UK Will Lead A New NATO Rapid Reaction Force – Should Putin Take Notice?

WASHINGTON – As a response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, NATO will do…well, not much. Most of the reactions so far, have been cosmetic, public relations moves. Of course, technically speaking, NATO does not “have to do” anything. Ukraine is not part of NATO; and so the Western Alliance is under no treaty obligation to do anything at all.

Show we do anything?

Still, NATO countries cannot ignore a conflict nearby in which a would-be NATO and EU member (Ukraine) has been attacked by rebels openly supported by Moscow. This act of Russian supported aggression at the periphery of peaceful Europe must be followed by some reactions.

Sanctions

And here are the reactions. As a tangible show of displeasure, the West enacted (limited) economic sanctions against Russia. But, on the security front, should the West do anything at all to signal Russia that there would be serious consequences should Putin believe that after Ukraine he may have a green light elsewhere as well?

What if he think he can support subversion in Estonia, (a small and weak NATO country with a large Russian minority), just as he has done in Eastern Ukraine?

US enhanced presence in Europe

And so there have been some shows of NATO unity and resolve. The US dispatched a few combat jets to Poland. A few troops (we are talking hundreds, not thousands) have been sent to the Baltic countries to participate in exercises.

Indeed, these (relatively new) NATO countries are understandably worried. They used to be part of the old Soviet Union. Some of them, as noted above, just like Ukraine have sizable Russian minorities. Could they be next on Putin’s wish list?

Mostly gestures

Still, all this is mostly symbolic stuff. Beyond these gestures,  not much. Statements, declarations, yes.

But what about real actions aimed at showing that NATO is a strong, politically united and militarily prepared alliance that can credibly and quickly respond to any crisis? Not much on that front.

A UK-led rapid reaction force

Well now the UK, the country that is going to host a NATO Summit in Wales, (September 4-5), has just come up with a “major” announcement. Great Britain will lead a brand new NATO rapid reaction force. So far, six NATO countries have confirmed their participation. And who are they? We have Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, and then Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, the three (scared) Baltic states mentioned above.

A credible military tool?

The goal is to have a NATO multinational force of 10,000 that can be rapidly mobilized. Look, any new effort is probably better than no effort at all. But, looking at this plan, if I were Vladimir Putin I would not lose any sleep on this. With the exception of the UK, this is a (small) collection of NATO dwarfs, in terms of countries’ populations, sizes, resources –and most of all– current and projected levels of military spending.

With the exception of Great Britain (defense spending at 2.4% of GDP) and Estonia, (defense at 2% of GDP), no other member of this new, (planned), force, meets even the minimum requirement (solemnly agreed upon by all NATO countries) to increase defense budgets so that they will reach at least 2% of GDP.

Germany and France not joining

Most of all, please note the absence of Germany and France, the two most important NATO military powers in the Continent. May be they will join later, who knows. But I suspect that the Germans do not want any role in a new military arrangement that most likely will be interpreted as an unfriendly move by Moscow.

We are “doing something”

So, there you have it. NATO today is a military alliance with dwindling forces and mostly pacifist governments now trying to show that they are “doing something”, so that a new, aggressive Russia will take notice. Well, if this new “force” is the best that can be done, good luck!

Defense spending in free fall in most NATO countries

As usual, America is the country that –even in this new era of declining US military spending– has by far the largest defense budget, (4.4% of GDP in 2013). All the other NATO members, (with a couple of exceptions, most notably Poland), have cut military spending. Most of them spend around 1.5% of GDP on defense, and a few are down to less than 1%!

Putin will just carry on

And now we have the UK leading this group of small countries that promise to put together something credible, at some point in the future. If this is the best that NATO can do, Putin can carry on his mischief in Ukraine, without any worries or concerns.