Increased Russian aggression will be among the central issues when President Barack Obama attends his final NATO Summit in Warsaw, as the United States and its allies will announce a stronger security presence in the Baltic states.
“NATO must be the largest deterrent to Russian meddling,” Thomas Donnelly, a senior fellow in security studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “It’s now similar to the Cold War when the Soviets would move faster than NATO could respond. Though now it’s on a much smaller scale, the Russians are moving on the Eastern front.”
The Obama administration is framing this meeting of leaders from the 28 countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as having high stakes.
“There hasn’t been another reflection point like this for the alliance since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991,” Doug Lute, U.S. ambassador and permanent representative to NATO, told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “So this is a bit of a historic point and a great point for the summit, especially as the president wraps up his tenure as the leader of the alliance.”
Poland, Baltic States Gearing Up Against Russia
This will be a “second chance summit” for NATO to follow up on what it failed to do at its last meeting in 2014 in Wales, said Luke Coffey, director of the foreign policy center at The Heritage Foundation. That’s because, he said, it’s a chance to step up training and assisting for Poland and Baltic states to deter the threat of Russian aggression.
The NATO alliance has shown greater willingness to step up defense of Poland and three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s previous actions in Ukraine and Georgia. In June, NATO defense ministers agreed to install a NATO battalion of about 1,000 troops in each of the Baltic states, as well as Poland on a persistent basis. This will be formally announced at the summit.
“You will have forward presence backed up by rapid reaction that, in a nutshell, is the deterrence posture,” Lute said.
Already, the United States rotates one infantry company—about 150 soldiers—for training in Poland and each of the three Baltic states. Last year, NATO established the NATO Force Integration Units in the four countries, which are command posts to help rapid development should any of the small countries be invaded. Further, NATO provides protection in the air with eight aircraft known as the Baltic Air Policing mission.
Obama ‘Open to Dialogue With Russia’
Lute stressed the United States and NATO don’t want conflict with Russia.
“From NATO’s perspective, the foundation of our relationship with Russia is a balance between strength and dialogue,” Lute said. “We’re going to do what we need to do, but we’ll equally be open to dialogue with Russia because we think that is the right, responsible approach to NATO-Russia relations.”
Obama spoke on the phone with Putin on Wednesday about the issues of Syria, the Islamic State, and Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.
Most European leaders have expressed concerns about Putin’s saber rattling. However, Obama, presidential candidates seeking to replace him, and members of Congress have questioned why more NATO member countries aren’t stepping up financially. The criticism has been bipartisan.
European Leaders’ Low Military Spending
The United States accounted for 72.2 percent of NATO defense expenditures in 2015, according to the Secretary General’s Annual Report. Meanwhile, just five countries out of the 28-member NATO have spent the required 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product on defense—the United States, Britain, the Baltic state of Estonia, this year’s host country of Poland, and the financially troubled Greece.
Other countries are improving, but it’s important for the United States to keep the pressure on, Coffey said. With that pressure, he added, the United States must look at its own military spending.
“The reality is there is little U.S. leaders can do to force European leaders to spend more on defense, but that doesn’t mean we should absolve them of their treaty obligations,” Coffey told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “We also lead by example. We’ve been cutting our own defense budget and telling allies they shouldn’t.”
The trend has been going up since the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, where cost-sharing was a significant issue. For example, Canada and European NATO members spent on average 1.5 percent more on defense—a $3 billion increase, according to NATO. Meanwhile, NATO asserts that 19 member nations have stopped cutting defense budgets.
“For the first time in two decades, non-U.S. defense spending among NATO allies is on the increase,” Lute said. “So that I think gives us confidence that we’ve turned the corner and we are moving in the right direction.”
Donnelly, of the American Enterprise Institute, contends it’s unwise to dwell on the investments of other countries, particularly for Eastern European countries providing area for NATO military exercises.
“It would be really stupid for America to whine about burden sharing,” he said. “Poland and the Baltic states are sharing the burden with a battlefield. Other things are a much higher priority given the dangers. America must show leadership.”