Capstones: Back to Basics for NATO

By Alan W. Dowd 
September 29, 2014

Noting that “Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace,” NATO’s 28 political leaders declared during their September summit in Wales “continuing and unwavering commitment to defend the populations, territory, sovereignty and shared values of all allies in North America and Europe and to meet challenges and threats from wherever they may emanate.”

In short, we can thank Vladimir Putin for reminding NATO that its core mission is deterrence. Now, NATO must back up its bold words with action—and America must lead the way.

Erasing Doubts

At Wales, NATO agreed on a range of “assurance measures” to send a message to Putin and to the easternmost members of the alliance. These measures include:

  • a Readiness Action Plan to ensure early intervention to blunt Russian-fomented crises of the sort that have dismembered Georgia and Ukraine;
  • a “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” to defend the Baltics and Poland on short notice;
  • “continuous air, land and maritime presence” and “meaningful military activity” in NATO’s east;
  • a regimen of war games focusing on high-visibility, large-scale, full-spectrum maneuvers; and
  • increased awareness of “hybrid warfare threats,” which Moscow has employed in Ukraine.

Of course, putting these plans into practice requires will, not just words, and NATO’s ambivalent members may finally realize it’s time to invest in the common defense. Toward that end, the alliance is calling on its members “to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets,” “display the political will to provide required capabilities” and “move towards” spending 2 percent of GDP on defense “within a decade.”

These spending reforms are desperately needed. Years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness,” according to a British government panel. In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, NATO’s European members have been found woefully lacking in precision munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, heavy-lift transport, drones and command-and-control assets—just about everything needed to conduct military operations in the 21st-century. 

This is what happens when nations stop investing in defense. For years, NATO has been asking its members to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense. Yet only the United States, Britain, Greece and Estonia meet that standard today. If we remove U.S. defense spending from the picture, NATO members spend an average of 1.3 percent of GDP on their armed forces. During the Cold War, the U.S. accounted for 50 percent of NATO military spending; today, the U.S. accounts for more than 75 percent.

There has always been a capabilities gap between the U.S. and its NATO allies. But with Moscow menacing Europe and starting a new cold war, there can no longer be a commitment gap.

Getting Serious
Putin is challenging NATO on virtually every front: In addition to dismembering Ukraine and Georgia, Putin’s Russia has used energy supplies as a weapon against Central Europe, provided cover for Assad’s beastly war, claimed a vast swath of the Arctic, withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program and conducted a crescendo of provocative war games on NATO’s borders. Some have involved feigned invasions of Poland, complete with mock nuclear strikes.

To be sure, Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But Putin has increased military spending 31 percent since 2008. He has the advantage of proximity; his asymmetric, anonymous brand of “hybrid warfare” has proven effective; he possesses a massive nuclear arsenal; and his army retains enough punch to reincorporate Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It’s not unthinkable that the Baltics could be next. Russia’s troop presence in the Baltic region has mushroomed from 16,000 to nearly 100,000. As the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan concludes, “It is the entire post-Cold War settlement of the 1990s that Russia resents and wants to revise.” And as Putin himself boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too.”

What Churchill said of his Russian counterparts is true of Putin and his generals: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” 

Regrettably, weakness is what Putin has perceived in the West. Make no mistake: Putin is to blame for this crisis. But the West has done little to deter or punish his thuggish behavior. In fact, it has often done the very opposite.

For instance, the implication of the Obama administration’s well-intentioned “reset” was that Putin wanted a partner, if only Washington would change its tone. That hypothesis has been obliterated. Russia invaded Georgia during the “with us or against us” Bush administration, and Ukraine during the “lead from behind” Obama administration.

Another policy Putin saw as a sign of weakness was the Obama administration’s scrapping of Bush-era plans to deploy permanent missile-defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic—plans unanimously endorsed by NATO. In addition, NATO’s wholesale defense cuts, especially the nearly-trillion dollars in cuts the Pentagon is facing, have sent the wrong message.

Finally, it pays to recall that in early 2008, Germany and France blocked efforts to invite Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Moscow returned the favor by invading Georgia in late 2008. Those who counter that NATO dodged a bullet by not inviting these countries in from no-man’s land miss an important point: Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and Georgia—and non-intervention in Poland and the Baltics—suggest that he respects the NATO security guarantee. How long that will last is uncertain.

Indeed, if NATO’s members don’t take deterrence seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth-Eide warns that Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause) “is not in good shape” and worries about NATO’s ability “to deliver if something happens in the transatlantic theater of a more classical type of aggression.” NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove wants the alliance to view another round of Russian hybrid warfare as “an Article V action” inviting “all of the assets of NATO” in response.

