NATO Assesses Ukraine and Invites Montenegro: Who’s Afraid of Vladimir Putin?

A U.S.-dominated NATO made sense early in the Cold War. But no longer.
May 26, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on May 26, 2016.

NATO’s foreign ministers met last week to assess current security threats. They discussed Afghanistan and North Africa, considered the Russian challenge, and invited Montenegro to join. Alas, the meeting illustrated how NATO has become an expensive burden for America, reducing U.S. security.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was birthed during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” in Ronald Reagan’s words. The war‐​ravaged states of Western Europe were vulnerable to Soviet pressure if not conquest. America’s defense shield allowed them to recover economically and politically.

However, the threat of Soviet invasion ebbed. The Red Army mostly ensured the loyalty of Moscow’s nominal allies. Europe recovered economically. Yet the military capabilities of NATO’s European members did not keep pace. As President Dwight Eisenhower had predicted, permanent U.S. military deployments created European dependency. NATO remained North America and The Others.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact NATO’s raison d’etre simply disappeared. There was no more threat to defend against. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there there.”

For a time alliance supporters worried about the organization’s future. Some proposed that NATO organize student exchanges and undertake drug interdiction. The alliance reinvented itself as a sort of Welcome Wagon for Moscow’s former republics and satellites, ignoring the security implications of issuing new defense guarantees.

Hence the inclusion of the largely indefensible Baltic States, which are attractive as friends but irrelevant to the safety of anyone else in NATO. As well as proposals to induct Georgia and Ukraine, which would bring their conflicts with Moscow into the alliance. The generally neutral Nordic countries, which managed the entire Cold War without U.S. protection, are being suggested as members. Macedonia’s bid has been blocked only by an esoteric national name dispute with Greece.

Newly invited Montenegro is noteworthy mostly for its reputation for high‐​level corruption and influential criminal networks. Why induct Podgorica? Robert Hunter of SAIS opined that “The simple answer is ‘Why not?” Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic said “You can count on us at any time.” Count on Montenegro for what he did not explain. NATO likely will spend more on extra paper to cc: Montenegro’s diplomats than Podgorica will spend on its 2,080 men under arms. The world’s greatest military alliance, created to hold back the Soviet hordes under Joseph Stalin, has become the social club of choice for tiny nations of no consequence.

The alliance also took on responsibility for “out‐​of‐​area” activities, including policing conflicts with no obvious security relevance to Europe. While NATO avoided military involvement during the Cold War, it has repeatedly gone to war since then for foolish and sometimes frivolous reasons. The Yugoslavian civil war was tragic, but with all parties guilty of atrocities the Balkans was a humanitarian, not security concern for the West.

While the initial action against the Taliban and al‐​Qaeda in Afghanistan was justified (though of minimal interest to Europe), nearly 15 years of attempted nation‐​building squandered thousands of lives and vast quantities of cash. European countries also participated in America’s debacle in Iraq. The intervention in Libya, pushed most vigorously by NATO’s European members, created chaos, loosed weapons, and empowered the Islamic State.

On his recent visit to Washington NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg talked about the work of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Afghanistan, Africa, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Middle East, and North Africa. NATO is helping interdict migrant ships in the Mediterranean. The German Marshall Fund recently argued that “placing the Open Door back at the heart of allied policy will project NATO’s credibility and resolve beyond its borders.” The group advocated maintaining partnerships with non‐​members, without which the organization “would see its action radius beyond its borders drastically reduced.”

Worse, though, the alliance has turned back to its more traditional anti‐​Soviet role as it courts war with nuclear‐​armed Russia. During the 2008 Georgia‐​Russia conflict the Bush administration apparently considered military strikes against Moscow’s forces. Multiple proposals have been advanced for U.S. and allied military support for Ukraine in its battle against Russian‐​back separatists.

Last week, said Stoltenberg, NATO discussed how “to adapt to a more assertive Russia.” Poland and the Baltic States are demanding allied, effectively meaning American, garrisons. NATO’s military committee approved deployment of an extra four combat battalions to Poland and the Baltics. At the next formal NATO summit in July NATO members are expected to finalize their plans for a permanent though rotating presence in countries bordering on Russia as part of a “deter and dialogue” strategy.

