BRUSSELS — NATO defense ministers struggled to find a response to Russia’s Ukraine incursion, hemmed in by financial constraints, U.S. demands that Europe raise defense spending and a desire not to provoke the Kremlin.
“I am troubled that many nations appear content for their defense spending to continue declining,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told his counterparts from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 member states in Brussels, according to an emailed text of his comments.
NATO is preparing a Sept. 4-5 summit in Wales as it grapples with differences on how to reassure its eastern members and prepares to draw down its Afghanistan mission by the end of this year.
The alliance is divided with Poland and the three Baltic states, all of which share borders with Russia, seeking a bigger NATO military presence on their territory. Germany and France are leading opposition to any swift moves to create permanent bases in former Soviet satellites. NATO has beefed up Baltic air policing, yet much military assistance to the alliance’s eastern flank has been bilateral.
The United States in April deployed 600 paratroopers for that it termed “training rotations” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It also sent F-16 warplanes and crews to Poland to “provide a persistent presence” in the country and training for Poland’s air force, a U.S. government statement said.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Tuesday that Russia’s “illegal aggression against Ukraine” shows the alliance faces a growing array of unpredictable security threats.
President Barack Obama, visiting Warsaw Tuesday at the start of a European tour, said the U.S. will bolster its military presence in Europe through a $1 billion program in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stoking unrest in Ukraine.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said Poland would increase its defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product.
Hagel said “several nations — including Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania — have already announced planned increases in their defense investment. But we have yet to see similar commitments from many other Alliance members.”
He said that if Europeans aren’t willing to invest in their own defense when their own security is threatened, then U.S. support for NATO could be at risk.
As the euro area emerges from its debt crisis, NATO members including Germany, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia and Slovenia have cut defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product, with alliance figures showing them well below NATO’s 2 percent of gross domestic product military spending target.
Rasmussen says Russia has boosted its defense spending by more than 50 percent since 2008, while European NATO allies have cut military funding by almost 10 percent in real terms, with some members cutting it by more than 40 percent.
“The U.S. is very clearly grumpy about Europe,” Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, said in a phone interview. “America’s big message to Europe is: you have to take better care of your neighborhood than you have been.”
Techau said the Obama administration is raising pressure before the NATO summit and using the Ukraine crisis “as a perfect hook for breaking European resistance” on defense spending and basing troops.
Hagel said that as world leaders gather at Normandy on June 6 to mark the 70th anniversary of the World War II D-Day invasions, the events in Ukraine show that European peace and prosperity can’t be taken for granted.
“Europe still lives in a dangerous world,” Hagel said. “A world where peace must still be underwritten by the credible deterrent of military power.”