Ihor Dolhov, Ukraine's ambassador to NATO, said in an interview that support for NATO membership appears to be growing in his country. But Kiev apparently doesn't intend to push the issue.
By Carol E. Lee in The Hague and Naftali Bendavid in Brussels
March 26, 2014
President Barack Obama cautioned Russia that it would face a swift response if it encroaches on countries that belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—in remarks that underlined the 28-nation alliance's renewed sense of purpose and its constraints as tensions escalate between Moscow and the West.
Only weeks ago NATO, created to contain the Soviet Union, was struggling to define its mission in the world. With its combat operation in Afghanistan finishing at the end of 2014, alliance leaders had planned a September summit in Wales to discuss its future role.
Now, Russia's annexation of Crimea has given NATO a new reason to exist. While governments don't see the advent of a new Cold War, Moscow's assertiveness has provided new relevance to the alliance's traditional role of defending national borders and deterring attack. Still, Mr. Obama's warnings underscored the limits of the alliance's ability to constrain Russia beyond its members' own territory, where NATO's capacity to act is limited.
The president's admonition was delivered on Tuesday just hours before he flew to Brussels for discussions on strengthening Eastern Europe's security, including a meeting with NATO's civilian chief. His words were meant to reassure jittery U.S. allies in the wake of Russia's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
"What we are now doing is organizing even more intensively to make sure that we have contingency plans and that every one of our NATO allies has assurances that we will act in their defense against any threats," Mr. Obama said at a news conference in The Hague that capped a two-day Nuclear Security Summit overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.
Mr. Obama, who insisted Tuesday that Crimea isn't completely lost to Russia, is scheduled to hold a series of meetings Wednesday with leaders from the European Union and NATO. The leaders are working to "further develop and deepen" plans to counter moves such as the one Moscow made into Ukraine, he said.
Mr. Obama made clear a strong division between countries that are members of NATO and will benefit from the alliance's security guarantees—and those, like Ukraine, that aren't. He offered countries, such as Moldova, which like Ukraine are not part of NATO, reassurance in the form of economic support and diplomatic pressure on Moscow. "But when it comes to a potential military response, that is defined by NATO membership," he said.
Mr. Obama's comments reinforce the alliance's core mission of "collective defense," meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all. They build on previous signals of reassurance to allies that were once in the Soviet orbit. "I hear almost every day assurances by allies and member states," Linas Linkevicius, foreign minister of Lithuania, said in an interview.
While the U.S. and its allies have made clear that they see no military solution to the Crimea crisis, Russia's assertiveness has increased worries about the security challenge from Moscow that will likely shift the focus at NATO's September summit.
"The events of the past four weeks don't necessarily raise right to the top the possibility of a Russian military attack against a NATO country," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. representative at NATO until the summer. "But they start making it less unthinkable."
With a similar message, Simon Lunn, a former head of plans and policy on NATO's international staff, said, "It's not a new Cold War exactly, but the neighbor is suddenly a very worrying figure."
The question is how exactly NATO should respond. Since the crisis began, NATO forces have taken modest but pointed steps on Russia's borders.
The U.S., Britain and France have increased—or announced increases—in the number of planes they contribute to NATO air patrols over the Baltics. The U.S. is enhancing its training of NATO forces in Poland, and the alliance is stepping up surveillance flights over Poland and Romania. But alliance members don't want to take steps that will set off a pattern of military escalation.
European countries have for years spent less on defense than the U.S. relative to the size of their economies and have cut back further in recent years so that the U.S. accounts for 73% of NATO's military spending. Now, some countries say they will reconsider—even though they don't think more military spending would have changed events in Ukraine.
How much further NATO goes will be driven in part by Russia's next moves.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, who Mr. Obama meets on Wednesday, hasn't missed the opportunity to make a renewed case for his organization.
"This crisis is a game changer. It undermines the rules-based global order," Mr. Rasmussen said last week. "To uphold that order, Europe and North America must stand together."
Mr. Daalder said the alliance has focused recently on carrying out missions like those in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Now, he said, it is likely to shift back to its original purpose of collective defense.
That prompts the question of whether NATO should now expand. In 2008, NATO considered inviting Ukraine and Georgia to begin the membership process, but Germany and France vetoed that. Since then, Russia's incursions into both countries have increased concerns among allies about the risks of providing the two countries with a security guarantee.
Ihor Dolhov, Ukraine's ambassador to NATO, said in an interview that support for NATO membership appears to be growing in his country. But Kiev apparently does not intend to push the issue. Meanwhile, Mr. Dolhov said, NATO has been giving Ukraine help on emergency planning, enhanced cooperation, and other matters. "Very active consultations are going on," he said.
Money is also a pressing issue. NATO countries are committed to spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense spending, but the only countries to do so are the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.