The National Post | 1.5.15
By Alan W. Dowd

As Russian military assets continue to pick apart Ukraine, we should be thankful the transatlantic community didn’t cash in its Cold War-era insurance policy. To extend the metaphor, NATO’s political leaders have a lot of catch-up payments to make before their policy is back to full strength.

Let’s start where most insurance policies start: risk.

The risks facing NATO are increasing. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has dismembered Ukraine and Georgia, waged cyberwar against Estonia, reopenedmilitary basesto bolster outsized Arctic claims, violated the INF Treaty, and conducted provocative war games on NATO’s borders. Russian incursions into NATO airspace tripledin 2014. Of particular concern to Canada and the U.S., Moscow announcedin November it will deploy long-range bombers “to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.”

Putin’s apologists argue that Moscow is reacting to NATO’s eastward expansion. However, NATO expands via consent and cooperation—not coercion. And NATO, unlike Putin, never has annexed a country. 

Although Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army, Russia has increased military spending108 percent since 2004, giving Putin enough muscle to hold sway in his neighborhood. With parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in Moscow’s grip, it’s not unthinkable that NATO members Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania could be next. If Putin’s goal is to reclaim territory and prestige Moscow lost when the USSR collapsed, then it stands to reason the Baltics would be in his crosshairs. Sidelining NATO would be a means to that end. Perhaps Abkhazia, Crimea and Donetsk are low-risk testing grounds for this strategy.

Hoping to thwart that, NATO’s political leaders recently declared“continuing and unwavering commitment to defend the populations, territory, sovereignty” of the alliance; agreed to form a rapid-response taskforce; authorized deployment of military assets on a “rotational basis” in NATO’s east; revived large-scale maneuvers; and called on members to spend two percent of GDP on defence “within a decade.”

Putting these plans into practice requires more than words. Too often, NATO’s words exceed its capabilities. In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, many allies were found lacking in precision munitions, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, transport, and command-and-control assets. Only the U.S. possesses these assets in the quantity needed to conduct 21st-century military operations. That’s largely because the U.S. accounts for 75 percent of NATO military spending—up from 50 percent during the Cold War. Despite years of begging by NATO headquarters, only the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia meet the two-percent-of-GDP standard, with Canada, Germany and France falling short. In fact, while Russia’s defence budget mushrooms, Italy’s has shrunk 26 percent, France’s 6.4 percent, Britain’s 2.5 percent.

“In more peaceful times, it was right to reduce defence spending,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observes. “But we do not live in peaceful times.”

Those who view government’s role as providing services might argue defence spending diverts resources from social programs, while the more market-minded might argue government is siphoning enough from the economy. Yet no less an authority on economic behaviour than Adam Smith noted, “The first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force.”

That requires investing in the common defence, which points the way back to NATO’s core mission.

First, NATO must devote adequate resources to deterrence. To borrow Smith’s language, NATO’s mission is protecting its members from invasion. That’s why it was formed in 1949 and why it survived after 1989. Yet years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness,” according to the British government.

If NATO’s deterrence mission is to succeed today, each ally needs to lift its defence budget to the two-percent standard—and sooner rather than later. The geopolitical and military impact of the two-percent commitment is diluted by the 10-year timeframe.

Second, NATO needs to defend the principle of sovereignty. Moscow recently demandeda “100 percent guarantee” Ukraine will never join NATO. As a partnership of sovereign states, NATO’s members have the right to determine NATO’s membership. And as a sovereign European nation, Ukraine has a right to pursue membership. It also has a right to defend its borders, and NATO members have a right—arguably a responsibility—to send more than nonlethal aid to help Kiev. Ottawa’s decision to provide “military training and cooperation” points the way forward. As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says, “One cannot win the war with blankets.”

Third, NATO members also should wield non-military tools to counter Putin. Russia’s economy, heavily dependent on energy exports, was booming until energy prices cratered. Canada and the U.S. can extend this by pumping more oil and natural gas into the global supply, defending their resource-rich Arctic territories from Russian poaching and helping Europe cut reliance on Russian natural gas. Several European ambassadors to the U.S. have urged Washington to expedite liquefied natural gas exports to Europe. Of course, that depends on greater U.S. export-terminal capacity—and that depends on regulatory approval.

Finally, NATO needs to make its words matter. NATO’s decision to increase rotational deployments in Eastern Europe is a half-step in the right direction. But the best way to deter Putin is to base permanent defensive assets where they are most needed: on the territory of NATO’s most-at-risk members. Well-meaning observers argue that post-Cold War agreements prohibit this. But as NATO noted during its 2014 summit, “Russia has breached its commitments” to a range of post-Cold War treaties. There can be no treaty where only one party observes its provisions.

Likewise, there can be no security without adequate insurance, which brings us back to investing in the common defence. For NATO’s members, it’s time to pay their insurance premiums.