Last week, jets from six NATO air forces intercepted 19 Russian military aircraft in just one day. From the North Atlantic to the Baltic Sea, and down to the Black Sea, Russian fighters and bombers are probing NATO airspace in larger numbers than ever before. Although President Obama and many others cling to the idea that we are not in a new Cold War, the escalation of Russian military activity demands a strategic reset of U.S. and European defense budgets that are dependent on outdated assumptions about relations with Russia.
The most obvious example of the growing belligerence of Russia under President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin's Russia is all we feared it would be Putin looking for guarantees NATO won't expand westward Blinken to meet with Russian, Ukrainian counterparts amid heightened tensions MORE is the invasion of Ukraine to steal Crimea and wreak havoc in eastern Ukraine. While some prefer to see Russia's war against Ukraine as an isolated case or a consequence of their special historical connection, we must not forget that it was preceded by Russia's 2007 cyberattack against Estonia and Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. Many still argue that what Putin does to Ukraine will not harm the West because Ukraine is not a NATO member, and that even Putin is not mad enough to initiate a direct confrontation with NATO.
In order to believe this theory, we have to ignore many actions already taken by Russia. While the list of Putin's challenges to the West are too numerous for this forum, let us examine a few key examples. The day before Obama visited Poland on June 3, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that they would hold live fire exercises next door in Kaliningrad of their air-launched cruise missiles and ground-based Iskander ballistic missiles. These exercises coincidentally ended on June 5, after Obama's departure from Warsaw. Meanwhile, on the West Coast of the U.S., NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) reported that on June 4, two long-range Russian Tu-95 bombers flew within 50 miles of California before F-15s escorted them away.
Then there is a report citing defense officials that when Obama met with the other leaders of NATO in Wales on Sept. 4-5, two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers flew across the Atlantic and practiced cruise missile launches against the United States. According to NORAD, a couple of weeks later, two F-22s based in Alaska intercepted a Russian sortie of two MiG-31 fighters, two Tu-95 bombers, and two IL-78 refueling tankers. The next day, Canadian CF-18s intercepted two more Russian bombers that came within 40 miles of their coastline.
Perhaps the incident that attracted the most international attention recently is Sweden's hunt for "foreign underwater activity" in its territorial waters near Stockholm. While Sweden called off the search and the mysterious disturbance was never officially identified, it did spark one of Sweden's biggest military mobilizations since the Cold War. Reasonable minds can come to their own conclusions about which foreign power was behind this violation of Sweden's borders.
The latest evidence that Russia is escalating its military challenge to the West occurred just last week, when a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance plane penetrated Estonian airspace. Unlike previous examples, this was not a practice bombing run in international airspace. It was the dangerous violation of a NATO border. It builds on an earlier incident when Russia's intelligence service, the FSB, crossed a NATO border and kidnapped Eston Kohver from Estonia on Sept. 5, just two days after Obama spoke words of reassurance in Tallinn. So much for Putin respecting NATO territory.
Former Secretary General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen publicly identified the root problem. He pointed out that "It is clear that Russia did not accept the outcome of the Cold War. ... This will last a long, long time." Unfortunately, Obama and many NATO leaders prefer to downplay Russian belligerence and cling to a policy of hoping that Putin's actions are only temporary.
We see this most clearly by the reluctance to revise U.S. and European defense spending to meet the new security threat from Russia. All of the members of NATO agreed at the Wales summit to increase their defense budgets, but most are doing so in small increments that do not keep up with inflation and that are phased in over the years ahead, so they provide little help for today's threats. Some allies, such as Poland, are making significant increases in their defense spending, but they are the exception rather than the norm.
In contrast, Russia has more than doubled its defense spending since 2004. While the U.S. and Western/Central Europe decreased defense spending last year by almost 8 percent and 6.5 percent (respectively), Russia increased its defense spending by almost 5 percent. And this year, despite the sanctions aimed at changing Putin's policies, Russia plans to increase its defense spending yet again by 21 percent.
The U.S. defense budget submitted to Congress for next year includes additional military cuts, and specifically calls for removing more U.S. troops from Europe. EUCOM (U.S. European Command) commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has asked for the planned reduction of U.S. forces from Europe to be stopped and reassessed due to the new threat from Russia. Unfortunately, even eight months after Russia seized Crimea and began redrawing the borders of Europe, the Pentagon still has not decided to revise the defense budget and stop the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe.
Obama has promised military aid to the region through his European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). While this is a step in the right direction and deserves congressional approval, the ERI only provides funding for one to two years. It is, at best, only a message of temporary commitment. Updating our defense budget to reflect the new threat from Russia will show that our commitment will last beyond special contingency funds.
Thus, in the face of more frequent and larger military provocations from Russia, it is time for the White House and Congress to revise the defense budget and fund the necessary force levels in Europe. This will send a strong message of reassurance to our allies and of deterrence to Putin.
Benitez is the director of NATOSource and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.