The U.S. already intends to add an armored brigade combat team, of more than 4000 troops, plus 2000 tanks and other vehicles, to America’s current European deployment of some 62,000 personnel. The administration requested $3.4 billion extra from Congress for the “European Reassurance Initiative.”

But this isn’t nearly enough in the view of some. The Rand Corporation suggested sending seven brigades, three armored, to the Baltics alone. Argued Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon of the Center for a New American Security and International Institute for Strategic Studies, respectively, deterring Moscow necessitates “fielding a conventional military posture that includes substantial, potent forces permanently deployed forward in Central and Eastern Europe that can assuredly arrest any Russian military thrust into NATO member‐​state territory.” Retired British Gen. Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff, former deputy NATO commander, has written a novel on war with Russia and urged the alliance to enhance its military presence in the east.

Why this move back toward the Cold War? Before chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps’ Gen. Joseph Dunford warned that Russia “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the alliance’s military committee, contended: “NATO, and especially NATO’s Eastern allies, feel threatened by Russian assertiveness, Russian aggression in several areas. And especially nations who are directly bordering Russia wanted to be more assured about NATO’s presence and NATO’s willingness and preparedness to act.”

Vladimir Putin is a nasty fellow. But that doesn’t make him unique, let alone likely to attack America or Europe. Moscow could destroy America with the former’s nuclear arsenal, but only with guaranteed annihilation to follow. Putin is little more likely to start a conventional war that he would lose.

How about a Russian assault on Europe? Putin could have overrun Georgia in 2008. He could have annexed eastern Ukraine, or attempted to conquer the entire country. If Moscow didn’t grab these territories, why would it attack a NATO member? In fact, Putin has made no move against the Baltic States, the most vulnerable alliance members, despite their frantic fears.

As Leonid Bershidsky pointed out in Bloomberg, “none of the alarmist proponents of an increased U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe can explain why Putin would want to invade the Baltics. Countries don’t attack other countries simply because they don’t like them, or because they can. There has to be some strategic benefit to the attack.”

Putin has shown no interest in conquering lands without ethnic Russians. Trying to rule, say, a hostile Ukraine would be a catastrophe. Seizing the Baltics would result in little better result. Rand suggested that Moscow might want to “divide the alliance” by demonstrating its inability “to protect its most vulnerable members,” but that would be a foolish reason to start a war.

There’s a far better explanation for Russian misbehavior: Moscow’s perception that the West has consistently ignored, even disdained, Russia’s interests. The Soviet Union is gone, but Imperial Russia has been reborn. The latter has no ideological agenda, but insists on being respected, wants to be consulted on issues of great moment, and emphasizes border security. Few Russians take seriously the ludicrous claim that expanding NATO is not directed at their country.

Moscow’s fears might seem irrational in Washington, but Putin responded to the West’s expansion of NATO, dismantlement of Serbia, and support for a street revolution against a friendly president in Ukraine. At modest cost Moscow prevented its neighbors from joining an opposing bloc and acting as a base for NATO. Bloody and brutal? Yes. But eminently practical and rational. Which suggests that Putin, far from desiring war with the West, is seeking to prevent a much larger confrontation.

If aggression is not likely, intimidation still is a reality for NATO’s members at the periphery and countries beyond. That policy reflects Putin’s ruthlessness, but is no casus belli, especially for America. If freeing Russia’s neighbors to pursue hostile policies toward Moscow is worth a fight, it should be organized by the Europeans. Why is Washington doing their job?

When NATO was created Western Europe was a wreck. Today the GDP and population of united Europe is greater than those of America and a multiple of those of Russia. It appears that most Europeans don’t believe they face a meaningful threat, or at least one with which they, as opposed to America, must deal.

Putin’s confrontational behavior has spread alarm, but not resulted in much practical response, other than an upsurge in requests for U.S. action. NATO has set a goal of devoting two percent of GDP to the military, a modest sum for any country claiming to face a dire security threat. Yet only Greece (to counter Turkey), Poland (recently arrived), United Kingdom (manipulated its figures), and Estonia (spends relatively little) joined America in spending two percent or more of GDP on the military. Germany (Europe’s dominant power), Turkey (which risked war by shooting down a Russian plane), and Italy (possessing one of the continent’s largest economies) barely made the one percent level. Eight alliance members, including Spain and Hungary, fall short even of that meager standard.

