When defence ministers from Nato’s 28 member states meet in Brussels on Wednesday, they will unveil the biggest reinforcement of US forces in eastern Europe since the Soviet era. This is an important strategic initiative and one to be welcomed. It will not only help to deter the risk of future Russian aggression in eastern Europe after Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine. It will also inject new life into Nato after a long period when too many doubted whether the alliance served any purpose.
After the end of the cold war, Nato was torn over whether to focus on territorial defence of Europe or to play a wider expeditionary role. The initial impetus for setting up the organisation in 1949 was the desire to counter Soviet aggression on the European mainland.
Then, following the collapse of the USSR, Nato adopted the mantra that it had to “go out of area or go out of business”. It became a global policeman, operating in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf of Aden and Libya.
Some of these operations, notably Kosovo, achieved their aims; but the campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya contributed to widespread scepticism about the merits of intervention.
Wednesday’s summit can therefore be seen as the moment when Nato confidently reverts to its founding mission. The US will position heavy American tanks and artillery across eastern Europe. It will also commit commando units to a rapid-reaction force that can respond to any sudden Russian attack.
Russia has protested at these moves, warning that they represent a significant external threat to its own territory. But this exaggerates what the US and its allies are doing. The aim of the Nato deployments is not to raise tension. Instead, they are a response to the pressure Moscow has been putting on its neighbours; and they are intended to deter Russia from doing anything that would infringe the sovereignty of a Nato member state. They will reassure Washington’s nervous allies, highlighting Nato’s Article 5 commitment to collective defence.
The alliance must do more than move soldiers and tanks around if it wishes to concentrate minds in the Kremlin leadership. It must reverse the long-running decline in defence spending, which has seen many European military establishments hollowed out since 1990. Some eastern European nations, notably Poland, are to be congratulated for bucking the trend. But while Britain may — just — meet Nato’s goal of spending 2 per cent of national income on defence this year, it will fall well below that by the end of the decade. David Cameron’s government needs to address this failure.
European leaders also need to do some soul searching about their willingness to use force to address external threats. A recent survey by the Pew research centre revealed that a majority of respondents in France, Germany and Italy believed their country should not use military force to defend an ally from an attack by Russia. Europe’s politicians need to make the case to their own citizens that they cannot passively stand by while their security is subcontracted to America.
As the Ukraine crisis continues to play out, the west must not give up on any chance for a diplomatic solution. The US and its allies would rather see Vladimir Putin take a step back, ending his intervention in the east of Ukraine and sealing its border with Russia. But until he does so, a policy that advocates deterrence and robust defence is the best way to show collective resolve.
The principle served to avoid conflict in Europe for more than four decades after 1945. There is every reason for Nato to adhere to the doctrine of strategic patience in the current crisis.
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