President Obama walks towards the podium before a press conference with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski on June 3, 2014.
President Obama walks towards the podium before a press conference with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski on June 3, 2014. // Charles Dharapak/AP

Obama, Hagel, Kerry on NATO Defense Blitz

BRUSSELS In Europe hoping to capitalize on the fears of a renewed Russian threat, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pledged to defend the continent and announced $1 billion in additional military measures aimed at deterring Russia. They also pleaded with NATO members to use their bully pulpits to convince their governments  to boost defense spending.

“Our commitment to Poland’s security, as well as the security of our allies in central and eastern Europe, is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct,” Obama said shortly after landing in Warsaw, Poland on Tuesday.

U.S. leaders promised that America would fulfill its obligations to protect Europe and urged other NATO members to do to the same. Obama cited the U.S. Article 5 commitment to Poland – referring to the portion of the NATO charter which states that a threat against one nation is a threat against all.  “As president, I’ve made sure that the United States is upholding that commitment.”

The president announced he is seeking from Congress an additional $1 billion for new European security measures. The money would come from the U.S. overseas contingency operations, or OCO, an account that holds Afghanistan and global counterterrorism money considered off-books from the regular defense budget. It would pay for additional U.S. troops added to the new rotational deployments in Poland and eastern states; additional pre-positioned equipment and infrastructure improvements to accept rapid arrivals of troops, if needed; increased U.S. Navy ships in the Black and Baltic Seas; and more exercises and funds specifically for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia defenses.

“If Russia is observing basic international law and principles, there should be cooperation between Russia and NATO,” Obama said. “Where Russia violates international law and international principle, NATO will stand firm in asserting those principles.”

Hagel, in Brussels for a NATO defense ministers meeting, invoked the original foundations of the alliance to inspire defense ministers of its purpose and advocate fiercely for increased defense budgets. After years of begging, U.S. officials believe the Ukraine crisis – and the end of the Afghanistan war – should be enough to change European minds and reverse declining defense spending. Obama and Hagel made the familiar plea with new urgency.

“We have seen a decline steadily in European defense spending generally, that has to change,” Obama said.

Hagel said, “I am troubled that many nations appear content for their defense spending to continue declining. The assessment we’ve heard today about the state of alliance military capabilities is a sobering dose of reality. These trends must be reversed.”

“If the American people do not see European nations stepping forward to invest in their own defense when their own security is threatened, we risk eroding U.S. support for the alliance.”

“For all of us,” Hagel said, “the challenge is building support for defense investment not just in defense ministries, but across our governments, in our legislatures, and ultimately among our citizens.”

“This challenge on the doorstep of our alliance cannot be ignored or wished away. It must be met with strength and resolve – because it is not just about Ukraine. It is about the credibility of the international order and institutions we have built since World War II. And having come here from the Asia-Pacific region, I can tell you that nations around the world are watching how we respond.

“We must respond by showing that we are as committed to collective security today as we were 65 years ago,” Hagel said.

Hagel also said the Ukraine crisis required NATO to “re-examine how allied militaries are trained, equipped and structured.” That, too, is a familiar plea. NATO is often derided for constantly restructuring or otherwise justifying its post-Cold War existence. Before Russia’s Crimea grab in February, NATO leaders already were considering Hagel plan to share military capabilities among member forces called “Smart Defense.” It also was preparing for a future of mostly fighting in near-regional expeditionary counterterrorism missions into the Middle East and North Africa, missile defense against Iran, and in homeland defense more akin to U.S. border control.

A senior U.S. diplomat told reporters traveling with Hagel that it was unclear, yet, how much of NATO’s earlier reform plans are on hold for the Ukraine crisis, or completely scrapped, as NATO’s counter-Russia mission roars back to the forefront of the minds of military planners. Instead, the defense ministers are reconsidering NATO’s partnership with Russia, laying groundwork for decisions that heads of state can approve at the NATO Summit in Wales in September.

“I think what’s happening is NATO knew it was coming out of this 20 years of operational experience, because of this 2014 deadline in Afghanistan,” the official said, looking back to Bosnia in the 1990s. “What it didn’t know, and what is news over the last 90 days, is that at the same time, coincidently, it was going to be confronted with a reminder that collective defense – that is, defense of NATO space proper, not what we call crisis management, or expeditionary operations – would be front and center, and we would confront that kind of challenge coincidentally when we’re coming outside of Afghanistan.”

Hagel said cybersecurity and missile defense are the only two of seven previously identified military capabilities still needing additional improvement before the September summit.

“The area where our alliance has some of the most work to do is cyber,” he said. NATO members need to improve their individual national cyber defenses to protect the whole. “At September’s summit, we need to deliver an upgraded and enhanced cyber policy.”

On Wednesday, the ministers are expected  to pivot to Afghanistan and begin to hammer out NATO’s potential troop commitments after this year, as well as other details also expected to require approval later at the Wales summit.