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North Atlantic Treaty Organization logos at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 15.VALERIA MONGELLI/AFP/Getty Images

NATO has signalled a return to its Cold War posture by revealing it will boost its rapid-reaction forces almost eightfold, to 300,000 troops.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said Monday that the move and other efforts to strengthen the 30-country military alliance amount to the “biggest overhaul of collective defence and deterrence” since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago.

The Soviet threat has been replaced by the Russian threat, as the invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth month and shows every sign of intensifying. On Monday, a Russian missile attack on a crowded shopping mall in the industrial city of Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine, killed at least 16 people.

Mr. Stoltenberg announced the overhaul a day ahead of a crucial NATO summit in Madrid, at which its new strategic concept will be unveiled and a way may be found to quickly admit Finland and Sweden to the alliance, as the two Scandinavian countries’ fears of a Russian attack grow by the day. So far, Turkey, a NATO member, has rejected their admission.

Mr. Stoltenberg said he expects NATO’s member states to make clear that they consider Russia “the most significant threat” to their security.

Boosting the number of high-readiness combat troops to 300,000 from 40,000 is primarily designed to protect NATO’s eastern flank, specifically the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The dramatic increase borrows from the alliance’s old Cold War strategy of being capable of repelling a potential Soviet invasion.

NATO did not say when the number would reach that level, how much it would cost to build and maintain such a large presence or where exactly those soldiers would be stationed. Those details may emerge at the Madrid summit, which ends Thursday.

The announcement came after Estonia’s Defence Ministry and Prime Minister pleaded for a huge increase in combat-ready troops in the Baltic countries. Estonia in particular fears an invasion and said its airspace had been violated recently by Russian military helicopters.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters last week that her country would be “wiped off the map” under current NATO plans to defend Estonia against a Russian attack. Ahead of the Madrid summit, she was lobbying NATO for a full division – about 20,000 soldiers – to be allocated to each of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Her fear, and that of the other Baltic leaders, is that existing NATO and national military assets would be incapable of repelling a Russian attack from Day 1, meaning the countries might be overrun – and destroyed – before NATO could mount a robust counterattack. Ms. Kallas said NATO’s existing plan for Estonia is “to lose it and liberate it afterwards.”

At the moment, NATO keeps about 8,000 foreign troops in the Baltics, mostly provided by Canada, Britain and Germany. Their role is to act as a “tripwire” in the event of a Russian invasion. NATO now accepts that such an approach is inadequate and that it must have enough troops on the ground to prevent an attack, not just slow one down.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Mr. Stoltenberg has said repeatedly that NATO’s job is to defend “every inch” of its members’ territory.

Its new strategic concept marks the first overhaul since the last one was published during the Lisbon summit in 2010. Back then, the Cold War was long over and Russia, then led by president Dmitry Medvedev, was being touted as a potential strategic partner. Germany in particular was moving closer to Russia’s economic orbit and was signing gas import deals that would make Kremlin-controlled Gazprom the biggest supplier of energy to Europe’s biggest economy.

The new strategic concept will push member countries to boost their military spending quickly. Figures released Monday by NATO show that Canada and the other members of the alliance have increased their defence spending since Russia invaded and seized Crimea in 2014. Still, only nine member states have reached or exceeded NATO’s military spending goal of 2 per cent of GDP.

Canada is near the back of the pack, with its estimated spending for 2022 at 1.27 per cent of GDP, up from about 1 per cent in 2014. Only Slovenia, Turkey, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg spend less in relative terms. The biggest spenders are Greece, the United States, Poland, Lithuania and Estonia. “Two per cent is increasingly considered a floor, not a ceiling,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “We will also agree to invest more together in NATO.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is to address the Madrid summit. On Monday, in a virtual meeting, he told the Group of Seven leaders in Germany that he wants the war over by the end of the year. The G7 said in a statement that it will “continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

In Madrid, Mr. Zelensky is expected to urge NATO to send his country more heavy weapons, including long-range artillery systems, as it loses ground to Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

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