TALLINN - The US will pre-position heavy weapons, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery in central and eastern Europe for the first time, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday in Estonia’s capital Tallinn.

“We will temporarily stage one armoured brigade combat team’s vehicles and associated equipment in countries in central and eastern Europe,” Carter said at a joint press conference with three Baltic defence ministers.

“This pre-positioned European activity set includes tanks, infantry fighting vehicles artillery,” he confirmed, adding that “Estonia as well as Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland have agreed to host company to battalion-sized elements of this equipment, which will be moved around the region for training and exercises.” The announcement comes as NATO vowed Monday to step up its military presence in eastern Europe amid the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War, caused by the conflict in Ukraine.

Alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said NATO would approve plans this week to more than double the size of its rapid response force, having already created a special spearhead unit as part of the fallout from the Ukraine crisis.

NATO is flexing its muscles in Poland and the Baltic states with a series of drills focused on its new spearhead force, a structure designed to boost security on its eastern flank in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Visiting exercises in Poland last week, NATO’s Stoltenberg said the alliance was “implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defences since the end of the Cold War”, after Russia announced that it would expand its nuclear arsenal this year.

Moscow was responding to reported US plans to deploy heavy weapons to its jittery NATO allies in eastern Europe, with Putin accusing the US-led alliance of “coming to our borders”. NATO member Poland went so far as to insist last week that the post-Cold War peace in Europe was “now over”, as the continent grapples with myriad crises, including the Ukraine conflict and terrorism.

Under Moscow’s thumb in Soviet times, the three Baltic states last month asked NATO to deploy several thousand permanent troops in their region as a deterrent to Russia. But some European NATO allies, like Germany, have been sceptical about any substantial permanent deployment, saying it could breach a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia.

That agreement however does not appear to rule out temporary NATO troop rotations or pre-positioning alliance equipment along its eastern flank. Defence ministers from NATO’s 28 member states meet in Brussels on Wednesday to further discuss ways of meeting security challenges.