Peter Brookes: NATO: Focus on Russia

While the corridor chit-chat at this week’s NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, will be about terrorists on the tear – along with anxiety over Afghanistan, and Britain’s “Brexit” from the European Union – the discussion really should focus on addressing a resurgent Russia.

That means putting “Muscling up NATO” atop the to-do list.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has drifted away from its central purpose of deterring and, if necessary, responding to aggression in Europe. It’s understandable why: the Soviet Union collapsed. Of course, NATO has done great things within and without Europe since then, but Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its general bad behavior is a geostrategic alarm on which NATO can’t hit the snooze bar and roll over.

Few would question that Russian President Vladimir Putin is working to return the Motherland to its former (Soviet) “glory.” Of deep concern is that the Kremlin’s strategic ambition could come at NATO’s expense, especially in the Baltics or Eastern Europe.

While global energy prices may slow Russia’s mounting military might and its adventurism abroad, Moscow is developing and fielding some of the world’s top weapons. This includes fighter aircraft (Su-35), air defenses (S-400), ballistic missiles (RS-26 and -28) and counter-space and offensive cyber capabilities, among others.

Ominous Russian bomber flights (nuclear-capable) around NATO, “hot dogging” by Russian pilots and sneaky submarine sojourns into its neighbors’ waters are all troubling, too. In addition, Moscow’s violations of arms control treaties on conventional forces and missiles and its defense buildup in its Kaliningrad exclave (sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland) aren’t comforting either.

This week NATO must ask itself: is Russia deterred?

There are a lot of possible paths for NATO to follow in the coming years but a new American president would be wise to consider, among other ideas:

• Demonstrating the U.S. commitment to NATO by basing the right mix of U.S. forces in the right places in Europe (that is, frontline states).

• Helping allies develop the military capabilities/capacity so they can shoulder more responsibility for their own security as well as encouraging higher defense spending by member states (that is, 2 percent of GDP, minimum).

• Rebuilding the capabilities/readiness of the U.S. military, including advanced cyber, space and missile defense forces.

• Expanding NATO’s security relationship with non-NATO countries such as Finland and Sweden.

• Getting NATO training back to large-scale force-on-force operations focused on Europe.

• Restoring U.S./NATO intelligence resources to address the growing Russian threat.

• Continuing efforts to grow NATO by developing new countries for membership and engaging with other non-NATO states as appropriate.

NATO is arguably as important to peace and stability in Europe in this century as it was in the last; the alliance must be able to provide ironclad security for its members. While NATO operations outside Europecan and should continue if needed (in Afghanistan, for example), in the end, all missions need to be prioritized.

(Interestingly, President Obama announced yesterday before leaving for Warsaw that U.S. troops in Afghanistan will drop from 9,800 to 8,400 rather than the planned 5,500 by the end of 2016.)

NATO and the next American president must ensure that the alliance can fight and win in Europe. There can be no question about NATO’s readiness and ability to do that – especially in Russia.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.