NEWPORT, Wales — World leaders met Thursday for a “critical” NATO summit staged against the backdrop of the spread of brutal Islamist terror across Iraq and Syria and hundreds of deaths in a bloody struggle over Ukraine’s future.
“We are gathered here in Wales at a pivotal moment for our security,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
“We will take important decisions to keep our nations safe, to keep the vital bond between Europe and North America strong and to help build stability in a dangerous world.”
The two-day summit comes at a time of global turmoil, with tensions between Russia and the West at their highest since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the rise of ISIS threatens to further destabilize the Middle East and export terror to the streets of Western nations.
Rasmussen began by paying tribute to the hundreds of thousands of troops from the NATO alliance who have served in Afghanistan, helping to ensure that “those who resort to terror and violence will not succeed.”
As its combat role comes to an end, NATO will build its partnership with Afghanistan, including a new mission to train and advise Afghan security forces once security agreements are in place, Rasmussen said.
“We want to ensure we retain the gains we have made and open a new chapter in our relationship with Afghanistan,” he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, as host of the summit in Newport, said those present were meeting “at a solemn moment for our alliance” when the world faces many “dangerous and evolving threats.”
“NATO is the anchor of our security, and over the next two days, we must refocus and reinvigorate the alliance,” he said, adding that it was as vital now and in the future as it has been in the past.
Force and blood
A peace plan discussed by Ukraine and Russia is expected to be implemented Friday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on his Twitter account Thursday.
A day earlier, Poroshenko’s office said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed in a phone call on a process that could lead to a truce between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels. Putin also presented a seven-point road map to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, although Russia denies having any involvement in the conflict.
Poroshenko met with U.S. President Barack Obama, Cameron and the leaders of Germany, France and Italy before the summit began. He’s also due to hold talks over the crisis in Ukraine with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Putin’s road map as a rescue plan for the rebels and pointed to previous agreements he said had been broken by Moscow.
NATO and the United States have also greeted Russia’s latest moves with skepticism. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March and is accused of sending its troops into eastern Ukraine in support of pro-Russian rebels, a claim that Moscow denies.
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been a wake-up call,” Rasmussen said in remarks earlier Thursday.
“It has … reminded all of us that our freedom, security and prosperity cannot be taken for granted, that some are trying to redraw dividing lines in Europe with force and in blood.”
The current dangers mean this “is a critical summit at a critical time,” he said, requiring leaders to “forge a stronger NATO for a more complex and chaotic world.”
The transatlantic defense bloc must adapt to meet new challenges, he said, including a reemerging threat from the east that will require the repositioning of NATO forces.
“We will adopt a readiness action plan that will make our forces faster, fitter and more flexible, ready to address any challenges whenever they come and from wherever they come.”
NATO members will be urged to prioritize defense, amid concern that defense spending is declining and some member states are not pulling their weight.
Cameron: Bring killers to justice
Cameron told CNN ahead of the summit that the leaders would discuss the “poisonous ideology” of Islamist extremism and that NATO members should agree on how to help Middle Eastern nations tackle the ISIS threat.
The world faces a “generational struggle” against the threat of Islamist extremism, and ISIS should be “squeezed out of existence,” he said.
Any request by Iraq to NATO for aid in fighting against ISIS would be “considered seriously,” Rasmussen said.
NATO has not yet received such an invitation from Baghdad, Rasmussen said, but help could come in the form of new military training programs such as ones the alliance has held with Iraq in the past.
Cameron declined to rule in or out the possibility of the UK military carrying out airstrikes against ISIS forces, as U.S. forces have done in Iraq.
He said Britain had been “working exhaustively to identify all the people that are potentially involved” in two ISIS videos showing the beheading of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff but would not give any further detail.
“We share our information with our key allies and (are) making sure we do everything we can to bring these absolutely horrific people to justice,” he said.
A British hostage was threatened at the end of the latest execution video, which features a militant with an English accent.
‘Russia needs America and Europe’
Cameron also had stern words for Russia. He said it was “positive” that Putin was “at least making noises about peace.”
But, he said, trust has been eroded by Putin’s consistent denials that Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil, when “everyone can see that that is the case.”
The Western nations that have already imposed sanctions against Putin over Russia’s actions need to make clear that if Putin does not allow Ukraine to choose its own future, Russia’s relationship with the United States and Europe will be very different, he said.
“And let’s be frank, Russia needs America and Europe more than America and Europe need Russia. We need to make that relationship pay.”
Ukraine is not part of NATO, but the alliance has said it will support Kiev in the face of what it calls Russian aggression.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that a push by some in Kiev for Ukraine to join NATO was a bid to undermine the peace process in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s state-run ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Lavrov said it was not coincidental that calls for Ukraine to end its nonaligned status and join NATO were voiced after Putin and Poroshenko held talks on possible ways to resolve the conflict.
“This is an obvious attempt to derail all efforts to initiate a dialogue aimed at providing national security,” Lavrov is quoted as saying.
Ukraine: Russian shelling across the border
Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev on Thursday that continued fighting included shelling from Russia into Ukraine and incursions by Russian reconnaissance drones.
In the town of Debaltsevo, Ukrainian troops are being shelled and are nearly surrounded, Lysenko said.
Since the conflict began in mid-April, 837 Ukrainian troops have been killed and 3,044 have been injured, he said.
A CNN team in Mariupol saw a large plume of smoke from artillery fire less than 3 miles from the main Ukrainian checkpoint heading out of the southeastern port city toward the border town of Novoazovsk, which Kiev said last week was seized by Russian troops.
Another CNN staffer with a Ukrainian spotter unit about 6 miles east of Mariupol witnessed sustained artillery bombardment of the area, with firing on a wide front and coming from the Russian border area.
This indicates that the rebel positions are now are much closer to the city than they were previously.
‘Russia has ripped up the rulebook’
Obama arrived in Wales for the summit after a visit to Estonia aimed at reassuring nervous Eastern European nations that NATO’s support for its member states is unwavering.
In a joint opinion piece published in the Times of London on Thursday, Obama and Cameron warn against isolationism.
“We meet at a time when the world faces many dangerous and evolving challenges,” they write.
“To the east, Russia has ripped up the rulebook with its illegal, self-declared annexation of Crimea and its troops on Ukrainian soil threatening a sovereign nation state. To the south, there is an arc of instability from north Africa and the Sahel to the Middle East.”
The two leaders say that those who argue against addressing these threats fail to understand 21st century reality, adding, “the problems we face today threaten the security of British and American people, and the wider world.”
NATO chief: Time running out in Afghanistan
The summit was originally expected to focus on Afghanistan, NATO’s biggest overseas commitment of troops, before events elsewhere in the world seized the headlines.
The role of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in the country will shift at the end of the year from leading Afghan troops in the fight to supporting Afghans in an advisory and training role.
While votes in the contested presidential election are still being audited, Rasmussen said that “time is of the essence” for the Afghan government to finalize a Status of Forces Agreement to protect NATO forces there.
But he did say he was “encouraged” that both candidates in the runoff vote, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have agreed on the need for a new agreement.