Stoltenberg nevertheless argued that the situation is “better than it was a year ago.” Maybe, but not by much. Since the 2014 NATO summit 14 European members have upped real outlays while 12 have reduced them. Collective expenditures last year dropped, though by a smaller percentage than in previous years. In real terms NATO Europe’s military expenditures fell from $254 billion to $253 billion; as a percentage of GDP outlays went from 1.47 percent to 1.43 percent. The comparable U.S. figures were $618 billion and 3.37 percent. Only seven European members devote at least $10 billion annually to the military.

Per capita spending more dramatically illustrates the disparity. America devotes $1865 per person to the military. Norway comes in a distant second at $1343. The UK is third at $851. A dozen European NATO members spend less than $300 per person.

European military strength has been shrinking for years. My Cato Institute colleague Marian Tupy pointed out that his native country of Slovakia had more than 40,000 soldiers at the end of the Cold War. Today that number is 13,000. West Germany deployed 215 combat battalions in 1990; united Germany has 34 today. Italy dropped from 135 to 44, France went from 106 to 43, and the United Kingdom fell from 94 to 50.

A recent report from the Euro‐​friendly Atlantic Council observed that Britain’s military was “hollowed out to such an extent that the deployment of a brigade, let alone a division, at credible readiness would be a major challenge.” France’s expenditures “may not be good enough to maintain an adequate force structure and posture, particularly in a much more challenging threat environment.” Italy’s force “structure is clearly unsustainable and burdened with legacy processes and approaches.”

Moreover, observed the Council, Germany’s military has “been chronically underfunded since 1990” and spending “does not even begin to match the requirements.” If this wasn’t bad enough, as a result of overtime restrictions, reported the Daily Telegraph, the Bundeswehr “is being forced to lay down its weapons.” German soldiers recently returned home just 12 days into a four‐​week NATO exercise in Norway.

Unfortunately, few of NATO’s critics go far enough. For instance, Donald Trump, who sharply criticized European free‐​riding, is pursuing what my Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter calls the “unicorn” of burden‐​sharing. A succession of presidents and defense secretaries has pressed Europeans to spend more, to no effect. The only way to get the Europeans to make a more meaningful military contribution is to turn responsibility for their defense over to them. They have no incentive to do more so long as Washington takes care of them.

Alliance advocates claim the U.S. receives other benefits from underwriting NATO. One is base access for military operations elsewhere. In fact, Washington should fight fewer wars, especially in the Middle East. The Iraqi and Libyan interventions were mistakes and the Afghan operation should have been limited to destroying al‐​Qaeda and ousting the Taliban. The “need” for the European bases is not as great as assumed. Moreover, defense cooperation can and should occur without a formal military alliance. Washington works with other nations, such as Singapore, without providing a security guarantee and deploying military forces.

Robbie Gramer of the Atlantic Council contended: “Security begets economic prosperity, and the United States underpins Europe’s security through NATO. Ensuring the security and stability of our most important trade partner is, if nothing else a significant return on investment.” This is a common but misguided argument. Russia’s machinations in Georgia and Ukraine have had no measurable impact on European commerce. All‐​out war would do so, but no one believes that is in the offing. Moreover, the question recurs: why can’t Europe defend Europe? The Europeans have an even greater interest in their prosperity than does America.

Indeed, if this argument justifies defending other nations, why don’t the Europeans contribute to America’s defense? To paraphrase World Politics Review columnist Michael Cohen, “Combined, the U.S and European Union economies represent about half of the world’s GDP and a third of all global trade. That means [American] stability is the single most important overseas [European] national security interest, even though for most [Europeans] it’s one that’s usually taken for granted.” Europeans have even more reason to subsidize Americans than Americans have to underwrite Europeans.

Foreign and military policy should be based on circumstances. A U.S.-dominated NATO made sense early in the Cold War. But no longer. Especially since the U.S. cannot afford to continue treating the Pentagon as an international welfare agency. Washington’s long‐​term finances are much worse than Europe’s.

The world is dangerous and Europe needs to be defended, it oft is said. But threats against Europe have ebbed and the continent’s ability to defend itself has grown. These populous and prosperous nations no longer require America’s protection. Washington should allow the Europeans to defend themselves.

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