Russian aggression, radical Islamist terrorism, the refugee crisis, Brexit, Afghanistan. The list of challenges NATO leaders faced at the biennial summit here over the weekend was diverse, highlighting what some consider to be a post-Cold War moment of truth for the alliance to prove it still matters.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine, along with a pattern of aggressive fly-bys by Russian warplanes in the Baltic Sea region, have left NATO’s eastern flank rattled.
One of the summit’s key news items was the announcement that NATO will deploy four combat battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on a rotational basis beginning next year. The battalions will be fielded by Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
This supplements a previously announced U.S. plan to deploy about 3,500 additional troops to Eastern Europe on a rotational basis.
Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said the alliance’s troop deployments will send a message that “an attack against one ally will be met by forces from across the alliance.”
“NATO is as strong, as nimble, and as ready as ever,” Obama said Saturday. “NATO is sending a clear message that we will defend every ally.”
The Kremlin pushed back against NATO’s planned troop deployment, calling the perceived threat from Russia “absurd.”
“It is absurd to talk about any threat coming from Russia at a time when dozens of people are dying in the center of Europe and when hundreds of people are dying in the Middle East daily,” Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters Friday, according to Reuters.
Responding to Peskov’s comments, Poland’s top diplomat, Witold Waszczykowski, told reporters in Warsaw on Friday:
An absurd situation would be if we forgot about the military actions against Georgia, and Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas, about Russia’s military engagement in Syria, and about the incidents and provocations by Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea.
Russia’s ‘Indefensible’ Actions
The main driver of NATO’s eastward pivot, and some say the alliance’s renewed post-Cold War purpose, has been Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
NATO’s 2014 summit in Wales came on the heels of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Two years later, Crimea is still in Russian hands and Russia still supports separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine in which people die on an almost daily basis.
“Two years on from Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine, our message to Russia has not changed,” Cameron said Saturday. “Such action is indefensible and wrong. And we will always stand up for the sovereign right of countries to make their own decisions.”
Russia’s actions have eroded the longtime assumption among European powers that the kind of state-on-state conflicts that ravaged Europe in the first half of the 20th century could never happen again.
Reflecting this new reality is a push by some NATO leaders to increase military spending across the alliance.
Out of 28 member countries, only five—the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece, and Poland—currently spend 2 percent or more of their gross domestic product on defense, an obligation agreed to during the summit in Wales.
On Saturday, Obama pushed alliance members that are not hitting the 2 percent mark to beef up their defense budgets, saying:
After many years NATO has stopped the collective decline in defense spending. Over the past two years, most NATO members have halted cuts and begun investing more in defense. And this means defense spending across the alliance is now scheduled to increase.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg face reporters.
‘De Facto Alliance’
Ukraine is not a NATO member state, but a partner country to the alliance. NATO members therefore are not obligated to defend Ukraine militarily.
Yet, NATO has taken other steps to support Ukraine.
In Warsaw, NATO leaders met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to outline a comprehensive assistance package to help Ukraine make key political reforms and modernize its military to meet NATO interoperability standards.
The package also tags funds to help Ukraine counter the threat of improveised explosive devices on the battlefield, bolster its cyber security, and rehabilitate wounded soldiers.
During a joint press conference Saturday with Stoltenberg, Poroshenko called NATO’s support for Ukraine a “de facto alliance.”
The Ukrainian president pointed to the historical significance of NATO’s holding its biennial summit in Warsaw 61 years after creation of the Warsaw Pact, the collective defense treaty the USSR and Soviet satellite states signed in the Polish capital in 1955.
“It is our common responsibility to change Russia’s aggressive behavior,” Poroshenko said. “We are grateful that NATO stands by Ukraine.”
Stoltenberg said Russia must stop its “political, military, and financial support for separatists” in east Ukraine.
Stoltenberg made clear, however, that the question of Ukraine joining NATO as a full member was “not currently on the table,” and the alliance would address the issue of membership at a later stage.
Stoltenberg added a thinly veiled warning against any Russian efforts to derail Ukraine’s budding NATO ties.
“Every nation has the right to decide its own path,” the NATO leader said. “No one else has the right to intervene.”
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