Why Isn’t Europe Preparing for a War with Russia?

Washington should remain in NATO and other alliances only so long as they advance America’s security interests.
December 4, 2017 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on December 4, 2017.

Three years ago the United States withdrew its combat units from Europe. Now it is sending them back, with regular rotations, to deter a Russian attack. Explained Brig. Gen. Timothy Daugherty: “Preparing for war is a lot cheaper than executing one.”

True. But why isn’t Europe doing the preparing?

During the Cold War the United States had about three hundred thousand troops in Europe. That number was down to 65,000 a couple years ago. Even so, that was too many: the continent long ago should have graduated from America’s defense dole. Yet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had extended up to Russia’s borders and was threatening to add Georgia and Ukraine, former territories within the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. From Moscow’s perspective, NATO continued to play the containment game, only up to Russia’s borders and into its former heartland.

Along the way Washington and Brussels dismantled Serbia with nary a consideration of Russia’s historic interests in the Balkans. The United States created relationships and gained bases—even in Central Asia. America’s policy looked to be the reverse of the infamous “Brezhnev Doctrine”: what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.

Although the consensus in Washington long was to treat the Defense Department as a fount of international welfare, protecting prosperous and populous allies, candidate Donald Trump suggested a possible change when he criticized U.S. defense subsidies for the Europeans. Since taking office he has claimed credit for minor increases in European military outlays, but he has continued to sacrifice the interest of Americans for the benefit of European governments, which prefer to offload responsibility for their own defense

Many on the continent perceive no serious security threat: few, if any, Europeans imagine Russian legions sweeping through Europe to the Atlantic. And European governments, whether they worry or not, figure Washington will defend them. So why burden European taxpayers when the bill can be sent to America?

Why are Washington policymakers, and especially President Trump, so ready to make Americans bear that burden? Vladimir Putin is a nasty character. No surprise there. But the world is filled with unpleasant authoritarians. That doesn’t make them threats to America.

Despite the overwrought rhetoric that fills Washington, Moscow poses no meaningful military threat to the United States. Mucking around with the 2016 election was offensive, but Washington has done the same, only far more often in many more nations. The Trump administration should insist that Russia desist, while promising America that it will not make the same mistake again in the future.

The Russian Federation is the only nation with a comparable nuclear force, but to use it would guarantee destructive retaliation. Although Russia rebuilt its conventional forces after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Moscow is a serious regional, not global, power. Nothing suggests that Putin has the slightest interest in a confrontation with America.

Moreover, the United States and Russia have no substantial disagreement over important interests. Instead, the two governments have collided on peripheral issues—such as Syria (with which Moscow long was allied and which matters little to America) and Georgia/​Ukraine (which are not important for U.S. security). In contrast, both America and Russia fear Islamic terrorism, oppose a nuclear Iran and North Korea, and face a potentially aggressive China.

Yet Washington is putting American troops back in Europe. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said that “We, the U.S. Army, think that additional capability is probably needed” to deter Russia. U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges declared that “We’re going to do this as long as it is necessary.” There is, he added, “no off‐​ramp in the future.”

What are the Europeans doing about Russia? They are, well, busy. Or perhaps feel that they already gave at the office.

Europe currently spends twice as much on the armed forces as Russia. If Europe’s governments aren’t spending effectively, then they need to fix that rather than expect Washington to again step in. And they could do much more if they felt threatened. General Hodges lauded Lithuania for devoting 2.07 percent of GDP on the military, but if that government is nervously awaiting the arrival of Russian tank divisions, then it should double or triple its outlays. The point is not to defeat Moscow’s legions, but to ensure that any attack would be costly and not worth the price.

So, too, Estonia, Latvia and Poland. They all seem to crave American garrisons. What they should receive are contingents from their European neighbors.

But move away from the border states and most Europeans are too busy to bother much with military matters. Germany’s outlays went from 1.18 in 2016 to 1.22 percent this year, but are expected to drop back in 2018.

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