WARSAW Poland signaled on Tuesday its willingness to play a more active role in tackling the Middle East security crisis, in an apparent attempt to persuade its NATO allies in return to boost their presence in eastern Europe.
Alarmed by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Poland hopes NATO will agree at a summit in Warsaw in July to send more troops to former communist eastern Europe.
But sources familiar with the negotiations say Warsaw is facing resistance, including from southern member states which downplay the Russian threat and argue that Islamic State and other jihadist groups pose a more immediate danger to Europe.
"We have announced an increase in our participation, also military, in actions in the Middle East," Deputy Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski said at a panel discussion ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels later this week.
Szatkowski told Reuters Poland's involvement in the region had so far been limited to actions such as sending ammunition to Jordan, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
"Right now, we are working on other things. The talks are ongoing, (but) directional decisions have been made," he said, adding that Poland would announce the precise details of its involvement in the coming days.
A security source said Poland's involvement in the region would likely be military, but not frontline, and could involve logistics.
Poland's involvement on NATO's southern flank is "absolutely necessary" if it is to secure a satisfactory agreement on the alliance's presence in eastern Europe, said Michal Baranowski, Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw.
"The meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels (this week) is a good moment to announce this move because it will be key for establishing the outlines of an agreement which may be reached at the Warsaw summit," Baranowski told Reuters.
The United States and Britain have proposed sending troops to Poland for military exercises but diplomats say there will be no permanent NATO base in eastern Europe such as the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, because European countries want to stick to a 1997 agreement with Moscow on not stationing substantial combat forces on the NATO-Russia border.
Without a permanent base, Poland is hoping to persuade its allies to substantially increase the size and frequency of NATO exercises on its soil, among others.
At the NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, defense ministers will begin outlining plans for a complex web of small eastern outposts, forces on rotation, regular war games and warehoused equipment ready for a rapid response force, which NATO generals say will amount to a "persistent" allied presence in the region.
(Writing by Wiktor Szary; Editing by Gareth Jones)