Reliable Security Information

Russia, NATO and American Power

Russia, NATO and American Power

Russia, NATO and American Power

In 1989 Moscow possessed very substantial military power and was surely troubled by the U.S. invasion of Panama that year.  Yet, it is unlikely that USSR military power had any deterrent effect on decision-making in Washington.    Panama was clearly in the "sphere of influence" of the U.S. and of no vital interest to the USSR.  Washington also understood that in regard to super-power interests in the Western Hemisphere (and the play of deterrence) there was a big difference between Panama and Cuba.  The White House could proceed confident that the USSR would not go to war over Panama -- while Cuba would be another matter. In the context of Cold War global relations the U.S. was free to coerce a change of the Panamanian regime.

In some important ways the crisis in Ukraine is a mirror of the Panama situation. Ukraine is Russia's "near abroad" and within its historic sphere of influence. Moscow views Ukraine's friendliness (or at least neutrality) as a vital strategic and economic interest. By comparison, U.S. and Western European interests in Ukraine are relatively minor and far from vital.  Stpehen Kinzer writing in the Boston Globe sums it up this way:

"Crimea gives Russia its only access to warm-water ports, so for Russia it is vital. It offers the United States no comparable advantage."

As Cuba once was to the USSR., the Baltic states, now that they are members of NATO, are another matter for the U.S. 

Therefore Putin has confidence that the U.S. is not going to war over Ukraine.  President Obama has been forthcoming in acknowledging that the U.S. has no interest in this situation worthy of war, something he would not have said if he had any doubt that Putin already knew this.

The military deterrent power of the U.S. and NATO does not pertain in this situation, yet Vice President Biden  and Secretaries Kerry and Hagel have each recently called on NATO allies to increase defense spending in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine.  These appeals are non sequiturs.   

Russia's military capabilities are inferior to NATO's by a wide margin and Putin surely understands this. Presently NATO's conventional military power is a reliable deterrent to Russian invasion of NATO member states.

Of course, the circumstances of this crisis are that Ukraine is not part of NATO and its eastern borders are porous and open to incursion by Russian special forces.  Despite all the words from NATO leaders the situation in Ukraine has little to do with NATO and nothing to do with the relative strength of that alliance to Russia.

However, regional anxiety about Russian intervention in the Ukraine provides Washington with an opportunity to re-invigorate its long-time advocacy that European powers invest more in their militaries.  

The U.S. has wanted more European military capability for use under its leadership "out of area" in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Strategic Studies Institute professor John R. Deni provides a good overview from an American perspective of the issues of European defense investments.

This strategic orientation has resulted in the U.S. and NATO discouraging new member nations from structuring their militaries for mobilization of defenses in depth and instead building specialized units for use away from home.  Meanwhile the larger European powers have been reluctant to make greater military investments because 1) they have had a bad experience following the U.S. into Afghanistan and Iraq; and 2) the Great Recession and associated financial crises have sharply limited resources that are available to invest in military capabilities.

Understandably, new NATO member states, some of which border on Russia, will want reassurance from larger more powerful NATO states.  This is true for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.  

NATO can reassure eastern European members by advising them to increase the depth and resilience of their national territorial defenses so that any military incursion from the east will be costly and time consuming, allowing more powerful NATO countries time to mobilize and engage.  Structuring national militaries so that they work effectively to slow, stop and reverse any invasion from the east will reassure eastern NATO countries much more than additional military spending by Britain, France and Germany.   

In a 2008 article for the Center for European Policy Analysis Neil Barnett points to one Baltic country with such a defense strategy:

"The Estonians could provide a model here: their defense policy is based around exactly this principle, in the hope that by pinning down and harassing the (presumably Russian) enemy, they can buy time for more formidable allies to come to their assistance."

Hegemonic Control Anxiety

Since the end of the Cold War there has been a tendency by many in Washington to assume (or aspire to) the role of global hegemon. Control expressed as rule-setting and limit-setting is a hallmark of hegemony.  The situation in the Ukraine has set off a sort of anxiety attack among those who have adopted a hegemonic stance.

The Ukraine crisis demonstrates clearly that the U.S. does not have hegemonic control of Russian behavior in its immediate surroundings.  The level of anxiety (and the a majority of the panicky security ideas generated as a result) has no direct relationship to the actual situation in Ukraine or any real threat from Russia.

In an article called "Letting Go Of Global Hegemony" Andrew Sullivan writes:

"I suspect the bigger picture is that we’ve seen both an acceptance of a much more restrained America after the catastrophe of neocon governance and subsequent lingering unease about no longer being the sole superpower whose authority is always respected."

Pentagon Budget

Defense News reports that the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry recently told a Brookings Institution audience that:

"...efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine — might mean Washington needs to 'expand' the number of scenarios for which it is militarily prepared.  The situation also shows the US needs to increase its annual military spending,.. because leaders like Putin and the regime in China only understand one thing, 'and that’s strength.' "

"We’ve got to spend more money on defense," concludes Thornberry.

Russia's military budget is less than 13% of the U.S. military budget.  Does Thornberry really believe Putin isn't deeply impressed by U.S. "strength" when Russia spends one-eighth as much on its military?    Thornberry's argument for more defense spending does not follow logically from the facts of Putin's Ukrainian incursions.  Rather,  it is  emotionally opportunistic.

The Stimson Center has published a report on sequestration-level funding of the Pengaton -- a level so many government officials decry as critically insufficient. The Stimson analysts report that:

"FY16 would be the smallest defense budget through at least FY21 and could mark the low point of the fourth up and down cycle of defense spending since the start of the Korean War.  Adjusted for inflation, spending during the three prior low points averaged $386 billion in total funding.  In comparison, the current cycle looks to hit its nadir in FY16 at $492 billion in base discretionary defense funding, a level more than $100 billion higher than the average of previous nadirs. In fact, this cycle’s low point would fall slightly above the average of all non-war defense budgets since 1951. As a result, DOD can expect to have at least 27 percent more funding than in past downturns."

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