Obama seeks to reassure NATO

President Obama will meet Wednesday with NATO and European Union leaders in a bid to reassure U.S. allies alarmed over Russia’s incursion into Crimea.

The president’s visit comes at a critical time for the alliance, which faces new questions about its influence and viability following Russia’s land grab in Ukraine. 

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Eastern European countries in the region have turned to NATO to provide security assurances amid fears Russian President Vladimir Putin might be looking to reconstruct his country’s Cold War sphere of influence. 

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have suggested Russia’s aggression be matched by enlarging the NATO membership to include countries like Ukraine or the Republic of Georgia.

The increased focus on NATO has also invited scrutiny of the group’s limitations.

On Tuesday, Obama said he would pursue economic aid packages to help stabilize the economies in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.

He also reiterated his vow that the U.S. would use its military to defend any NATO country, as mandated by the alliance’s charter.

“We will act in their defense against any threats,” Obama said. “That’s what NATO is all about. When it comes to a potential military response, that is defined by NATO membership.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during a speech last week in Washington, called Russia’s actions a “wake-up call for the Euro-Atlantic community, for NATO, and for all those committed to a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”

“We had thought that such behavior had been confined to history, but it’s back, and it’s dangerous, because it violates international norms of accepted behavior,” he said.

Last week, Vice President Biden announced the U.S. would deploy a dozen F-16 jets and 300 troops to Poland to boost the NATO presence there. A senior administration official also said Obama stood prepared to offer “additional support to Eastern European allies” at the meeting on Wednesday.

But those efforts were dwarfed by the Kremlin’s decision to dispatch a reported 20,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, for what Moscow has described as military exercises. On Tuesday, Obama blasted the move as an attempt at intimidation.

“I don’t see a prominent role for NATO at the moment, because the administration has emphasized there’s not going to be a military solution to the crisis,” said Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

NATO’s limited military posturing also betrays the extent to which member countries have de-emphasized their defense budgets in recent years.

Only four member countries — the U.S., the U.K., Greece and Estonia — spend more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, and nearly every country in the alliance has reduced its military budget in recent years, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal.

By contrast, Russia has increased defense spending by nearly 80 percent over the past decade, according to a Brookings Institution study.

The resources that NATO countries do maintain have also been stretched thin by the war in Afghanistan and operations in Libya.

Corresponding gaps in security have left some members sharing a border with Russia skittish about the preparedness, ability and influence of NATO troops. 

“The steep decline in European defense spending is a fact of life that won’t be turned around overnight — despite the very serious concerns triggered by Russia’s actions,” said Weiss. “It’s going to be very hard in an era of austerity and tepid economic growth, and so the burden really lies predominantly on our shoulders.”

NATO’s consensus-based governance structure also makes the retaliatory admittance of Georgia or Ukraine unlikely. European countries that have close economic ties to Russia are wary of upsetting that relationship, despite their condemnation of the incursion into Crimea.

Poland joined the organization in 1999, and Lithuania followed in 2004. But Russia lobbied aggressively against membership for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, and neither country has fully implemented the financial reforms partially cited as the reason for their exclusion. Moreover, NATO membership — and the associated costs — remain unpopular with many voters within the countries.

Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, said last week that “there’s not a realistic prospect in the next 5-10 years of Ukraine joining NATO.”

“The problem, I think we have, though, is there’s no way that the United States government and NATO can or should say to the Russians, no, we’re not going to take it in,” Pifer said. “I think that’s the hard part.”