Boost the Budget: US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is calling on NATO members to invest more on defense in the face of Russian aggression. (Glenn Fawcett/ / US Defense Department)
WASHINGTON — With US defense budgets unlikely to rise and the startling reminder of the unpredictability of Russia as the situation in Ukraine vibrates, senior US officials made a point last week of highlighting lagging European defense spending and calling for allies to step up.
The crisis in Ukraine is also raising questions as to whether NATO should speed the process of adding new members, as nations would receive guarantees of protection should an operation by the Russians befall them.
From 1990 to 1994, the European members of NATO spent an average of 2.5 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. By 2013, with the Soviet Union becoming an increasingly distant memory, that number had plummeted to 1.6 percent, below NATO’s 2 percent guidance. And while the US has quietly cajoled NATO members to reverse the trend in recent years, that effort picked up in earnest last week.
US Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at a conference at the Atlantic Council last week that included a number of European defense ministers and a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry, said he hopes to see progress by the time NATO members gather in September in Wales.
“We hope by Wales all NATO members will have increased their commitments to NATO, to NATO’s reassurance efforts and to their own defense budgets,” he said.
Kerry was even more direct in his assessment.
“We cannot continue to allow allied defense budgets to shrink,” he said. “Clearly, not all allies are going to meet the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP overnight or even next year,” he said. “But it’s time for allies who are below that level to make credible commitments to increase their spending on defense over the next five years.”
That may be a particularly difficult sell given that European governments are facing the same kind of economic pressures, in many cases worse, than the US. The US does, however, still spend more than 4 percent of its GDP on defense.
On May 2, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a speech arguing for an increase in spending, while also suggesting that finance ministers be included in future NATO defense talks to balance countries’ financial needs.
“We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO members,” he said. “Russia’s actions in Ukraine have made NATO’s value abundantly clear, and I know from my frequent conversations with NATO defense ministers that they do not need any convincing. Talking amongst ourselves is no longer good enough.”
And Hagel warned of the consequences if investment doesn’t increase.
“Over the long term, we should expect Russia to test our alliance’s purpose, stamina and commitment,” he said. “Future generations will note whether, at this moment of challenge, we summoned the will to invest in our alliance. We must not squander this opportunity or shrink from this challenge. We will be judged harshly if we do.”
Deputy Secretary General of NATO and former senior Pentagon official Alexander Vershbow, talking to reporters on May 1, said NATO would be working to get commitments from members in Wales.
“That certainly will be one of the goals for the summit is to get a commitment from the highest-level leaders to raise defense spending and increase the emphasis on real capability rather than spending money on the wrong thing,” Vershbow said.
The European defense ministers at the Atlantic Council conference supported growing defense spending, and there has been news of countries deciding to take action. Lithuania, Romania and Sweden have all announced plans to boost spending.
One of the few countries to increase defense before the Ukraine crisis was Estonia, a fact that defense minister Sven Mikser pointed out.
“I would like to see this club much larger,” he said. “I think we should not deceive ourselves that when it comes to defense we can do more with less.”
Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky said he sees increasing his country’s spending, which sits at almost half of the NATO guideline, as an important goal.
“That’s my task No. 1, we have to push this budget upwards,” he said.
Stropnicky described visits by a former and the current NATO secretary general as having helped him convince his government of the need for increased funding.
“Now we are preparing the budget for the next year, and I have to say that the visit of Sir [George] Robertson, or Secretary-General [Anders Fogh] Rasmussen in Prague helped me,” he said. “They just said look, you have 1.1 percent of GDP so what do you expect? It was not that rough but nevertheless, it helped me a lot.”
Despite those pressures, any real increase for most European countries is unlikely, said Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at RAND.
“The reality is that there is going to be a lot of talk about it, but I think that outside of those countries that feel directly threatened, we’re unlikely to see any major increase in European defense spending as a result of this crisis,” he said. “I’m a little bit pessimistic about that simply because of the fact that budgets remain so tight in Europe that I think it would take more than we’ve seen so far to get any kind of a major increase out of our NATO allies.”
Besides increasingly defense spending, the other hotly debated topic is whether NATO should expedite the acceptance of several countries that aspire to membership as a means of preventing Russian action.
Because the NATO charter creates direct obligations for members to intervene militarily should a member face an invading force, some experts believe that increased membership would deter Russian aggression as Russian President Vladimir Putin thus far has seemed disinclined to cause direct military conflict.
Irakli Alasania, defense minister for NATO-aspirant Georgia, argued that accepting these countries is an important step in changing the situation with Russia.
“The West has to seize the opportunity to change the reality on the ground by accepting the membership of aspirant countries to NATO,” he said.
Chivvis said the current crisis is a tool that some countries are using for membership, but he doubts it will have much of an effect.
“There is certainly a push from some of NATO’s partners, particularly the Georgians, to try to use this crisis to accelerate their membership within NATO,” he said.
NATO expansion was one of the premises Putin used as justification for action in Ukraine, as he outlined in a speech to the Russian Duma in March.
“Let me note too that we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO,” he said. “What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”
Biden was dismissive of that logic.
“The current crisis born in the enlargement of NATO and the EU 15 years ago has nothing to do with the enlargement of NATO,” he said. “It was born in the Kremlin. It was born in Putin’s mind. It has nothing to do with the fact that we expanded NATO.”
But while enlargement has become a hot topic, several experts cautioned that a rush to add members could be a mistake. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described the approach the US took during the last rush toward enlargement in the 1990s.
“NATO is not a charitable organization, you actually have to be capable of being a member of the alliance and so we went about it quite slowly,” she said.
One of the ideas making waves in the foreign policy community has been the notion of adding Ukraine to NATO to prevent an invasion of the eastern part of the country. Former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said that would be bad policy, because of the message it sends Putin.
“I wouldn’t be talking about NATO membership for Ukraine,” he said. “I wouldn’t put it on the table, I wouldn’t take it off the table because that rewards Putin’s aggression.”
One of the undercurrents throughout the conversation about the future of NATO is the policy decisions the US has made to emphasize the Asia-Pacific region as a guard against the rise of China. European allies have seen that as a clear message, and has caused concern about what the US’s role in Europe will be.
“We have the impression that US priorities have changed to a certain extent, it’s pretty visible, and we don’t think it’s the best choice,” Stropnicky said.
Albright described the concerns of Europeans as largely miscommunication.
“I think there has generally been a misunderstanding about pivoting and re-balancing,” she said. “I have said that the United States is generally not monogamous, we are both an Atlantic and a Pacific power.”
Hadley said the pivot itself is good policy, it was the selling of it that went awry. “I would have pivoted without talking about it, it was the messaging that was wrong,” he said.
The divide between the interests of the US and European NATO allies is most apparent in the area of sanctions for Russia. The US has been using sanctions as its primary tool to convince Putin to back off covert operations in eastern Ukraine. But the continued reliance of European nations on Russian energy has made that process difficult, and has raised some doubts as to whether deeper sanctions could get broad support.
“Europe is not ready, not yet, for a bigger economic sacrifice,” Stropnicky said.
The ability of Russia to use those energy resources is something that Biden noted needs to be addressed with a significant strategy.
“When it comes to energy, Russia should not be able to use its resource as a political weapon against its neighbors,” he said. “I believe, and some of us in this room have believed this for some time, that it’s time to make energy security the next chapter in the European project of integration and market expansion that began with the European Coal and Steel Community. It’s long past time.”■
Marcus Weisgerber in Washington contributed to this report.