties and the slow pace of peace efforts.

At talks in Brussels, the ministers underlined their “steadfast commitment to ensuring long-term security and stability,” reaffirming that NATO’s mission in the insurgency-wracked country will last as long as conditions demand it.

NATO took the lead of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2003. It wound down combat operations in 2014 and began training and advising Afghan security forces so they could handle the country’s security needs. The work is carried out in a combat environment and remains dangerous.

U.S. forces, which entered Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, now number around 15,000 and provide close support to Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations.

The renewed NATO commitment came in a week when the Marine officer nominated to command U.S. forces in the Middle East warned that the fight there is at a stalemate and the number of Afghan troop deaths in the war is not sustainable. Four U.S. soldiers were also killed by a roadside bomb, the deadliest attack against U.S. forces this year.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the increase in violence could be a sign that things are about to change. “Sometimes there is an uptick, an increase in violence because different parties try to gain the best possible position at the negotiating table. So it may actually become worse before it becomes better,” he told reporters.

NATO’s top civilian representative in the country, Cornelius Zimmermann, agreed that warlords and factions could be fighting for turf. “We are hopefully at a pre-negotiation stage, and there are some elements trying to improve their bargaining position by trying to make military progress,” he said.

NATO and European leaders for years have expressed optimism about Afghanistan’s future while pouring billions of dollars into the security forces, development support and political and other assistance, yet the military alliance appears little closer to leaving the country than when it arrived.

Zimmermann based his optimism on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unprecedented offer of unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, a recent and unprecedented three-day cease-fire agreed with the insurgents as a sign of goodwill and the changing attitudes of Afghan elders weary of years of conflict.

“This is clearly a qualitative step ahead” of what’s happened in the past, Zimmermann said. Still, in Washington this week Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie warned the Senate Armed Services Committee against an abrupt withdrawal of American forces or change in strategy.

“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country,” McKenzie said. He said the U.S. and its allies need to keep helping the Afghans recruit and train forces to fight the Taliban’s estimated 60,000 troops.

On Oct. 30, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said more than 1,000 Afghan personnel were killed or wounded during August and September alone. Ghani said in November that over 28,000 of his country’s forces had been killed in the last four years.

The U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, insisted that the Afghans are doing more, running regional training centers and teaching their own special forces. “That’s already more heavily balanced in terms of the Afghans doing their own training. What we try to do is help out where it’s required,” Miller told reporters in Brussels.

Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani conceded that the security forces are sustaining many casualties, but he said they are increasingly successful in repelling enemy attack. “In any war there are casualties on both sides and of course this is not an exception,” Rabbani said on the sidelines of the NATO meeting. “But as far as the determination and resolve of the Afghan security forces are concerned, I reassure you that they are very resilient.”

NATO chief: Both sides expected to behave despite drills

October 30, 2018

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — NATO’s secretary-general said Tuesday he is confident that both the Western military alliance and Russia “will act in a respectable way” as the two sides hold drills in the same area in waters off Norway’s coast.

Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday as he attended the Trident Juncture war games in his native Norway that “this is not a Cold War situation,” stressing it is “purely to prevent, not to provoke.” Russia has been briefed by NATO on the exercises and invited to monitor them, but the move has still angered the Russians.

Moscow has warned it could be forced to respond to increased NATO military activities and said its navy plans to test missiles in international waters, close to where the alliance is conducting its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War.

The Russian missile tests will take place Nov. 1-3 off western Norway. The NATO drill, scheduled to end Nov. 7, takes place in central and eastern Norway, the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. The maneuvers come amid persistent tensions between NATO and Russia, and Moscow believes the alliance is behaving provactively near its borders.

“This is a necessary exercise” to “send a strong signal of unity,” Stoltenberg told reporters as he visited the NATO maneuvers that involve around 50,000 personnel from all 29 NATO allies, plus partners Finland and Sweden.

There also are 65 ships, 250 restoring Norway’s sovereignty after an aircraft and 10,000 vehicles in a hypothetical scenario that involves attack by a “fictitious aggressor.” The U.S. Navy admiral commanding the war games said Russia has been monitoring the drill with “curiosity,” judging from recent regional movements of Russian troops in the air and at sea. He did not elaborate.

“I have no issue with that as long as it doesn’t interfere with what we do,” Adm. James Foggo told reporters in Finland on Friday, adding that he expected Moscow to take a “professional” stance to the drill and dispatch military observers.

