FPI Bulletin: How to Stand Strong in Europe

June 25, 2015

“You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.” That is the promise that President Obama made last September in Tallinn. It was not just a promise to the people of Estonia, but to all members of NATO. However, President Obama’s policies have not fulfilled the promise of his stirring rhetoric. This week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is visiting Europe to demonstrate America’s commitment and resolve to stop the Kremlin’s campaign of intimidation. Unfortunately, the military and diplomatic measures that Carter has unveiled are likely insufficient to defend the alliance and deter Putin.   

Insufficient Efforts to Reinforce NATO

In Tallinn, Secretary Carter announced that the United States would “temporarily stage one armored brigade combat team's vehicles and associated equipment in countries in Central and Eastern Europe.” Rotating forces will visit the equipment’s host nations and employ the equipment in the course of military exercises. The U.S. will also provide “enablers”, i.e. supporting troops, to enhance the capabilities of a European-led NATO “Spearhead” force. These efforts would be more effective if it resulted in a greater permanent U.S. presence.

Testifying before the Senate in April, General Philip Breedlove, who commands both American forces in Europe and NATO forces as a whole, explained the deficiency of temporary deployments. “Our permanent presence also allows us to maximize the military capabilities of our Allies,” Breedlove reported, “Permanently stationed forces are a force multiplier that rotational deployments can never match.” Breedlove’s predecessor, Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis, welcomed the new policy but remarked, “nothing is as good as troops stationed full-time on the ground, of course.”

In addition, while the alliance is promoting the “rapid reaction” Spearhead force, there is considerable worry that it may not be able to respond soon enough to potential Russian aggression. As Jakub Grygiel of the Center for European Policy Analysis recently told Small Wars Journal, within the forty-eight hours that it would take for the Spearhead force to be deployed, “the Baltics are gone.”  This means that “The expeditionary force will not be there for defending the territory but it will need to re-conquer the lost territory, a task that is much more difficult operationally but also politically.”

The size of the new commitment is also problematic. A brigade combat team consists of roughly 4,000 troops. In this instance, it will be divided between six or seven countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and possibly Hungary. The backdrop for this limited commitment is the relentless decline of the U.S. military presence in Europe. According to official Pentagon data, the American presence fell from 341,000 troop permanently stationed in Europe in 1989 to 118,000 in 2001. While reductions were prudent in the wake of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, withdrawals have continued to the point where now only 65,000 troops remain.

These reductions were premised on the elusive hope that Vladimir Putin would eventually unclench his fist if the United States extended its hand in friendship. Secretary Carter acknowledged that this hope is waning. Pressed by a reporter, Carter observed that “Russia might not change under Vladimir Putin or even thereafter.”

An Agenda for Renewing the Transatlantic Alliance

In addition to stationing two or more combat brigades in Eastern Europe, there are several measures the administration should take to strengthen NATO as it faces an evolving threat from the Kremlin:

Increase the U.S. defense budget and encourage all NATO members to do likewise.  Under current law, the U.S. military will have to absorb $1 trillion of budget cuts over the course of this decade. Testifying before the Senate, the chiefs of all four services agreed that these cuts will put American lives at risk while preventing the Armed Forces from executing the country’s defense strategy. While senior American officials constantly encourage European governments to spend more on defense given the immediate threat to their own security, there is little reason to expect much change unless America leads the way.

Speaking in Berlin on Monday, Secretary Carter said, “Today we provide 70 percent of all defense spending in the Alliance….[B]ut the United States cannot, should not, and will not meet these challenges in Europe alone.” However, official data shows that the four largest contributors to the alliance—the U.S., France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—all cut their defense budgets last year, if one adjusts for inflation. Nine Eastern European nations increased their budgets, with Poland and the Baltic states making substantial investments. Yet overall spending by the 28 member states fell by $50 billion, or 5.3 percent, despite an agreement in principle that all member states should spend at least 2 percent of their national income (GDP) on defense.

Welcome new members.  NATO is animated by a vision of Europe whole and free. That vision cannot be realized until every European democracy has the opportunity to seek security through membership in the Alliance. Macedonia and Montenegro are currently part of NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP). In the declaration made at the conclusion of its Bucharest summit in 2008, NATO made a non-binding offer to support eventual membership for Ukraine and Georgia. However, progress has stalled on all of these expansion efforts.

Unexpectedly, the nations who may have the strongest interest in joining NATO are ones that declined to do so during the Cold War, Finland and Sweden. In light of numerous Russian military incursions into their sovereign waters and air space, the Finnish and Swedish publics have expressed a growing approval of membership.  A May 2015 poll found that one in three Swedes favored accession into the alliances, up from 17% in 2012.  Although only 28% of Finns support membership now, a majority said that they would be ready if the country’s political leaders said they were—and those leaders are increasingly speaking in terms of “when” rather than “if.”

Help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.  While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, its fate will signal whether the victims of aggression can expect real support from the democratic West. To that end, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 has already authorized the provision of anti-armor weapons, counter-artillery radars, and other equipment to aid Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatist rebels.  This year, both the House and Senate have included provisions in the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to provide additional funding for this effort.  What stands in the way is President Obama, who refuses to act despite his ringing assertion in Tallinn that the Russian invasion “challenges that most basic of principles of our international system – that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Support the Russian people in their struggle for democracy and human rights. For all his bluster, Vladimir Putin is deeply insecure. This is why democratic reformers such as Boris Nemtsov are murdered in broad daylight, or suddenly take ill, like Vladimir Kara-Murza. Similarly, Putin must employ his control of the mass media to promote xenophobic nationalism while hiding his covert war in Ukraine from the Russian people, even as their sons continue to disappear. While opinion polls show robust support for the regime, it may be fragile when confronted by unpleasant truths. Today’s Russia may be no Soviet Union, but the United States must still engage in a battle of ideas.

Since the invasion and annexation of Crimea in February 2014, Vladimir Putin has been on offense. Yet his main advantage is that he acts decisively while NATO hesitates. However, if the Alliance pursues this agenda for renewal, it will be in a much stronger position to defend the values it has shared for 65 years.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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