This week’s NATO summit in Wales is billed as one of the most important in its 65-year history, and with good reason. The Atlantic alliance needs to prove it is serious about deterring the no longer unthinkable prospect of another major war in Europe.
Lest you think we overstate, on Monday the Italian newspaper La Repubblica quoted Vladimir Putin telling European Commission President José Manuel Barroso that “if I want, I can take Kiev in two weeks” — a statement the Kremlin did not deny (though it did denounce the leak). Putin is talking openly about “New Russia,” with specific mention of the cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine as well as Odessa on the Black Sea.
Such talk may be bluster, but the stealthy seizure of Crimea was supposed to be unthinkable only a few months ago. So was Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine last month. The problem with calling something unthinkable is that it tends to dull the thinking needed to keep it that way. Europeans also thought the world wars of the last century were unthinkable right up until they broke out.
Wars happen when aggressors detect the lack of will to stop them. After Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, we warned that “Ukraine, which has been pushing Russia to move its Black Sea fleet’s headquarters, could be next.” (“Vladimir Bonaparte,” Aug. 12, 2008.) We also noted that “the (NATO) alliance needs to respond forcefully.” It didn’t. Here we are.
The good news is that NATO’s institutional leaders, civilian and military, have been awake to reality for some time. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s energetic Secretary General, was warning well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that NATO’s European members needed to spend a great deal more on defense. “We must shift the argument from the cost of defense to the cost of no defense,” Rasmussen said last October.
NATO Supreme Commander Philip Breedlove has also been clear in describing the nature and sophistication of Russia’s military moves. “Surprise, deception and strategic ambiguity have been adeptly employed by Russia against Ukraine,” the general wrote in The Wall Street Journal July 16, adding that “this strategy, quite simply, has significant implications for Europe’s future security.”
Far from clear, however, is whether Western political leaders share this sense of urgency.
As for the ostensible leader of the Free World, President Obama is busy downplaying the threats to world order by saying, as he did on Monday, that “the world has always been messy” and the new global disorder is something “we’re just noticing now because of social media.” Social media aren’t sending those Russian tanks toward Donetsk.
The only way to deter such military aggression is with a show of comparable military and political resolve.
NATO states — including the U.S. — will have to reverse the trend of cuts to military spending.