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When US President Barack Obama visited both NATO and European Union headquarters in Brussels yesterday, discussion of a response to Russia's moves in Ukraine was not just about the right strategy, but what NATO is even capable of today.
The Obama administration has repeatedly voiced concerns about Europe's declining contributions to NATO, criticizing its members for "subcontracting" their defense to the United States even as the US decreased its own overall commitment to NATO. But US warnings received little response; NATO was on its way out of Afghanistan, and it appeared the need for a strong military force was declining.
An era of sharp austerity in Europe has also curtailed any interest on the Continent in boosting defense forces, reports the Washington Post:
... for the moment, there appears to be little appetite among European leaders to bust their recession-scarred budgets or buck their war-weary populations in order to shore up thinly stretched armed forces.
Military spending across Europe fell dramatically after the Cold War, then ramped up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the five years since the global financial crisis, it has been cut sharply again -- even as Russia’s defense spending has surged by more than 30 percent.
More European cuts are on the way, even as leaders hurl a daily dose of tough rhetoric toward Moscow.
Last year, only a few countries, which include the US, met NATO's requirement to spent 2 percent of GDP on defense. The prospect of deeper conflict with Russia was not on anyone's radar. Now, the 28-member international force is unsure if it is formidable enough to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin if he pursues territory beyond the annexation of Crimea.
“The limited ground forces in Europe are not designed to suddenly project power against Russia in a number of days,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times. “Basically, the most constructive thing you can do is not create such a challenge that Russia would feel compelled to respond.”
The New York Times compares the NATO of 2014 with the NATO of the cold war:
During the height of the Cold War, United States troops in Europe numbered around 400,000, a combat-ready force designed to quickly deploy and defend Western Europe — particularly what was then West Germany — against a potential Soviet advance.
Today there are about 67,000 American troops in Europe, including 40,000 in Germany, with the rest scattered mostly in Italy and Britain. The Air Force has some 130 fighter jets, 12 refueling planes and 30 cargo aircraft. At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, it had 800 aircraft in Europe.
The United States Navy, meanwhile, has dropped to 7,000 sailors and Marines, down from the 40,000 sailors who were stationed at nine major Navy bases during the height of the Cold War. Today, there are no American aircraft carrier groups based in the Mediterranean, although the Navy does have one destroyer deployed at Cádiz, Spain.
NATO, formed at the outset of the cold war, has struggled with the question of its relevance since the Soviet Union's collapse. The Ukraine crisis, particularly Putin's vow to protect ethnic Russians living outside Russia's borders, "has suddenly breathed new life into NATO’s raison d’être... NATO's historic mission as a counterweight to Moscow," The Christian Science Monitor reports.
“You could see how NATO was a bit in search of a mission post-Afghanistan ... and then Russia gave it an answer,” Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, told the Monitor. “This militarization of politics, driven by Russia, has led to the rediscovery of NATO’s importance.”
There are two schools of thought about the path NATO should chart: one argues that NATO should return to its roots, while the other says it needs to focus on the new threat of global terrorism. Putin's moves in Crimea give a boost to the former.
NATO's diminished capacity is not the only thing holding back the US and Europe. As the Associated Press points out, the Obama administration's Russia "reset," a bid to bring Moscow more fully into the international community and normalize US-Russia relations, led to Russia becoming an integral part of several international diplomacy efforts that the US does not want to rupture.
But even as officials warn of curtailed ties with Russia, they’re seeking to insulate Obama’s most pressing foreign policy priorities from any major harm that might result.
Examples are plentiful and worrisome:
- Russia is part of the international negotiating team working with the U.S. to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.
- The Kremlin’s participation is crucial to keeping Syria on track with a plan to rid Damascus of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
- Russia also allows the U.S. to use an alternative to a supply route through Pakistan to bring military personnel and equipment out of Afghanistan as the war there comes to an end.
Then there’s the International Space Station and Russia’s agreement to ferry American astronauts to and from it. And the concern, more pointed in Europe but well-noted in the U.S., that a deeper rift with Russia could interrupt crucial energy supplies now flowing to European nations.
NATO's resolve could be tested soon, according to a US intelligence assessment that a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine "is more probable than it was previously thought to be," CNN reports, describing Russia's military buildup as "reminiscent of Moscow’s military moves before it went into Chechnya and Georgia in both numbers of units and their capabilities."
American officials believe the more than 30,000 Russian forces on the border with Ukraine, combined with additional Russian forces placed on alert and mobilized to move, give Russian President Vladimir Putin the ability to rapidly move into Ukraine without the United States being able to predict it when it happens.
The assessment makes several new points including:
Troops on Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine – which exceed 30,000 - are “significantly more” than what is needed for the “exercises” Russia says it has been conducting, and there is no sign the forces are making any move to return to their home bases.
The troops on the border with Ukraine include large numbers of “motorized” units that can quickly move. Additional special forces, airborne troops, air transport and other units that would be needed appear to be at a higher state of mobilization in other locations in Russia.
There is additional intelligence that even more Russian forces are “reinforcing” the border region, according to both officials. All of the troops are positioned for potential military action.
Russian troops already on the border region include air defense artillery and wheeled vehicles.
The assessment expressed particular concern for Transnistria and the Baltic states, and predicted that in order to gain land access to Crimea, Russian forces would likely move toward three Ukrainian cities: Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk.