Europe’s defence wanes as the Putin threat grows

Published by The Wall Street Journal (4th March, 2015)

The chill of a new Cold War is descending over Europe. In Ukraine, ripped apart by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism, a shaky cease-fire holds but there are growing fears of a new onslaught on the key port city Mariupol. In Estonia, one of the increasingly nervous Baltic states, a Feb. 24 Independence Day celebration in Narva, 300 yards from the Russian border, was marked by a NATO show of strength with troops from seven nations, including the U.S. and U.K., marching in the slush.

On the same day Russian troops drilled on their side of the border in Pskov, with 1,500 paratroopers swooping from the sky in exercises to capture an “enemy” airfield. Meanwhile, Lithuania revealed plans to reintroduce conscription in response to “growing aggression” while Norway is restructuring its armed forces to ensure faster response to Russian threats.

A few days earlier, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon had warned of “real and present” danger to the Baltic states. In Moscow, Kremlin-connected pundits debate whether nuclear war is “winnable” while opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov, shot in the back last week, are murdered. Russia is probing NATO reactions and response times, with four times as many interceptions made for breaches of Baltic airspace last year than in 2013. Twice recently the Royal Air Force scrambled fighter jets to escort Russian bombers flying over the English Channel.

But when a Russian submarine was suspected of slinking into Scottish waters late last year, weeks after another was spotted off the Swedish coast, the RAF had to summon NATO assistance for sea patrol planes to hunt it down. Such is the state of the British armed forces, cut by governments desperate to cash in the “peace dividend” after the last Cold War and then hit by financial meltdown. Sadly, the U.K. now appears reliant on allies for aircraft to search its own waters. With fewer than 100,000 full-time troops, Great Britain now has a smaller army than during the mid-19th-century Crimean War.

Meanwhile, a new report by the European Leadership Network think-tank reveals that most NATO members are failing to fulfill pledges to reverse declines in defense spending. It found six key countries cutting budgets, including the economic powerhouse of Germany, while the cash flow is flatlining in France, the other big spender. Budgets are rising in frontline states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, but only one country—Estonia, with defence spending of less than $500 million—will meet the NATO target this year of all alliance members spending at least 2% of GDP on defence.

Five months ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron urged NATO members to hit the 2% defence-spending target at a summit in Wales. Now he is coming under growing pressure from disgruntled military chiefs and grumbling backbench members of Parliament as the country falls below the NATO target, and defence spending sinks to its lowest level in 25 years while inflated budgets for dubious foreign-aid projects soar.

Rory Stewart, a widely admired Tory member of Parliament and chairman of the House of Commons defence select committee, rightly argues that the NATO defence-spending target is symbolically important when the world is so dangerous—as well as sending a crucial message to an opportunistic Russian president testing his neighbors’ resolve. ‘This puts the spotlight on whether European nations are even capable of being regional powers in their backyard,’ he recently told me.

Germany has been asserting its leadership in recent weeks by seeking to resolve the two major crises confronting the continent, with Chancellor Angela Merkel heading cease-fire talks over Ukraine before taking a firm stance on Greek debt repayments. The country is also arming Kurds in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. Yet Berlin’s defense spending has plunged to 1.09% of GDP this year from 1.3% in 2013—despite leaked parliamentary reports last year revealing the shocking state of outdated military equipment.

While Mr. Putin has lied consistently about Russian involvement in Ukraine since the start of his seizure of Crimea, he has been relatively open about his determination to modernize his nation’s creaking military machine. His biographer, Masha Gessen, points out that six of the first 11 decrees Mr. Putin passed after taking office concerned the military, with defence spending soaring despite deep economic problems. Russia’s annual defence spending has doubled over the past decade—surpassing Great Britain’s—and Moscow has plans to replace over two-thirds of the country’s aging military equipment by 2020.

Restraint of Russian expansionism is about more than spending, of course—and U.S. defence budgets still dwarf those of Russia (although Washington seems more focused these days on its “pivot” to Asia and the rapid buildup of China’s arsenal). But Europe needs to wake up after witnessing the first annexation on the continent since 1945, followed by the willful wrecking of Ukraine.

European leaders have been woefully slow to appreciate the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s gangster-style presidency furled in the flag of nationalism. Moscow will strategize on the basis of Western weakness, while continuing to chip away at European divisions. Mr. Putin, for instance, has just awarded a €2.5 billion loan to the financially challenged government of Cyprus—a European Union member opposed to Russian sanctions—in return for naval access to its ports.

NATO is planning a rapid response unit and mounting more exercises. But is this really enough to stop more ‘little green men,’ whether in Russian uniforms or not, from sparking another conflict? As Malcolm Chalmers, research director at the Royal United Services Institute in London, recently told me: ‘The danger is that Russia next bites off a bit of Estonia, then asks what NATO is going to do about it.’ As we fight this new Cold War, Western leaders need to relearn the old lessons of crisis management and deterrence that defeated Mr. Putin’s Soviet predecessors—and relearn them quickly.

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