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After Ukraine NATO has a role again, but Americans look to Europe and say: who’s paying?

What does this red button do? EPA/Olivier Hoslet

The Russian response to what Moscow perceives as its three main security challenges – Western enlargement, China and terrorism/separatism in the Caucasus – has been expansionism. First in Abkhazia in 2008 and then in Crimea this year. With regard to the latter, Putin has set in motion events within Ukraine that, as yet, may still have a very unpredictable outcome.

For their part, the members of the NATO alliance have to reconsider their long-term approach to an emboldened Russia. How NATO Europe – and especially Germany – reacts over the coming months to the Ukrainian crisis will be telling.

So far the response from both the US and the European allies has been categorically economic rather than militaristic. Recently, there have only been some temporary military moves – but, ultimately, there will be stronger calls for NATO to forward deploy in Eastern Europe.

This raises the sticky questions of who will do this, what resources will be needed and who will pay the bill? One thing seems clear, NATO is back in business and the NATO summit in Wales this September will be a real test with regard to how that business is being run.

On a recent visit to Poland the US president, Barack Obama, attempted to reassure central and eastern European allies by declaring the US commitment to their security as “sacrosanct”. He also announced US plans to conduct more joint exercises and pledges to position more equipment in the region. A US$1 billion fund (subject to Congressional approval) was even offered as proof of support.

Deterring Russia today is not the same as deterring the Red Army at the Fulda Gap during the Cold War. From a military point of view, this should be a manageable deterrent requirement. We are not talking about redeploying the United States 7th Army. But there have already been calls to send NATO forces to Poland, the Baltic States and Romania. Politically this is not simple. Proposals for permanent NATO bases – especially US configurations – have already been met with suspicion among some NATO allies.

The German Defence Minister was quite cagey in her response to a Der Spiegel question concerning the need to establish NATO combat troops in Eastern Europe. When asked about the need for Europeans to make “greater financial contributions” to NATO, her answer was even more evasive. The point is this: while the recent financial crisis has forced most European countries to shrink their defence budgets, this has been more of a choice than a necessity for Germany.

Despite being in a relatively comfortable economic position, Germany spends only 1.4% of GDP on defence. This does not seem set to rise and the German electorate is fairly unanimous that it should not do so. When asked if the defence budget would increase if the German economy did likewise, her silence was deafening.

German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said that “Russia has destroyed a massive amount of trust” when it comes to its relationship with the West. But it must be said that since Berlin’s decision not to join the NATO mission in Libya, there are those who may now also question Germany’s willingness to contribute meaningfully to European collective defence.

Relying on Uncle Sam – again

There is a built-in paradox for the Americans though. Since the pronouncement of the so-called “pivot” to Asia, the US has been telling the Europeans to contribute more to NATO and to European security in general.

Yet, if the events in Ukraine translate into more active US willingness to re-engage robustly with Europe – potentially by even increasing its permanent military commitment and capabilities – then this could be perceived as America “has our back” once again. In other words, Europe can continue to ignore US calls to increase defence expenditure.

But if the Americans perceive the Europeans to be free riding at the next NATO summit, then a real crisis of NATO solidarity could be exposed. From Putin’s point of view this is a win-win-win situation; he will have effectively caused a NATO rift while obtaining a decentralised federal Ukraine and essentially securing Russian ownership of Crimea.

Poland, the Baltics and Romania have all signalled an intention to raise their respective defence budgets to the NATO-set target of 2% of GDP – and their ultimate ambition is to have US forces permanently stationed on their territory. Germany following suit is almost inconceivable. Or is it? A recent statement by the defence spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democrats that “should the security situation intensify, then we would have to consider possibly increasing the defence budget”, is cause for US optimism.

Germany also has other options that might help it avoid an obvious rift in the transatlantic relationship come September. For example, it could circumvent stationing elements of the Bundeswehr (which includes the German military) further east or raising its defence budget (politically challenging) by offsetting potential US costs through payments via the NATO infrastructure.

Fall-out among friends

But nonetheless, if the US agrees at the Wales summit to redeploy troops back to Europe and then asks the Europeans: “What are you prepared to do?” If the answer is: “Oh that seems awfully militaristic – or, "Sorry, my treasury is still struggling”, there could potentially be a real schism in the alliance.

The best outcome for all this is that the Ukrainian situation will be handled through diplomatic channels. Both Obama and Merkel are, by nature, both cautious and prodigious deliberators – although Merkel’s caution goes down better with the German public than Obama’s does with Americans. But underpinning diplomacy through reinforced conventional deterrence is NATO’s core raison d'être. The problem is in the sharing of the burden across the alliance.

It’s not a new story – but the situation is becoming increasingly politically unsustainable in the US. Come September the US will be looking to Europe – and especially to Berlin – to gauge just how much deterrence they are willing to manage and how far they are prepared to let the Americans foot the bill.

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