“No-one should have an issue of us (NATO) operating on international waters or international airspace,” Foggo said. He called Finland and Sweden “very, very capable” NATO partner countries, and said the drills offer a chance for the alliance and the two Nordic nations to test their cooperation.

The countries have been alarmed by neighboring Russia’s substantially increased military maneuvers in the region during the past few years. Hundreds of Finnish and Swedish air, infantry and naval troops will be involved with Trident Juncture, prompting Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday to remind the two countries that NATO’s drill “fits within the policy of the United States toward making Europe less secure”.

Adm. Foggo said it was the first time since the end of the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft carrier is sailing so far north above the Arctic Circle. In conjunction with Trident Juncture, the USS Harry S. Truman, a massive aircraft carrier, was leading a U.S. strike carrier group conducting air, surface and underwater exercises in the rough Arctic seas, he said.

Tanner reported from Tallinn, Estonia.

NATO chief calls arms buildup unlikely, Putin warns Europe

October 24, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that allies blame Russia for violating an important Cold War-era missile treaty but he does not expect them to deploy more nuclear warheads in Europe in response.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed up on U.S. President Donald Trump’s declared intention to pull out of the 1987 arms control pact by warning that if the U.S. deploys the now-banned missiles in Europe, Russia would target the nations hosting them.

The European Union has described the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as a cornerstone of European security and urged Russia and the United States to uphold it. But Stoltenberg did not encourage the U.S., the biggest and most influential member of NATO, to stay in the treaty.

“I don’t foresee that allies will deploy more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile,” Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels. However, he noted that the 29 allies were assessing “the implications of the new Russian missile for our security.”

Putin said he hoped the United States did not plan to put the kind of missiles the treaty banned in Europe, if it does withdraw from the pact. “If they are deployed in Europe, we will naturally have to respond in kind,” Putin said at a news conference after talks with visiting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “The European nations that would agree to that should understand that they would expose their territory to the threat of a possible retaliatory strike.”

The Russian leader strongly rejected U.S. and NATO allegations that Moscow has violated the treaty. He charged it was the U.S. that violated pact with missile defense facilities in Romania that could be used to hold cruise missiles in violation of the INF.

With tensions over the treaty’s possible unraveling mounting, NATO on Thursday officially launches its Trident Juncture war games in Norway, its biggest maneuvers since the Cold War. Russia, which shares a border with Norway, has been briefed by NATO on the exercises and invited to monitor them, but the move has still angered Moscow. Russia’s defense minister warned that Moscow could be forced to respond to increased NATO military activities near its western border.

“NATO’s military activities near our borders have reached the highest level since the Cold War times,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, noting that the war games will be “simulating offensive military action.”

Speaking on a trip to Belarus, Shoigu also warned that Poland’s plan to permanently host a U.S. army division would affect regional stability and trigger a Russian response. He said Moscow would have to “take retaliatory measures to neutralize possible military threats.”

The NATO maneuvers in Norway will involve around 50,000 personnel, 65 ships, 250 aircraft and 10,000 vehicles in a hypothetical scenario that involves restoring Norway’s sovereignty after an attack by a “fictitious aggressor.”

The United States insists that a new Russian missile system — known as the 9M729 — contravenes the 1987 INF treaty. NATO allies agree that is probably the case. The pact between Moscow and Washington bans an entire class of weapons — all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range from 500-5,500 kilometers (310-3,410 miles.)

Experts say the Russian system would operate at lower altitudes, making it tough to detect and bring down. It could also reach targets across Europe and even the U.S. west coast if stationed in Siberia.

Stoltenberg said he was concerned about the weapons, but did not expect a repeat of the so-called “Euromissiles crisis” in the 1980s. Back then, the United States deployed cruise missiles in Europe to counterbalance a perceived threat from Russia’s SS-20 nuclear warheads.

“The INF is a landmark treaty, but the problem is that no treaty can be effective, can work, if it’s only respected by one” side, Stoltenberg said, adding that the “U.S. is in full compliance.” He said, based on U.S. intelligence and Russia’s reluctance to discuss the missile system with NATO, “the most plausible explanation is that Russia is in violation of the treaty.”

Asked whether he thought the United States should stick with it, Stoltenberg said: “The challenge, the problem, is the Russian behavior which we have seen over many years.” In Berlin, Germany’s foreign minister urged his Russian counterpart to do everything possible to preserve the treaty. The German Foreign Ministry said Heiko Maas told Russia’s Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday that includes clearing up the allegations that Moscow has violated the pact.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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