NATO foreign ministers pledged to strengthen the alliance's defenses in Eastern Europe, and ended "all practical and military cooperation" with Russia (NYT) over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and its threatening military posture near eastern Ukraine. NATO's top military commander said in Brussels on Wednesday that Russia could carry out an "incursion" into Ukraine in three to five days. The situation prompted Poland's prime minister to ask for a deployment (FT) of NATO troops to his country, which joined the Atlantic alliance in 1999. Observers note that the steps are modest, and would entail the expansion of air patrols over Baltic nations and an increased naval presence in the Baltic Sea. The alliance has not committed, however, to continuous deployment of ground forces on the territory of Eastern European members (Guardian).
"In short, the United States 'drastically cut back its European forces' because there's no longer a threat to justify those forces. Nor does Putin's seizure of Crimea augur a resumption of that threat—not to any degree that warrants anything like a restoration of NATO circa '89," writes CFR's Murrow Press Fellow Fred Kaplan for Slate.
"The prevailing wisdom is almost certainly wrong; the fracas between Russia and the West over Ukraine will aggravate NATO's waywardness, not attenuate it—and this for several reasons," writes Rajan Menon for the National Interest.
"NATO is also signalling that its direction of travel will not change. Some critics have suggested that Nato expansion since the ending of the Cold War has in some sense prompted Russia to act in Ukraine; that it has provoked a sense of encirclement in Moscow," writes Jonathan Marcus for the BBC.
China Unnerved by Japan's Lifting of Arms Ban
China said it was closely monitoring (SCMP) Japan's relaxation of an arms ban a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet approved eased guidelines for weapons exports, ending a strict moratorium that lasted nearly fifty years. The new rules could allow Tokyo to supply weaponry to other nations with territorial disputes with China.
This CFR Infoguide outlines the conflicting claims around China's maritime disputes.
THAILAND: A Thai court accepted a new case (Bangkok Post) against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her removal of a security chief, compounding her legal problems after months of antigovernment protests.
South and Central Asia
Voting Fraud Looms Over Afghan Elections
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the front-runners in the Afghan election that would replace President Hamid Karzai, reiterated concerns about widespread fraud in polling (Guardian), raising fears of bitter antagonism preceding Saturday's vote. A suicide bomber attacked the Interior Ministry on Wednesday.
Four analysts discuss whether elections will bring stability to Afghanistan in this Expert Roundup.
PAKISTAN: A Pakistani national security adviser said that Pakistan was making efforts to sell small arms (Dawn) and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, striving to maintain a balance between ties with Iran and Riyadh.
Abbas Signs UN Treaties
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally signed (WaPo) more than a dozen United Nations treaties, endangering the already floundering U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In response, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled plans to visit Abbas on Wednesday.
CFR's Elliot Abrams discusses reports about convicted spy Jonathan Pollard's possible release in this new blog post.
EGYPT: Roadside bombs targeting riot police exploded outside of Cairo University on Wednesday, killing at least two people, including a police chief (al-Arabiya).
EU, Africa to Discuss Central African Republic
African and European leaders will address the conflict in the Central African Republic at a special meeting (BBC) during a summit in Brussels on Wednesday. The European Union officially launched its military mission to CAR, revealing plans to send 1,000 troops to bolster African and French forces.
KENYA: A radical Muslim cleric in Kenya, Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, was shot dead (The Star) outside Mombasa. Shariff had been listed by the UN as a recruiter for the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group.
France Sees Major Cabinet Reshuffle
Ségolène Royal, former partner of French president François Hollande, was named minister of the environment and energy in a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle (France24) on Wednesday. Hollande also named longtime friend Michel Sapin as his new finance minister.
Earthquake Hits Chile
An 8.2-magnitude earthquake hit Chile's northern coast Tuesday, killing at least five. President Michelle Bachelet, who returned to the presidency three weeks ago, declared a state of emergency (AP) in the region, and the government extended tsunami warnings for northernmost Chile.
UNITED STATES: Seven million U.S. citizens enrolled in private health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act before its Monday deadline. President Obama declared victory in the government's aggressive push (NYT) for enrollment.