As I wrote yesterday, Crimea is now owned by the Kremlin, at least de facto, and there’s little to be done in the short term to change that. Certainly the appearance of Russian minefields on the “border” between Crimea and Ukraine today indicates the new reality of the situation we face. As I write, amid reports of Russian troop movements in Crimea, Putin may be readying his next gamble, a move into Eastern Ukraine. His lack of fear of Western retaliation is showing, which cannot be construed as a good sign.
How can the West deter further Russian aggression? I gave strong hints in my previous piece but I’ve been asked to provide more, so here it goes, an off-the-cuff analysis of what needs to be done, soon. In the realm of conventional deterrence, some small things have already happened, including the movement of limited numbers of USAF fighters to Poland and the Baltics; this measure, though temporary, is wise. It should be followed by permanent stationing of USAF fighters in the region, in frontline NATO countries: the numbers need not be large, as qualitatively our edge over the Russian Air Force is considerable. At a minimum, the placement of ground-based anti-missile units (i.e. Aegis Ashore) in Eastern Europe ought to expedited. The joint training focus of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) needs to shift at once from light/SOF-type forces with a COIN focus (i.e. related to the soon-to-end ISAF mission in Afghanistan) to heavier, more conventional forces aimed at rapid response to Russian aggression.
However, deterrence is not to be found in any major U.S. redeployment of forces on a permanent basis into Europe. EUCOM’s conventional drawdown has already happened and, in terms of crisis response, flexibility is more important than anything, and moves in recent years to establish surge-friendly bases in Eastern Europe proved wise and need to be expanded upon. While it would be wise to commence regular NATO naval patrols in the Baltic and the Black Sea, as was common in the Cold War, as a deterrent message to Moscow, it is not necessary to recreate major U.S. Army bases in Europe in Cold War fashion.
Moreover, it is imperative that European NATO members bear their share of this new burden. For too long, too many European partners have slashed their own defense spending, understanding that Big Uncle Sam would always be there for them; despite repeated warnings from the Pentagon, these trends have continued and, with too-few honorable exceptions, our European NATO partners have refused to pay their own way in collective defense. Cynical Americans are uncharitable, but hardly wrong, to term this free-loading on the American taxpayer.
Therefore, as we reinvigorate NATO, thanks to Putin’s misconduct, it is high time to reassess membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Members are supposed to spend two percent of GDP on defense, but very few actually do. Henceforth this must be a strict requirement. Existing members are expected to do so, and will be held to this. If you do not commit two percent of your GDP on defense, after three years, you will be expelled from the Alliance. Period. If you want protection, you must be part of the team. Needless to add, there should be no discussion of adding any new members to NATO until the Alliance sorts out who can be relied upon to participate in collective defense, and who cannot.
“New” NATO members are particularly egregious in this regard, and among them only Poland and Estonia spend what they are supposed to on defense. For the others, considerable funds were expended on the high cost of NATO accession, and after attaining membership in the world’s most exclusive military club, most have slashed funding and, de facto, coasted on U.S. defense and dollars. This must end, particularly because these are some of the very countries that the United States could soon find itself going to war for to defend them from rapacious Russia.
That said, quite a few long-standing NATO members are nearly as cynical, and many seem content to treat their NATO commitments less than seriously – though of course they all still expect their “slice” of “top” Alliance jobs in Brussels. As many have noted, cushy, 9-to-5 NATO staffing positions have only increased as field forces have shriveled up: another waste of funds that ought to be examined rigorously. The dramatic decline, really collapse, of Britain’s once-proud military since 2010 is noteworthy here, and the Cameron government has provided a perfect how-not-to guide to managing defense resources.
All the same, America is not without blame in all this, as emphasis on “the needs of the Alliance” – often meaning “the needs of America’s losing war in Afghanistan” – has meant that NATO countries for more than a decade have focused scarce defense funds on items and programs to support ISAF, not territorial defense in Europe. As a result, there is a long list of New-NATO members whose militaries are adept at small-scale, often SOF-flavored, programs that were relevant in Afghanistan, but which provide little value in deterring Russia close to home. This, too, must change at once, and NATO’s primary mission must again become deterring Moscow’s moves westward.
Effective deterrence is well within NATO’s grasp, as Russia’s conventional forces, despite considerable reinvestment now, remain a shadow of their Soviet-era selves. But so are NATO’s, and there’s not much time to waste. The West must get serious about defense again, or be prepared to be intimidated or worse by Putin’s Kremlin.
As I’ve said before, more-or-less overt Russian moves into Eastern Ukraine are more than possible, soon, and if that happens NATO will have a proxy war on its hands. Though it’s unlikely that NATO forces would be directly engaged against the Russians in Ukraine – allowing that all bets are off in the unlikely event that Russian forces move past Kyiv, into Western Ukraine – it can be expected that NATO would provide Ukraine with considerable military and intelligence assistance to defend the country against Moscow.
We need to act now, there is not much time to waste any longer … In my next segment, I will share my thoughts on how to employ Special War, potentially our real trump card, against Russia, and thereby deter Kremlin adventurism and aggression.