WASHINGTON — When Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel and other NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels in early June, their summit will be dominated by questions that would have seemed surreal just a few months ago.
— How should Western leaders respond to military aggression by Moscow in Ukraine?
— With defense budgets flat or declining in most of NATO’s 28 member countries and U.S. forces in Europe at their lowest levels in decades, is the trans-Atlantic alliance adequately prepared to defend its vast territory?
— In the most extreme scenario, are the United States and its European allies strong enough to go to war against Russia?
As unlikely as that prospect appears to defense officials and analysts inside and outside governments on both sides of the Atlantic, the fact that it’s even a topic of discussion has shaken the strategic foundations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Even the notion of establishing a Western military position closer to Russia is under discussion. The topic might be on the agenda when the leaders of the NATO nations meet in September.
“Maybe we should say, ‘Thank you, President Putin, for reminding us that there is still a need to have an active and vibrant NATO,’ ” former German Deputy Foreign Minister Wolfgang Ischinger told Hagel and other European leaders, speaking of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at a national security forum this month at Washington’s Wilson Center, an influential foreign policy group, Ischinger said Putin “gave us a pretty good wake-up call.”
The crisis has also exposed some splits in the Western alliance, particularly over what the U.S. complains is a gap in military spending between itself and its allies.
There is, however, broad agreement that even as deadly clashes between Ukrainians and pro-Russia militias spread beyond the Crimea region, which the Kremlin annexed in March, the former Soviet republic is simply not central enough to Western security interests to warrant direct military confrontation with Moscow.
“NATO is not going to intervene militarily to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, nor is NATO prepared for such a contingency,” Riccardo Alcaro, an expert on trans-Atlantic politics and security at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told McClatchy. “There is really no desire in either the United States but particularly in Western Europe to wage war against Russia over Ukraine.”
The only scenario in which NATO would even consider military intervention, Alcaro said, would be if there were “massive bloodshed for an extended period of time” in Ukraine.
In unusually blunt terms for such high-stakes disputes, senior NATO official Jamie Shea reminded other Western analysts that Ukraine doesn’t belong to the alliance and thus isn’t owed the territorial protections promised all members by Article 5 of its 1949 founding treaty.
“We have to be clear when it comes to NATO,” Shea, the alliance’s deputy assistant secretary-general for emerging security challenges, said at the Wilson Center forum. “The collective security guarantee applies to NATO members. Ukraine is not a NATO member.”
At the same time, there is consensus that NATO would respond forcefully to Russian intervention in members such as Poland or the Baltic nations on its western frontier.
Kathleen Hicks, who left a senior Pentagon post last July, said that for the first time, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. troops and NATO allied forces in Europe, was weighing the possibility of stationing some of them closer to Russia than the current small contingents in Bulgaria and Romania.
“It has long been NATO’s stance that permanently positioning forces so far east is too provocative,” said Hicks, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Now there is some possibility that you could actually see some shifting of forces.”
Indeed, on May 7, Breedlove tweeted: “Changes to troop locations will be made at the political level to address the new paradigm in the wake of the Russian-Ukraine crisis.”
Interviews with a dozen defense experts revealed divisions over how well-primed the trans-Atlantic alliance is for any sort of direct military action against Russia.
“We’ve been caught flatfooted in Europe, and we don’t have sufficient forces there to secure our interests,” Dakota Wood, senior defense research analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said. “It highlights the damaging effects of not investing in defense.”
But even with military funding cuts on both sides of the Atlantic, Alcaro said NATO forces would defeat Russian troops in any direct conflict, calling them “a shadow of what they were during the Soviet time.”
“But this is only speculative,” he cautioned. “No one wants that scenario to become real. There is absolutely no appetite for war with Russia.”
Wood, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served in the Balkans, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, derided as “meaningless” the military moves the United States made last month in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The Pentagon dispatched 600 troops from Germany and Italy for exercises in Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
“You’re talking about less than a battalion spread across four countries to engage in some training,” he said. “They go to a firing range and shoot some rounds downrange.”
Hicks countered that deployments and exercises such as the U.S. moves provide “eyes and ears on the ground,” and pave the way for any follow-up action that might become necessary.
Poland has already asked the alliance to set up permanent bases on its territory, a request that, for now, the alliance has rejected.
“This is really a very serious situation,” former Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said at the Wilson Center forum. “A threat to peace in Europe is back after two decades when we believed that finally we got into a safe place on the Earth. I think that the democratic West so far has not reacted in … an effective way. That is risky tactics, because if we do not stop that aggressive (Russian) policy at any stage, then we can face a much more difficult situation.”
Stephen Long, an international affairs assistant professor at the University of Richmond, described Putin’s strategy as a low-risk way of flexing Russian muscle. He said Putin faced no serious opposition from Ukraine, European defense spending had decreased and the United States was dealing with a host of other issues, including the economy, closing the book on Afghanistan and redirecting its military and foreign policy gaze toward Asia.
“He sensed that the moment had come,” Long said, “and Ukraine was the easiest target.”
Amid the debate, Hagel has made it clear that Europe can’t continue to ride on America’s military coattails. While the U.S. still spends about 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, most NATO members have fallen below the 2 percent threshold that U.S. leaders say should be the minimum amount.
“Today, America’s GDP is smaller than the combined GDPs of our 27 NATO allies,” the Pentagon chief said earlier this month. “But America’s defense spending is three times our allies’ combined defense spending. Over time, this lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability, and ultimately both European and trans-Atlantic security.”
Alcaro, the Brookings expert and a native of Spain, said when the U.S. called for help, Europe responded, though Washington was never satisfied with how much.
“The Europeans have kept thousands of troops in certain faraway countries such as Afghanistan for 12, 13 years in the face of mounting popular opposition,” he said. “The main reason for the European presence in Afghanistan is the desire of Europeans to show solidarity and give substance to our bond with the United States.”
Poland, one of the few alliance members that have increased defense spending in recent years, wants other partners to follow suit.
Olga Oliker, an analyst with the nonpartisan RAND Corp. policy group in Santa Monica, California, said there was a broad division within NATO between its Western members, most of which were relatively affluent, and its Eastern members, who were either part of the Soviet Union or under the Kremlin’s thumb in the days of the Warsaw Pact.
“In the wake of the Ukraine crisis,” she said, “there are a lot of folks in Central and Eastern Europe who are kind of saying, ‘We told you so. This is what’s important. Let’s refocus.’ ”