The United States reaffirmed its commitment to defend "every inch" of NATO territory ahead of talks among defense ministers from the alliance on Thursday that will include closed-door discussions by its Nuclear Planning Group.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made the remarks affirming America's commitment to NATO's collective defense following repeated nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin amid battlefield setbacks in his nearly eight-month-long invasion of Ukraine.
"We are committed to defending every inch of NATO's territory — if and when it comes to that," Austin said.
Austin spoke shortly before attending a meeting by NATO's senior body on nuclear matters, which handles policy issues associated with the alliance's nuclear forces.
NATO has not given details of the nuclear discussions taking place on Thursday. The alliance says its nuclear policy is under "constant review, and is modified and adapted in light of new developments."
President Vladimir Putin has threatened the use of nuclear weapons since his military was beaten back on several fronts in Ukraine over the past month and Russia proclaimed the annexation of Ukrainian territories.
A senior NATO official said on Wednesday a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine would "almost certainly be drawing a physical response from many allies, and potentially from NATO itself," without elaborating.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last month the United States has made clear to Moscow the "catastrophic consequences" it would face if it used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
Sullivan did not publicly describe the nature of the planned U.S. response, however.
Diplomats say Moscow's hints at the possible use of a tactical nuclear weapon to defend the annexed territories of Ukraine are aimed at scaring the West into reducing support for Kyiv.
On Thursday, Alexander Venediktov, the deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, was quoted by Russian media warning of World War Three if Ukraine were allowed to join NATO.
"Kyiv is well aware that such a step would mean a guaranteed escalation to World War Three," Venediktov said.
"The suicidal nature of such a step is understood by NATO members themselves."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a bid for fast-track membership of NATO, but full NATO membership for Ukraine is far off because all the alliance's 30 members would have to give their consent.
Meanwhile, NATO said it would go ahead with its annual nuclear preparedness exercise dubbed "Steadfast Noon" next week, in which NATO air forces practice the use of U.S. nuclear bombs based in Europe with training flights, without live weapons.
Canceling the drills because of the war in Ukraine would send a "very wrong signal," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.
Germany said more than a dozen NATO partners aim to jointly procure air defense systems that protect European allied territory from missiles, eyeing Israel's Arrow 3 system, U.S. Patriot and German IRIS-T units among the options.
Nearly 50 countries gathered at NATO headquarters on Wednesday and committed to arming Ukraine through the winter and beyond, including with new air defenses, potentially preventing Russia from taking advantage of a slower winter to reset its forces.
Austin said on Thursday that support was opened-ended.
"We're going to stay with our efforts to support Ukraine for as long as it takes," Austin said alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg praised the U.N. General Assembly's condemnation on Wednesday of Russia's "attempted illegal annexation" of four partially occupied regions in Ukraine.
"This just shows that we need to stand up for the rules-based international order, for our core values," Stoltenberg said.
Thursday's agenda at NATO headquarters in Brussels includes discussions on how to give a clear signal to industry to ramp up arms production both for internal needs, as well as to support Ukraine's defense.
Allies will also discuss ways to improve protection of their critical infrastructure, after apparent attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines contributed to heightening tensions. It remains unclear who was behind the explosions under the Baltic Sea.
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