BRUSSELS - NATO defense ministers will on Thursday strengthen the alliance's presence in eastern Europe by setting up a network of small command centers that could rapidly reinforce the region in the event of any threat from Russia.
Ministers will also decide on the make-up of a new rapid reaction force and agree to expand a corps-level headquarters in western Poland as part of a plan to bolster NATO's eastern flank in response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.
The US ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, said NATO flags would fly over the Polish headquarters and the six command centers in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the three Baltic states, where the alliance has had little presence until now.
"These will be the first seven NATO flags in eastern Europe," he told a news conference.
The plan, which builds on decisions taken at NATO's summit in Wales last September, falls short of the hopes of some eastern European countries for NATO to set up large bases in the region, but may still alarm Russia, which is deeply hostile to NATO encroaching closer to its borders.
The ministers' meeting comes at a time of high tension between the West and Russia over the Ukraine conflict, that has raised the specter of a return to Cold War-style confrontation.
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