Only once in its history has NATO invoked Article V—on September 12, 2001—yet some allies don’t take Article V as seriously as others. If they did, European defense spending wouldn’t have shrunk by 15 percent since 9/11; Washington wouldn’t have been reduced to begging for more troops in Afghanistan; and the troops that were sent wouldn’t have limits on where and when they fight.

Changing Circumstances

To force Putin to adjust his current course and to keep the promises NATO made at its summit in Wales, Washington must lead by example.

First, the United States should help each member develop an action plan to lift their defense budgets to the 2-percent standard by a date certain—and that target date needs to be sooner than 10 years from now. Washington should lead from the front by reversing sequestration’s devastating cuts. This would translate into recapitalizing the naval and air fleets, fast-tracking development of the Long Range Strike Bomber, and reversing cuts to Army and Marine Corps end-strength.

This kind of reversal may seem unlikely. But it pays to recall that President Carter radically altered his approach to Moscow after the invasion of Afghanistan. Similarly, President Reagan noted that Moscow’s shoot-down of KAL 007 “gave badly needed impetus in Congress to the rearmament program.”

Second, the West should wage a relentless war of words against Putin. President Obama’s spot-on speech in Estonia and NATO’s point-by-point rebuttal campaign to Putin’s propaganda machine represent a good start.

Putin is not Hitler. But as longtime Pentagon official Dov Zakheim observes, “The West is full of Chamberlains.” To extend the historical parallel, the world thirsts for a Churchill, someone to rally the demoralized democracies. President Obama should fill that role by employing his rhetorical skills against Putinism. The president should highlight how Czar Vladimir has engineered his way from prime minister to president to prime minister to president the past 14 years; point out the vast freedom gap between Russia and its neighbors; and expose Putin’s assault on human rights by offering a platform to Putin’s enemies—journalists, religious minorities, those persecuted for sexual orientation, political dissidents. “A little less détente,” as President Reagan counseled, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” 

Third, Washington should push for a NATO Arctic partnership. The groundwork is in place: Denmark has an Arctic command, Canada an Arctic training center, Norway an Arctic headquarters; the Pentagon recently unveiled its first-ever Arctic strategy. It’s time for these NATO allies to coordinate their efforts.

Putin, who says Russia’s interests “are concentrated in the Arctic,” will get the message. Oil and gas account for more than 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue. To extend its petro-boom, as an AEI study explains, “Russia must make huge investments in exploring and recovering oil from…the east Siberian region and the Arctic shelf.” NATO’s Arctic members can prevent that by derailing Putin’s Arctic land-grab.

Fourth, the U.S. and its NATO allies need to view Ukraine as a partner to be nurtured, not a problem to be managed. Washington has some work to do in this regard: When Kiev asked for military equipment and intelligence, the administration offered MREs. Food rations will not deter Putin.

Now is not the time for Ukraine to join NATO, but it is time to share intelligence, satellite imaging, anti-tank weapons and other defensive equipment with Ukrainians to help them help themselves.

Fifth and finally, the United States should stand-up permanent military bases where they are most needed: in the Baltics and Poland. The goal here is not to wage war but quite the opposite: to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.” The post-Crimea half-measures of “rotational” deployments are not reassuring NATO’s frontline states and seem unlikely to deter Putin from another stealth invasion.

There’s a reason U.S. forces were based in West Berlin during the Cold War, a reason U.S. forces have been on the 38th Parallel since 1953. It’s the same reason Poland wants a U.S. Army brigade on Polish soil. American tanks and troops send a message like nothing else can: Crossing this line means you are going to war against the United States—no ambiguity, no question marks, no doubts about the consequences. This is the essence of deterrence, and it works.

Related, the president should revive plans for permanent missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe. This would enhance America’s ability to defend itself from missile attack. And since the sites would be manned and defended by hundreds of U.S. personnel, it would be another tangible sign of America’s commitment to Eastern Europe. There’s precedent for this: After North Korea’s spasms in 2013, President Obama reversed course and ordered the Pentagon to complete Bush-era plans for permanent ground-based interceptors in Alaska.

Well-meaning observers argue that deploying permanent units in Eastern Europe is prohibited by agreements made after the Cold War. Commonly cited is the NATO-Russia Founding Act. But NATO itself noted in Wales that “Russia has breached its commitments” to the Helsinki Final Act, CFE Treaty, INF Treaty, Rome Treaty and NATO-Russia Founding Act.

There can be no treaty, agreement or partnership where only one party follows the rules. Indeed, a principle of international law is that changing circumstances change treaties: Rebus sic stantibus holds that if one party changes something fundamental to a treaty, other parties are free to withdraw from it. Putin has “ripped up the rulebook,” in the words of President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and so NATO must remind Moscow why and how this alliance of free nations won the first cold war—and why and how it will win the second.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose