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NATO allies pledge to beef up eastern defenses

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON -- NATO foreign ministers moved Tuesday to beef up the defenses of front-line alliance members feeling menaced by a more assertive Russia, with Secretary of State John Kerry proclaiming the U.S. commitment to their security is “unwavering.”

The ministers from NATO's 28 member nations also ordered suspension of all “practical civilian and military cooperation” with Vladimir Putin's Russia, though they made sure a line of communication with the Kremlin remains open at the ambassadorial level.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, keystone of U.S. and European security since the end of World War II, is facing its most acute geopolitical crisis in years: the fallout from Moscow's unilateral annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which the Obama administration and its allies condemn as a brazen, illegal land grab.

On Tuesday, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armored vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained positioned near the border with Ukraine, a NATO military official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

The military official described the Russian buildup as “a complete combat force” that was highly threatening to Ukraine.

Those troops, and future aggressive moves that Putin's Kremlin may make, have become a troubling concern for NATO countries, especially the alliance's eastern-most members — the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania, all of which were once in Moscow's orbit.

US Congress Passes Ukraine Aid, Russian Sanctions Bill

The U.S. Congress easily passed an aid package for Ukraine on Tuesday that includes sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea, in U.S. lawmakers' first binding response to the crisis.

The House of Representatives voted 378 to 34 to approve the bill, which the Senate green-lighted last week, meaning the bill, including US$1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine, now goes to U.S. President Barack Obama for his signature.

The legislation provides for US$1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine as well as US$150 million for improved governance and enhanced security cooperation there.

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