Russian action raises questions for NATO

Poland on Monday asked for an emergency NATO meeting to discuss Russia’s apparent takeover of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

The meeting was requested under a rule that allows any NATO member to request consultations if it feels its security is threatened, and comes as congressional Republicans, prompted by Russia’s actions, are calling on President Obama to reconsider his military strategy for Europe.

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They want Obama to resurrect U.S. plans for new missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and to admit Georgia — which Russia invaded in 2008 — as a new NATO member.

GOP hawks have argued Obama’s decision to scale back the missile defense sites in Eastern Europe gave Russian President Vladimir Putin an implicit green light to invade Ukraine.

“The big one that started this was the absolute retreat on our missile defense system in Poland and [the Czech Republic],” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It caused huge problems for our allies and emboldened the Russians. And it really has been a downhill slide.”

Laura Lucas Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the administration's "commitment to the transatlantic Alliance is unwavering."

"This includes our commitment to defend NATO European populations, territory, and forces from the threat posed by ballistic missiles," Lucas said in a statement. "As part of that commitment, the United States has deployed a missile defense radar to Turkey, deployed missile defense capable ships to Spain, has broken ground on an interceptor site in Romania, which will be operational in 2015, and will install another interceptor site in Poland that will be operational in 2018."

Defense and foreign policy analysts say Russia’s military moves in Ukraine will refocus NATO’s attention back to Europe. In the past decade, NATO has placed its emphasis on conflicts in other continents, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

A core tenet of the Obama administration’s defense, foreign and economic policies has been a pivot to Asia, where the U.S. wants to rival China for influence.

The military has cut the number of Army brigades in Europe in the past year, and lawmakers frequently cite the need to close bases in Europe before shutting any back at home.

The standoff in the Ukraine poses a threat to that idea.

“Over the last decade, since Poland and the other new democracies joined NATO, they’ve always said ... we’re spending too much time focused on out-of-area issues and not enough time focusing on the meat and potatoes, that is to say NATO’s Eastern frontier,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Pentagon’s new budget request, which will be released Tuesday, proposes additional cuts to the size of the Army, as it draws down from the war in Afghanistan and deals with spending caps under sequester. Those cuts are now drawing fire from critics who say they could invite further Russian aggression.

“What kind of message are we sending, when we’re slashing our military?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN Monday.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama’s “disarming of America over the past five years limits our options in Ukraine today.”

While the Obama administration’s response to Russia has focused on diplomacy and economic sanctions, retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander until 2013, argued that NATO should consider military planning.

“Many will consider any level of NATO involvement provocative and potentially inflammatory. Unfortunately, the stakes are high and the Russians are moving,” Stavridis wrote in a Foreign Policy op-ed. “Sitting idle, without at least looking at options, is a mistake for NATO and would itself constitute a signal to Putin — one that he would welcome.

Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Biden, said the conflict in Crimea is refocusing U.S. attention toward Eastern Europe. But she didn’t expect the conflict, as it stands, now would shift U.S. military priorities.

“If you look at the brutal basic U.S. national security interests, I think most people at the Pentagon and White House would state that our interest in places like the Gulf and South China Sea is just not on par with the interest we have in ensuring that the territorial integrity of Crimea is preserved,” she said.