Why the Ukraine Crisis Won't Save NATO

April 1, 2014 Topic: NATO Region: Western EuropeUkraineEurope

Why the Ukraine Crisis Won't Save NATO

The tensions within the alliance are too deep for a little Russian pushiness to erase.

How many members of Old NATO do you imagine heaved a sigh of relief in 2008 that Georgia was not part of the alliance and couldn’t invoke the Article V of the North Atlantic Treatyto seek protection against Russia? I think that several did and that an equal number were relieved that Ukraine wasn’t a NATO ally as they watched Russia grab Crimea recently. President Obama wasn’t alone in stressing that a war with Russia over Ukraine was a nonstarter; so did his hard-line critics, such Senator John McCain, to say nothing of European leaders.

Third, for all of the talk for over a decade now about resolving NATO’s burden-sharing dispute, precious little has been done. The disparity between America’s contribution to the common defense and the proportion of GDP that it devotes to military spending and the military muscle and defense-to-GDP ratio of its alliance partners remains glaring, and has not been reduced. Now it’s true that the US defense will necessarily dwarf that of any individual NATO member, and even the alliance as a whole, given that America is a superpower with worldwide military commitments. But that isn’t the relevant measure. What counts is the share of GDP devoted to defense and the steps NATO states have taken (or not) to increase the military capabilities relevant to their own defense and that of their fellow allies.

Seen thus, there’s still a lot a free riding within NATO. It beggars belief that twenty-three years after the Cold War, and nearly seventy years after World War II, a period during which Europe recovered from the shattering effects of war and emerged as a center of global economic power, non-US NATO cannot do more in behalf of its own defense. In 2010, the EU accounted for 26 percent of global GDP, the United States for 23 percent. Whatever the reasons for the burden-sharing imbalance, Europe’s inability to afford it isn’t one of them.

Yet the disparity in burden sharing continues, as witness the contrast in the relative proportion of GDP that alliance members allocate to defense. The average for European NATO in 2013 was 1.6 percent; for the United States it was 4.3 percent. What’s more, there has been a near-steady decline in European NATO’s relative contribution as the data on the sequential four-year averages between 1990 and 2009 shows. The highpoint was 1990-94, 2.7 percent, but the average annual percentage fell from 1.7 in 2010 to 1.6 and has since been stationary. For the United States, by contrast, the average percentage between 2010 and 2013 was 4.6. Only three states—France, Greece, and the UK—devoted 2 percent or more, none exceeded 2.4 percent, and 19 were at or below 1.5 percent. What’s clear from these numbers is that it’s hard claim that America’s European allies are bearing the appropriate burden for their own defense. GDP-defense ratio comparisons have their limits, but
the picture doesn’t change if one focuses on the operational front and examines, for instance, coordinated European efforts to improve efficiency in procurement, increase firepower and power-projection capabilities, or devise a sensible division of responsibility.="#q=the+future+of+european+defence+mckinsey">

The prospects for change are slim. Simply stated, political support within Europe for ramping up defense spending is weak at best; and as the population continues to age the claims of the elderly on the welfare state will increase, reducing further whatever enthusiasm there is now for boosting military strength. True, Europe is trying to trim expenses on public services but the tradition of the state providing various social services and benefits and the power of unions has been and will remain far more resilient in Europe than in America.

The burden-sharing question was muted during the Cold War partly because war-battered Europe was recovering during the early decades while America was thriving. But in recent years, particularly since the Great Recession, polls show that Americans are apprehensive about their job prospects, income inequality, social mobility, the quality of the schools that educate their children, and the aging infrastructure and want to limit or even cut defense spending. Hence they’re much less likely to be convinced—to the extent that this case can be made with a straight face—that their wealthy allies can’t do more to protect themselves. Expect NATO’s burden-sharing debate to intensify.

The final reason why Ukraine won’t be the shot in the arm for the alliance that many commentators anticipate it will be is that Europe’s major powers will eventually come around and make their peace with Russia, not only because they don’t want to poke the bear in the eye but also because they have a significant stake in doing business, in the literal sense, with Russia.

The value of Russia-EU trade totaled 337 billion Euros in 2012, more than a threefold increase over the 2002 figure, and is today nearly ten times the dollar value of US-Russia trade. There are lots of jobs at stake for Europeans, and lots of money, too. The EU is Russia’s top trade partner, Russia the EU’s third largest. Despite the Crimean imbroglio, business between Russia and Europe is proceeding. As the New York Times reported recently, the French energy giant Total is moving forward to cooperate with Russia’s Lukoil to tap Siberian shale oil deposits, and just last week Russia placed an order with Airbus for 13 planes. What’s true of France holds for other major European countries. They may become leerier about investing in Russia and will doubtless seek to reduce their dependence on Russian natural gas, which is close to 30 percent on average for the EU but far higher for the Baltic trio, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Greece, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, where the reliance ranges from 75-100 percent. The EU will certainly seek to diversify energy imports and use more LNG, but its energy dependence on Russia will still remain substantial, and European energy companies will continue signing deals with Gazprom and Rosneft worth billions of dollars.

The most revealing indicator of the power of the profit motive may be whether, post-Crimea, French and German military sales to Russia continue. For France, and more so for its flagging defense industries, revenue from sales to Russia is especially important, a case in point being the $1.7 billion deal reached in 2011 to sell four Mistral-class amphibious-assault ships. French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have hinted that additional Russian moves into Ukraine could put military transactions at risk—and they well could—but it’s worth recalling that the Mistral agreement was inked just three years after Russia went to war against Georgia. The cancellation of existing contracts will almost certainly provoke a Russian reaction. Deputy prime minister and defense-industry czar Dmitry Rogozin has already warned that Russia will demand a refund if France fails to deliver the Mistral-class vessels on schedule.

The Ukraine crisis has revealed that the West, Europe in particular, is reluctant to inflict acute economic pain on Russia through measures such as restrictions on trade and banking and bans on investments in its energy sector. Even Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, who, like many of his fellow citizens considers Russia a serious threat, pointed to the realities of geography when asked why Europe was unwilling to slap stringent sanctions on Russia and was much more reticent about using economic pressure against Moscow than United States.

Putin, for his part, will limit his victory to Crimea, absent clashes between Russians and Ukrainians in the Donbass, and move to stabilize, and then improve, relations with the West—not that that will be easy or achievable quickly. He well understands that continued confrontation with the West or efforts to annex parts of eastern Ukraine could provoke draconian sanctions that go beyond the current wrist-slapping: targeted travel bans and asset freezes on Russian tycoons and officials. He also realizes, as do other Russians, that burning bridges with the West will leave Russia isolated to face a rising China on its southern flank.

Paradoxically, among Putin’s advantages is the West’s strength in numbers. NATO and the EU each contain over two-dozen states, and Moscow has demonstrated repeatedly its adeptness at deploying assorted bilateral enticements to thwart a cohesive, sustained Western policy toward Russia. The waves generated by Russia’s assault on Ukraine will take time to settle, but settle they will, and because of efforts from Moscow, Washington and Europe. We are not headed toward a latter-day Cold War, or even a long-term break between Russia and the West. The notion that the fear of a resurgent Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis will create stronger solidity and strategic consensus within NATO, let alone provide it with a coherent post-Cold War mission, is wishful thinking. NATO has to figure out its future. It shouldn’t assume that what Russia has done in Ukraine will make the task easier.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, ofThe End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).