The American Thinker | 6.9.16
By Alan W. Dowd
The upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw will complete the
transatlantic alliance’s transformation back to what it was built for: deterring
The reason for NATO’s return to its old mission is Russia’s return
to its old ways. U.S. Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, who just recently ended
his tour as NATO commander, describes Russia as “resurgent and aggressive.”
Consider the record: Vladimir Putin’s Russia
has lopped off part of Georgia, annexed Crimea and
occupied eastern Ukraine, waged cyberwar against the Baltics, threatened Poland with nuclear attack, massed troops on the
borders of NATO’s newest members, flouted arms treaties, and revived the dangerous
Cold War-era practice of conducting mock bombing runs, buzzing Allied warships
and testing Allied air defenses. There were 160 Russian incursions into Baltic
airspace in 2015.
Another 2015 data point: Putin unveiled a new
military doctrinefocused on confronting NATO and pledging the use of Russia’s armed forces “to
ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation.” Given
that there are five million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the
Baltics—and that Putin has reserved for himself the right to determine when,
where and whether they need to be protected—this is a recipe for something much
more complicated than a new cold war. As if to
underscore his intentions, Putin recently reactivated the 1st Guards Tank Army, a large armored
force based in western Russia equipped with 500 main battle tanks.
Between 2004 and 2013, Putin—sometimes as
prime minister, sometimes as president—increased military spending 108 percent.
Russia’s 2015 military outlays were 26-percent larger than in 2014.
In short, even as NATO tried to
build bridges to Moscow and avoided building bases in Eastern Europe, even as
NATO members slashed defense spending, even as NATO offered partnership to Russia
and membership to Eastern Europe, Putin was longing for the bad old days. 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.”
Perhaps with that goal in mind, Putin boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not
only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or
Given Putin’s record and rhetoric,
it’s no surprise that political leaders from NATO’s
easternmost members—Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary,
Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic—want “a robust, credible and sustainable
Allied military presence in our region.” To buttress their request, they cite
“the aggressive Russian actions in Ukraine, including the illegal and illegitimate
annexation of Crimea…as well as Russia’s military activities in our
Their worries are well-founded.
Within range of Putin’s unmarked
armies and clever brand of anonymous warfare, Eastern Europe’s leaders
understand that if Putin follows his Ukraine playbook and covertly violates the
sovereignty of the Baltics, he will force NATO to blink or fire back. Neither
alternative leads to a happy outcome. The former means NATO is neutralized. The
latter means war.
The surest way to prevent those dire
scenarios is to answer Eastern Europe’s SOS and base permanent NATO assets
where they are most needed: on the territory of NATO’s most-at-risk members.
That’s what the alliance did during the Cold War, and it kept the peace—as it
Indeed, British Gen. Richard Shirreff, former deputy commander of NATO, says the best way to
prevent war in Europe is “to maintain troops permanently in the Baltic states.”
news is that Putin now faces an alliance renewed in purpose.
Sixteen NATO members increased defense spending in 2015.
European defense spending is up 8.3 percent in 2016. Germany, for the first
time in 25 years, will expand its military endstrength by 14,300 personnel.
Washington has quadrupled U.S. military spending
earmarked for Europe—from $789 million to $3.4 billion. A U.S. defense
official saysNATO is “moving from assurance to deterrence.”
Toward that end, after years of waning commitment, the U.S.
Army is increasing its deterrent strength in Europe by permanently basing threefully-manned
brigades in Europe. NATO is hammering out plans to deploy battalionsin Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to deter Putin from the sort of
ambiguous, anonymous warfare he has waged in Ukraine. And importantly, Breedlove’s
successor, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis
Scaparrotti, comes to NATO from
the 38th Parallel, where U.S. troops serve as a 24/7 deterrent against North
The bad news is that NATO members have been
hacking away at NATO’s deterrent strength, which explains NATO’s urgent call
that each member invest at least 2 percent of GDP in defense. Only five of
NATO’s 28 members meet that standard today.
Years of underfunding have led to
“alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness,” according to the
For example, post-recession austerity measures have reduced the Royal
Navy from 89 ships to 65. Britain’s combat-aircraft fleet has shrunk from 189
warplanes to 149; the Joint Helicopter Command had 257 aircraft in 2008 but
just 164 today.
Only 42 of Germany’s
top-of-the-line 109 Eurofighters are in flying condition. At the height of the Cold War, West
Germany had 2,125 Leopard II tanks. Today, Germany has just 225.
The French military eliminated 8,000 personnel in 2014, 19 warships between 2009 and 2012, and
30 percent of its air fleet between 2008 and 2013.
The U.S. Army has around 26,000
troops in Europe today, down from 40,000 in 2012, down from 300,000 during the
Cold War. Thus, U.S. Army Gen. Ben Hodges is trying “to make 30,000 look and feel like 300,000.”
Moreover, Washington’s response
to Russian aggression—and to Allied anxieties—reflects the problematic “lead
from behind” approach that characterized most of President Obama’s foreign
policy. Thus, rather than a robust commitment of a brigade or more in the
Baltics and Poland, the Obama administration is offering a battalion to NATO’s
tripwire force in Eastern Europe—and apparently reneged on earlier pledges of two U.S. battalions.
Despite Washington’s halfhearted reaction, what NATO’s easternmost members are
requesting is feasible, compatible with NATO’s core mission and militarily
First, NATO has about 3.3 million
men under arms and accounts for 60 percent of world military spending. In other
words, the alliance can do this—but only with a renewed commitment to its
enduring mission of deterrence.
Each NATO member should lift its
defense budget to the 2-percent-of-GDP standard by a date certain; each member
should invest in a way that serves the needs of the alliance; and Washington
should lead from the front by reversing sequestration’s devastating cuts.
Second, basing a deterrent force in
Eastern Europe is in line with NATO’s core mission of deterring war.
For the United States, NATO
diminishes the likelihood of another European conflict triggering another great-power
war. For NATO’s other members, NATO is a security guarantee backed by the
United States. Without that guarantee, there is no security, as history has a
way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from Cold War Hungary to
post-Cold War Ukraine.
Indeed, the reason Poland wants
U.S. troops on Polish soil is the same reason U.S. troops were based in West
Berlin during the Cold War: American troops send an unmistakable message that
crossing this line means you are going to war against the United States—no
question marks, ambiguity or doubts about the consequences.
Third, permanent bases in the
Balts and Poland will signal Moscow that NATO is serious about defending
Eastern Europe. The goal is to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a
trial of strength” by making it clear to Putin that NATO’s security guarantee
is as valid for NATO’s youngest members as it is for NATO’s oldest members.