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Leaders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization member gathered in Wales pledged today to contribute troops to an alliance-wide "rapid reaction" force. The calls are prompted by what NATO members allege is Russian military support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The focus on Russia and European defense marks a return to NATO's roots as its decade-long war in land-locked Afghanistan, 4,000 miles from the North Atlantic, winds down. Today is the second day of the annual summit in Newport, Wales of the world's largest defense alliance.
In a speech, British Prime Minister David Cameron complained that "Russia is ripping up the rulebook with its annexation of Crimea and its troops on the sovereign soil of Ukraine." Mr. Cameron vowed 1,000 British soldiers would be attached to the rapid reaction force. The BBC carries excerpts from his speech.
Mr Cameron said NATO "must be able to act more swiftly. In 2002, Nato stood down its high-readiness force.
"I hope that today we can agree a multinational spearhead force deployable anywhere in the world in just two to five days.
"This would be part of a reformed NATO response force with headquarters in Poland, forward units in the eastern allies and pre-positioned equipment and infrastructure to allow more exercises and, if necessary, rapid reinforcement."
Over the last decade, NATO's expansion into eastern Europe has been a major point of friction with Russia. President Vladimir Putin has complained of a bellicose expansion of a Cold War alliance created to contain the Soviet Union that now appears to be targeting Russia. Moscow's view is that NATO countries funded the Ukrainian opposition and fueled the protests that toppled a pro-Russian leader in Kiev in February. It sees pledges to position more NATO forces closer to the Russian frontier as an escalation.
The Christian Science Monitor's Howard LaFranchi lays out the shift in thinking within NATO.
By sending its troops over an internationally recognized border and annexing a piece of a neighboring country, Mr. Putin’s Russia has reminded Europe and the 28-member Alliance that NATO’s original purpose – underpinning security and stability in Europe – is still necessary.
In some ways, NATO should thank Vladimir Putin because it was really searching for its purpose, post-[Afghanistan], and it was having a fairly significant identity crisis as people were looking toward the [Wales] summit nine, 12 months ago,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It has now not only been repurposed,” she adds, “it’s been reinvigorated.”
... “No one predicted that a portion of Europe would be annexed in 2014, that we would basically … have war between Russia and Ukraine,” Ms. Conley says. “I think it’s time we begin to state very clearly what this is,” she adds, “and it has now required NATO to really adapt and change fairly dramatically.”
Kremlin mouthpiece RT says Putin is working to set up an anti-NATO alliance with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Russian-backed breakaway provinces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic that has drawn closer to Europe.
"Abkhazian Vice-President Vitaly Gabniya has confirmed the fact of talks and also specified that the future bloc will be “modeled on NATO to counter NATO," RT writes.
One sticking point between the US and NATO has been declining defense spending in Europe. While NATO rules require members to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, only a handful do.
The New York Times writes that new fears of Russia have led to "increases in defense spending and promises of more to come in countries up and down NATO’s eastern flank, though after years of plummeting defense spending many countries are building from a very limited capability and remain years away from fielding anything resembling a formidable force against a military as large as Russia’s."
This chart lays out the spending disparities:
NATO defense spending as proportion of GDP. Greece & Estonia surprisingly high. Lithuania & Latvia surprisingly low? pic.twitter.com/5BeNXiwCjf— Shashank Joshi (@shashj) September 2, 2014
While the US-led calls to counter Russia has gotten substantial support from NATO members, talk of greater NATO involvement in Syria and Iraq is another matter. US officials sought to drum up support for NATO involvement, particularly against the self-styled Islamic State, the Syria and Iraq-based jihadi group that, thanks to capable soldiers and brutal terror tactics, now controls substantial chunks of territory in both countries, as Reuters reports.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told foreign and defense ministers from 10 nations on the sidelines of the summit that there were many ways they could help.
"We need to attack them in ways that prevent them from taking over territory, to bolster the Iraqi security forces and others in the region who are prepared to take them on, without committing troops of our own," Kerry told the meeting. "Obviously I think that's a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground."
Ministers from United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark met to discuss a strategy for addressing the Sunni militant group that has taken over swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory.
"This group here this morning is the core coalition," Hagel told them. "It is the core group that will form the larger and extended coalition that's going to be required to deal with this challenge."
The insistence upfront that NATO members won't put "boots on the ground" is an acknowledgement of the reluctance of US allies to get dragged into another messy Middle Eastern conflict.
Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Michigan, suspects NATO may mean "No action, talk only" when it comes to Iraq and Syria.
As I argued yesterday, there are important questions about whether a Syrian intervention would comport with international law. While this consideration is not important in the United States, the European Union states have incorporated much international law into EU legal codes, and leaders who infringe against it could find themselves in court.
My reading of the reporting from Wales is that most NATO states have little intention of intervening directly in Iraq and most of them have no intention to get involved in Syria. The US and Britain (and, far from Europe, Australia) are the most likely to commit to the Iraq front. The NATO country closest to ISIL (one of the acronyms for the Islamic State) territory, Turkey, seems reluctant to get involved in directly fighting ISIL (and critics of the religious Right party, AKP, which is in power, suggest that behind the scenes President Tayyip Erdogan is supporting the hard core Muslim rebels in Syria.)