Last week NATO held its most important summit of the post-Cold War era and one of the most important in its 65-year history. The Russian “incursion” into Ukraine — the refusal to openly acknowledge that it is in fact an “invasion” is an indication of NATO’s problem — is a literal “call to arms” and a reminder of the organization’s original and enduring purpose: to defend member states against aggression from the East.
NATO has responded with a three-part plan to set up a rapid reaction force, increase training and boost European member states’ defense budget. The declaration of resolve must be followed by effective action; empty rhetoric will not only expose NATO as lacking a shared purpose but could genuinely threaten the security of member states.
A few months ago, the Wales summit was expected to focus on defining a common mission for NATO after the decade-long Afghanistan stabilization operations ended. In addition, U.S. and NATO officials would demand serious financial commitments from members who had largely ignored the need to step up defense spending as security challenges multiplied and diversified. In fact, military spending by NATO members has fallen 20 percent during the last five years, and just four — the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece and Estonia — have lived up to the longstanding promise to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine has changed that focus and transformed the discussion from abstraction to action plan. The attempt to interfere in the domestic politics and policy of a sovereign state and redraw Europe’s borders by force of arms is a palpable threat to many European states, none more so than the former members of the Soviet Union and those that border Russia and are home to substantial Russian-speaking populations. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a Great Russia, one that has its own sphere of influence, directly challenges their sovereignty. NATO was established to deter and defend against that threat; it must continue to do so.
The NATO members last week adopted a “Readiness Action Plan” that calls for the modernization of military infrastructure, the positioning of equipment and supplies, rotating air patrols and regular joint exercises on the territory of the new NATO members. A “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” of several thousand troops that will be ready to deploy anywhere in the world on 48 hours notice will be assembled from existing national forces. NATO pledged to support military capacity building in Georgia and Moldova, and the creation of a regional military training center in Georgia. Perhaps most significant was U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement in Talinn, Estonia that the U.S. would stand by its new member states if they were attacked.
Caveats abound, however. Any deployment of the task force will require unanimous consent from the 28-nation NATO Council and honoring of national restrictions on the use of military forces abroad. Several borderline states are eager to host standing NATO forces but that, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pointed out, violated the terms of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which states that there will be no “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” And while members promised to stop the decline in defense spending, they did not pledge to ramp up defense budgets to the 2 percent level.
Critics also note that NATO did not agree to ramp up support for Ukraine and agree to provide weapons to defend against the separatists that are advancing with Russian support. Instead, the West is relying on economic pressure to force Russia’s hand. That strategy has not yet forced Putin’s hand, even though Russia is paying a heavy price for its actions — and a fourth wave of sanctions will soon be implemented. Some see the offer of a ceasefire by the separatists on the eve of the summit as proof that Putin is hurting.
The other important decision at the summit was the agreement to forge a “coalition of the willing” of 10 countries to fight the Islamic State, which has metastasized in Syria and Iraq. The NATO states will help the U.S. with air strikes or the resupply of Kurdish forces battling the Islamic extremists. But as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained, all participants agreed that there will be “no boots on the ground” in Iraq. Instead, the fighting will be done by Iraqi government forces. An equally important burden will be shouldered by the religious leaders of neighboring countries. They must do their utmost to delegimitize the Islamic State fighters, who revel in their savagery.
In the Middle East — as in the recent deployment in Afghanistan — NATO can only provide support for a domestic government that seeks to defend itself. In Europe, the challenge is more immediate but the message is the same: NATO governments must demonstrate a commitment to their own defense. European states cannot rely on outside forces — in this case the United States — to do the work they are not prepared to do themselves.