US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and UK Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond hold a joint press conference March 26 at the Pentagon. (US Department of Defense)
WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin likely would not have been deterred from invading the Crimean peninsula even if European countries had spent more on defense in recent years, the UK defense secretary said Wednesday.
“I think my own judgment is that it is unlikely that any realistic change in level of defense spending in Europe would have made a difference to Putin’s calculus over these events,” Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told a small group of reporters during a meeting at the British Embassy in Washington.
Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has sparked outrage among Western nations, which have called the action unacceptable and illegal.
Hammond met with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon late Wednesday morning where the conversations was dominated by the situation in Crimea and Ukraine.
Hammond noted that Russia has perceived months-long protests in Ukraine by pro-Europe supporters as a threat, even though the West views things differently. US and European allies have imposed sanctions on Russian individuals close to Putin and against a Russian bank in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Despite the sanctions, Russia has continued massing troops near its border with Ukraine. Moscow has insisted this is solely for military exercises.
“We are hoping that there can be a de-escalation of this situation,” Hammond said. We know that Russian military doctrine advocates escalating in order to de-escalate. That’s what they do. So we have to focus on the de-escalatory phase now, which we should not write off the possibility that this escalation that we’re seeing is indeed simply the playing out of a classic Russian military doctrine.”
Hagel spoke to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu last week about Russia’s troop build-up on the Ukrainian border.
“He told me that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine,” Hagel said Wednesday. “I told him that we looked forward to the Russians living up to their word, if that was the case.”
The UK is looking at ways “to reinforce and reassure” Eastern European and Baltic allies by making additional contributions to NATO exercises, Hammond said.
“We judge that the most effective levers that we have with Russia are non military; diplomatic, economic, energy policy levers,” he said.
The situation in Crimea has not prompted discussions of increasing defense spending across the UK and Europe, Hammond said.
Asked whether he thinks defense spending levels should increase, Hammond said: “In my opinion it certainly shouldn’t decrease.”
The UK is conducting a strategic defense review in 2015 that will inform future spending levels.
“We haven’t yet set out a trajectory in our defense beyond that 2015 strategic defense review,” Hammond said. “We have a planning assumption which is broadly a flat, real defense budget. The strategic defense review will consider all the options.”
Much of Europe has been decreasing defense spending as the continent deals with an economic downturn.
“I think the question has to be, as their economies recover over the next few years, will they commit to defense sharing in that economic recovery?” Hammond said. “I think that will be a key thing we need to explore collectively at the NATO summit in Wales in September.”■