BERLIN – Some months ago, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen referred to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a “wake-up call” for the West. Since then, Europeans and Americans have slowly but steadily tightened the economic screws on Russia.
But, in striking contrast to the overall cohesion displayed on the sanctions front, the West’s military response to Russia’s new assertiveness in its so-called “near abroad” has been uncoordinated and reluctant. As a recent report of the Defense Committee of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons argued, “NATO is currently not well-prepared for a Russian threat against a NATO Member State.” Given that this is a source of grave concern to NATO members close to Russia, the Allies must send an unequivocal message to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Wales next week: NATO territory is inviolable.
To be sure, as Rasmussen repeatedly emphasizes, every ally contributes to the reinforcement of collective defense in one way or another. But, while some allies have markedly stepped up their commitments by sending soldiers or additional fighter jets, others have limited themselves to offering only minor capabilities. Thus, the United States is bearing the main burden of reassuring NATO’s Central and Eastern European members.
Speaking in Warsaw earlier this year, President Barack Obama presented his European Reassurance Initiative, a $1 billion program aimed at supporting the defense of NATO allies close to the Russian border. While his announcement fell short of what many in Poland and the Baltic states had hoped for, Obama promised that these allies would have US “boots on the ground” – rotating units that would conduct regular exercises.
In other words, there is nothing particularly “European” about the initiative. It is not merely “led” by the US, but is essentially a US-only initiative without any Europeans, except for the host countries, participating. Although an American contribution remains indispensable for credible deterrence against Russian aggression, the absence of clear European commitments to put boots on the ground highlights the long-standing question of burden-sharing between the US and Europe. If Europeans cannot step up to this kind of challenge on their home turf, how can Americans expect them to become reliable partners for challenges elsewhere?
The upcoming NATO summit offers an opportunity to demonstrate Europe’s commitment to collective defense, to a stronger European defense posture, and to the transatlantic alliance. Instead of adding a few sparse cosmetic capabilities, NATO’s European members should at least match the US effort and provide an additional €1 billion ($1.3 billion) for reassurance measures. For perspective, this amount more or less equals what Germany alone has spent annually on its contribution to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in recent years.
The countries of the so-called Weimar Triangle – France, Germany, and Poland – are well suited to lead such an effort. The three big countries in the middle of Europe should thus staff a regional headquarters, which would serve as the basis for defense planning and exercises and support the rotating US troops.
Poland has long called for more allied troops on its territory and would be ready to provide the headquarters for such a European contribution. This would most likely mean upgrading the headquarters of the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, which could also host a French contingent, in addition to the Danish, German, and Polish forces that currently form the kernel of the Corps. Although this would not fulfill all Polish wishes, it would constitute an important step toward more equitable burden-sharing among NATO countries.
Though Germany, long accused of being a “bear hugger,” has recently become much tougher on Russia, German politicians continue to oppose new bases or permanent structures in Poland or the Baltic states for fear of adding fuel to the fire. Without its two important neighbors at its side, Germany is unlikely to take part in a mission involving the permanent deployment of rotating units.
German participation, however, would send a strong signal not only to the Kremlin, but also to its allies. This visible defense commitment would also allow Germany, sometimes suspected of seeking neutrality, to pursue new diplomatic engagements with Russia.
France, finally, has been a target of harsh criticism, owing to its determination to deliver two Mistral warships built for the Russian government. By making a significant contribution to European reassurance by participating in the enhanced NATO presence in Szczecin, it would demonstrate that it remains committed to the defense of its allies in the Russian neighborhood. It would also cement its perceived European leadership on defense issues and help to forge a larger coalition to provide additional support to the Weimar Triangle. Indeed, such a European force could be an important step toward a Europe de la défense, an idea that France has been committed to for a long time.
Most important, such a European initiative, which should be open to other countries as well, would clearly underline that Europe is ready to contribute its fair share to collective defense – a signal that the US would greet enthusiastically. Given a world in turmoil, with several serious crises in Europe’s neighborhood, this would be one of the few positive developments of 2014.