April 11, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Ukraine, Europe, and NATO

• NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan throughout 2014 and Russia’s incursion into the Crimean Peninsula has given the Alliance new relevance in the 21st century
• Manpower and financial contributions to NATO from European members continue to decline—forcing the US to increase its own expenditures to balance the shortfall
• NATO Secretary General Rasmussen and President Obama have both argued for NATO members to share the cost of operations in order to sustain a credible and capable military force.

NATO Back in the Headlines

Thanks in large part to the Russian Federation’s military intervention and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been afforded increased relevance in the 21st century global security environment. What had largely become a multinational defense alliance deploying outside the European theater, it is—again—seen by many NATO member states as the first line of defense against a Russian government willing and able to expand its own influence through the use of hard power. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates collective defense of its member states in the event of an attack, now has added weight as the glue that ties the alliance together in the face of unpredictable challenges.

While NATO views Russia’s action in Ukraine as a threat to international peace, the Alliance is not required to come to the collective defense there. Ukraine has traditionally served as a quasi-independent buffer state between the Russian Federation and European NATO members, and thus is outside NATO’s commitments under Article 5. This, however, does not mean that the Alliance is complacent about Ukraine’s stability or unworried about the possibility of further Russian incursion. Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (pictured) and Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, US General Philip Breedlove are using Russia’s Ukrainian incursion as an opportunity to prepare NATO for further turbulence in its neighborhood. NATO air assets, from fighters to AWACS command and control aircraft, have been deployed to the outer corridors of the Alliance umbrella to both deter Russian encroachment on NATO territory and provide reassurance for those states that share a border with the Russian Federation.  

NATO members closest to Russia’s periphery, most notably the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, have continued to look towards the Alliance as their ultimate line of defense. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has only increased alarm among the Baltic nations that their national security is at a similar level of risk from Russia’s armed forces. In an attempt to reassure all three states that the US and NATO take seriously their security, US Vice President Biden traveled to Lithuania on March 19 to emphasize that point. “[T]he reason I traveled to the Baltics was to reaffirm our mutual commitment to collective defense…that under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, we will respond.”

The US has backed up those words with concrete actions, adding an additional six F-15 fighter aircraft to the Baltic air-policing mission. Weeks after that announcement, NATO planners decided to increase that initial investment in airpower by another two aircraft, effectively tripling the amount of F-15s that are part of the Baltic air defense mission. Training missions between the US and Poland have been enhanced, where a dozen F-16s have been dispatched to Poland, and NATO has promised to increase its military cooperation with the interim government of Ukraine—a country whose military has largely been decimated due to years of underinvestment from the former administration of Viktor Yanukovych.

The Ukrainian crisis has the potential to refocus the Alliance on its core function of defending the Continent from Russian adventurism—shifting from the Alliance’s concentration on humanitarian missions in other parts of the world.


NATO’s Spending Problems

Despite public pledges of solidarity for the Ukrainian people and repeated calls from NATO and US officials on the importance of  collective defense, the imbalance in funding among the Alliance’s members will need to be improved if there is any chance for a more capable and less US-dependent military coalition. Europe’s struggling economies, a public largely non-interventionist, and defense austerity measures within the Eurozone have resulted in steady decline in European contributions to NATO’s annual budget.

According to official NATO statistics, Europe’s share of NATO defense expenditures has decreased every year since 2007, when it was approximately 32% of the Alliance’s overall defense spending. By 2013, that figure declined to 27%. Indeed, the majority of members have failed to abide by the Alliance’s goal of all member-states spending an equivalent of 2% of GDP on defense-related programs (as of 2013, only Estonia, UK, and Greece have met the threshold). In response, Washington continues to increase its own contributions, so much so that nearly 75% of NATO spending is now covered by the US.

Lower defense spending among NATO’s European member states not only impacts the Alliance’s ability to react to contingencies quickly and effectively, but also hampers the manpower that the coalition can tap into in the event of a sudden conflict. Whereas European militaries once combined for an estimated 3.5 million troops, they now pool approximately 1.9 million—this, despite NATO’s expansion over the past decade.


Committing to NATO’s Future

In a major speech after meetings with European political and military leaders in March, President Obama acknowledged the potential impact that the status quo—the increasing gap between US and NATO member’s military capabilities—could have on the legitimacy and credibility of the world’s oldest military alliance.

Republican and Democrat lawmakers in Washington will find it far more difficult to justify lopsided US spending in NATO if America’s partners remain unwilling to meet their own commitments. Fortunately, it appears that at least some states in the Alliance, particularly among the Baltic countries along Russia’s western border, are preparing to alter their security policies in a more resource-intensive direction: Lithuania's president and Latvia's defense minister have intimated in recent press announcements they will double spending on respective militaries over the coming decade.   .


• In the remote event of a Russian incursion into the Baltics, NATO would likely implement Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, and any response on the grounds of collective defense would be under the implicit guidance of the US   • Despite pressure from the US, most European powers will likely not reassess their spending priorities dramatically unless the change is supported by their electorates   • Norway’s former Prime Minister Stoltenberg, who will take over as Secretary General in October, will maintain strong support for enhanced Alliance capabilities and member-state contributions—with his statements on the importance of NATO’s maintaining a robust deterrence to Russian aggression.


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