NATO and Ukraine: The Need for Real World Strategies and for European Partners Rather than Parasites

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    Jun 5, 2014

    Events in Ukraine have made it all too clear that NATO’s primary function remains deterring war in Europe. The myth that Afghanistan was the key test of NATO had already died with President Obama’s unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. forces at the end of 2014, and events in Ukraine have already shown the United States just how pointless and vacuous the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that projected U.S. strategy should focus on Asia and the Middle East as if Europe was somehow “over.”

    The practical problem for both the United States and Europe is now to create a level of deterrence that can secure the NATO countries nearest Russia without needlessly recreating some new form of Cold War. It is also to help the non-NATO states on Russia’s borders in ways that help them develop without provoking Russia, but that still give Russia a strong incentive not to repeat what happened in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldavia.

    One key element is to make it clear that the US and Europe will not ignore Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. Empty NATO ministerial rhetoric can’t do this. Neither can German inaction because its energy dependence on Russia and outdated angst over the German role in World War II. Neither can French willingness to have President François Hollande have dinner with Putin at the G7 meeting right after having dinner with Obama, and continue to sell Russia precisely the kind of amphibious warships Russia needs for out of area adventures.

    Really, sell two Mistral-class amphibious ships that carry troops, landing craft, and helicopters, that then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked the French Minister of Defense not to sell in 2010, and which Hervé Morin the admitted were “indeed a warship for power projection!”  The last thing Europe and the Atlantic partnership need is a Germany that puts its economy above its security while wallowing in angst, or a new form of self-seeking French appeasement.
     
    This does not mean that anyone should overreact. No one can gain from rushing into a lasting confrontation between the United States, Europe, and Russia. This is not the time to overreact, to turn Ukraine into some kind of morality play as if Ukraine was composed of blameless heroes and Russians were the villains.

    It is not the time to give up on creating some form of productive economic partnership if Russia stops at the Crimea, to talk about further expanding NATO, or create conspiracy theories about Putin and Russia’s “secret” intentions to restore the Soviet Union, turn to China, and create a new structure of global rivalry. Realpolitik is not a matter of reacting to possible or imagined worst cases. It is a matter of reacting to realities as they actually emerge.

    In the near term, this means that it is time to make it clear to Russia that the US and Europe are willing to impose far more meaningful sanctions if Russia goes beyond the Crimea. It is time for Europe to work collectively to reduce its over-dependence on Russian gas. It is time to give the new government in Ukraine a reasonable chance at rebuilding the governance, economy, and security of what had become corrupt, powerbroker-driven, failed state.

    Moreover, these are all areas where Europe should take the lead, and not the United States. Russia needs to see that Europe can react and not wait on, or passively exploit American leadership. It needs to see that the United States is not isolated or pushing for a new Cold War. So far, Europe has failed to provide that leadership, waited on the United States as if this was still 1949, and effectively exploited the Atlantic alliance in ways that may end in encouraging further Russian action rather than deterring it.

    Broader and Transatlantic action is needed within NATO. Both the United States and the rest of NATO should make it clear that they are fully committed to the defense of the NATO states nearest Russia. The United States needs to make good on President Obama’s June 3rd pledge of $1 billion to boost the military presence in Eastern Europe, not simply pledge or spend the money on military exercises. It is the rest of Europe, however, that should really be taking the lead.

    One key step would be to change the deployment patterns in the Baltic, and put European ships forward in ways that made it clear the NATO Europe was fully committed to defending the Baltic states. Similar modifications in exercise deployments in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea would be another useful signal.

    Forward deployed and collective US and European defensive exercises in the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey would be another powerful signal – particularly if Russian and Belorussian observers were invited, if the exercises were clearly structured to actually be defensive, and made part of a five year cycle so that it was clear that this was a lasting commitment and that the exercise were timed and sized in ways that did not present a sudden build-up or threat to Russia.

    More substantively, the United States and Europe could create prepositioning in land and air bases, backed by annual exercises that would show NATO has a collective and full European capability to rapidly carry out both forward deployments and theaterwide operations to defend the countries nearest to Russia. This would avoid the provocation inherent in forward deployment – measures that no one is likely to fund in serious terms in any case.

    Limited and consistent rotations of United States and European air units, and a major step up in what NATO has called “air policing” would be another major step. Large-scale command post exercises of NATO’s C4I/battle management and IS&R capabilities for defensive operations would further strengthen the signal to Russia. Helping the “forward” states upgrade their airpower and to deploy Patriot PAC 3 systems in areas which covered their borders, but did not somehow “threaten” Russia would be another option.

    But, this will only work if Europe stops being a parasite, steps up to doing its share in defense, and stops whining about American “decline.” The United States has made more than its share of mistakes, and it is cutting military expenditures as it ends the war in Afghanistan. At the same time, the United States is still spending as much as it did before it began these wars in 2001, and both its FY2013-FY2014 actual spending and FY2015-FY2019 baseline defense spending plans – the spending not tied to now ending wars – shows no further decline.

    This is scarcely a decline in United States security efforts on a global stage where the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that the United States spent 37% of all world military expenditures in 2013 versus 11% for China, 5% for Russia, 3.5% for France, 3.3% for the UK, and 2.8% for Germany. In contrast, SIPRI estimates that Western and Central Europe cut military expenditures by 6.5% during 2004-2013.

    The Secretary General’s 2013 report for NATO sends the same signals. Like the U.S. QDR, it totally failed to mention any potential risk from Russia – in fact the one minor mention of Russia largely praises Russia for its aid in Afghanistan. At the same time, when the report talks about military spending, it has a graph showing that the US increased its share of total NATO military spending from 68% in 2007 to 73% in 2013.

    In contracts, NATO Europe dropped from 30.2% of the total to 25.5% during that same period. Germany kept spending constant at 4.7% of the total but made massive force cuts and shifted money to pay for the equivalent of an all-professional force. Britain dropped from 7.3% to 6.6%, France from 6.6% to 4.9%, and Italy from 2.9% to 2.0%.

     If anyone should whine about decline, it should be the United States. We have all suffered from a global depression, and this cannot be a valid European excuse. Once again, this is not 1949. The CIA World Factbook puts the total EU GDP at $15.8 trillion in 2013, and its population at 509.4 million. It puts the U.S. GDP at $16.7 trillion and its population at 318.9 million. Unlike Europe, the United States has major military commitments in Asia, and has assumed virtually the entire burden in securing the Gulf and the world’s major source of energy exports – as well as commitments in Latin America and commitment in Africa that now match those of Europe.

    It is Europe that should be taking the lead in Europe – with solid American backing. It is Europe that should worry about its own decline, and its Europe that should remember the words of a European named Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman