Russia Gloats, US Worries and France Vents Exasperation over Brexit: Can Obama Bolster EU Unity Despite Russian Pressures?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin shouts back at cheering troops as he walks with Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. Russia presented itself at the event as a country on the rise. Part of that rise apparently includes encouraging the fall of the EU and NATO. Russia has been accused of using military, economic, and political means to promote a discordant harmony among countries to undermine EU unity on sanctions and unity as a bloc.

According to a February 20, 2016 article in The Times in the United Kingdom entitled, “Russia Gloats, US Worries and France Vents Exasperation”, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is thought to be privately gleeful at the sight of discord within the EU over the possible decision by the British to exit the EU (Brexit). Indeed, the article states whatever undermines the EU—which Russia accuses of meddling in Ukraine and its former European Soviet satellite state—is good for Moscow. Reportedly, in Washington, the prospect of Brexit has set alarm bells ringing about the United Kingdom’s possible retreat to the European periphery, altering its special relationship with London.

In a January 31, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “In the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; They Want to See Success on Foreign Policy”, it was predicted that in 2016, Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the administration of US President Barack Obama faces. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. Putin has looked deeply at the US and Europe, discerning many flaws, weaknesses in the transatlantic bond. He particularly noticed the lack of will among European political leaders to maintain it. The initial response to Putin’s battering rams, to include his moves in Ukraine, hybrid warfare threat to the Baltic States, and military build-up, was to bolster the barricades of Europe particularly in London and Berlin. Since then there have been cracks in the armor, precipitated by Putin’s maneuvers. In most cases, any damage to the European unity would appear self-inflicted by EU and NATO Members. In every case, Putin would be a beneficiary. Any member’s departure from the “Group of 28”, or NATO, would be a step in the wrong direction. The Obama administration is urging the EU not to retreat having achieved so much. Causality for this situation may be found in part in the administration’s plans for a “pivot to Asia”, its delinquency in responding to important issues on European policy, and its disastrous relations with Putin. Despite the challenging political, economic, and security issues with which some EU states are wrestling, the Obama administration can bolster European unity, and by-pass military, economic, and political obstacles Russia may be creating. The examples presented in this discussion provide kernels of some approaches. The Obama administration needs to support Europe in its search for answers to buttress unity. Its assistance should not be a mere search for the bromide of a public relations message. The administration should contribute approaches to effectively promote unity in accordance with the stated needs of European allies.

The migrant crisis in Europe began with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement in the summer of 2015 that Germany would stop expelling Syrian refugees and her agreement with Austria in September 2015 to welcome tens of thousands of migrants who were stuck in Hungary. Hungary rejected their asylum requests. Merkel’s actions were followed by a massive surge in asylum seekers travelling from Turkey to Greece and then up through the Balkans to Hungary, Austria, Germany and northern Europe. The result has been a humanitarian tragedy, and a political, social, and administrative nightmare for capitals created by an external source, but not Putin. Indeed, Putin has said the refugee crisis is “an internal problem of the EU” and added that Russia does not “interfere in these issues.” Given that Russia has had no discernible hand in the matter, the issue is not included in the discussion here.

NATO recently revealed that in 2013, two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers (as above) escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, came within 24 miles off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm, and conducted mock nuclear attacks. The Swedish military was caught completely off-guard causing great concern among Swedish officials.

Stirring Disunity Militarily

Etiam fortes viros subitis terreri. (Even the bravest men are frightened by sudden terrors.)  Putin is genuinely on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Syria, Putin has shown the will to fight, even after red-lines were crossed and stern warnings were given. His threats of military action are not doubted. Russian intrusions into NATO airspace, flyovers and buzzing by military jets, interceptions at sea and other harassing actions in NATO waters, are designed to have a strong educational effect on leaders in Europe.

Sweden

It has been reported by NATO in February 2016 that the Russian Federation Air Force conducted a mock nuclear attack against Sweden during war games. The March 2013 exercise saw Russian aircraft cross the Gulf of Finland and approach Swedish airspace. The NATO report claimed that Russian military drills have now reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War. During the military exercise on March 20, 2013, two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters came within 24 miles off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm. They conducted dummy bombing runs against targets thought to include a military base in southern Sweden and the headquarters of the country’s signals intelligence agency outside Stockholm. The incident caused controversy at the time because the Swedish military was caught unprepared and to rely on Danish Air Force jets operating as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission to respond. Sweden has since remilitarized an old Cold War frontier base on the island of Gotland because of the rising threat from Russia. The Obama administration has sought to expand US military spending in Europe four-fold to about $3.4 billion in an effort to reassure allies unsettled by Russia’s military actions. Such efforts affirm the US commitment to Europe. Yet, Sweden and other NATO members must be dissuaded from the view that peace can exist without significant, tangible investment in Europe’s mutual defense. They must work cooperatively with the US to bolster Europe’s defense.

Norway

In its National Threat Assessment presented in February 2016, the Norwegian Police and Security Service (PST) reported that Russia is a threat to Norway. While presenting the report, the Head of PST Marie Benedicte Bjornland explained Russian Federation intelligence services have made targets of Norway’s capabilities in defense, security, and preparedness. Bjornland said, “Our assessment is that the aim of these activities is to facilitate Russian military dispositions in a future security policy scenario.” The PST report explains that such intelligence activities could ultimately threaten key Norwegian interests and the country’s control over its own territory. The report claims that intelligence operatives have been sent to Norway with official covers as diplomats at the embassy or consulates. The main task of those diplomats, as observed by PST, is to establish relations of trust with Norwegian government employees or any other individuals who can provide sensitive information. The PST report explained that such intelligence operatives also make use of other tools such as the extensive use of operations to spread information and propaganda and influence opinion in other countries with a view to weakening confidence in the authorities of the target state or sowing division between difference groups in the society or in different regions. The PST warned that these methods are particularly used during periods of tension concerning security, and Norway should prepare itself to cope with such methods. PST head Bjornland further explained that large scale digital espionage against Norway and Norwegian interests was already underway. Businesses and educational institutions would undoubtedly be targets of such attacks. Crux est si metuas quod vincere neques. (It is tormenting to fear what you can’t overcome.)

Above are Russian “green men” in Crimea in 2014. In its National Threat Assessment presented in February 2016, the Norwegian Police and Security Service (PST) reported that Russian Federation intelligence services have made targets of Norway’s capabilities in defense, security, and preparedness. Fear exists in Oslo that one morning green men may appear in Norway’s streets.

Denmark

In March 21, 2015, Russia went on a public relations offensive on the Baltic. Denmark was warned that if it joined the NATO’s missile defense shield, its navy would become a legitimate target for a Russian nuclear attack. The Russian Federation Ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin delivered that message during an interview with a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He was quoted as follows: “Denmark would be part of the threat against Russia. It would be less peaceful and relations with Russia would suffer. It is, of course, your own decision—I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer. At the same time Russia has missiles that certainly can penetrate the future global missile defense system.” Denmark’s Foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard, reacted strongly to the comments, calling the Russian ambassador’s statement “unacceptable.” However, Nicolai Wammen, Denmark’s Defense Minister went to pains to calm Russia, saying the move [toward a defense shield] is not targeted toward Russia but at “rogue states, terrorists organizations and others who would have the capacity to fire missiles at Europe and the United States.” Concerning such statements by Russian officials, NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Air Force General Philip Breedlove has already provided some answers which the Obama administration should echo. Breedlove said: NATO must challenge Russia’s current policies and demonstrate that Putin’s current approach will not be allowed to damage security. He further stated the alliance must also deter Russia “by carefully shaping Moscow’s choices and managing Putin’s confidence.” Nord Stream-2 will include two new pipelines that will deliver an additional 44 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland. Germany, the greatest consumer of Russian gas, supports Nord Stream-2. Some EU countries say it contradicts the sanctions policy against Russia, and accuse German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government of putting their country’s economic needs ahead of collective diplomacy.

Stirring Disunity Economically

Nihil tam muitium quod non expungari pecunia posit. (No fort is so strong that it cannot be taken with money.) Some EU countries have established new deals with Russia, an activity inconsistent with placing sanctions on Moscow over its behavior toward EU or EU-backed countries. Perhaps those states really believe such breakdowns in unity are unavoidable, especially regarding oil and gas. However, regardless of the genuine economic benefits of any deals with Russia, the economic carrots held by Moscow enable it to use EU and NATO members as tools against each other.

Germany

In September 2015, the Russian state owned gas giant, Gazprom, began preparing for the construction of Nord Stream-2. It will include two new pipelines that will deliver an additional 44 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland. Nord Stream-2 doubles the capacity of Nord Stream-1 built in 2011 which passes through Ukraine. Running the new pipeline through Ukraine was viewed unsafe. The new pipeline is especially important to Germany, the greatest consumer of Russian gas. Some EU countries fear the new pipeline will allow Germany to dominate the European gas market, Germany says politics should be left behind in the building of the pipeline. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker echoed that view saying the project should be considered not as a political issue, but as a commercial one. In December 2015, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the first to speak out against the pipeline in the context of security saying it contradicted the sanctions policy against Russia. Italy also accused Germany of putting its economic needs ahead of the bloc’s collective diplomacy. (Note Italian firm Eni had large investment in a South Stream gas pipeline from Russia cancelled by Gazprom in 2014) Italian concerns over the Nord Stream-2 have since been quieted. A group of Eastern European countries sent a letter to the European Commission calling for it to block the Nord Stream-2. They are headed by Slovakia and Poland, who are believed to have initiated the campaign, and supported by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Greece. They say Nord Stream-2 goes against the EU energy diversification and security policies. Berlin might explain claims by other EU and NATO countries are small relative to the German commitment to European defense and security and its role as the EU’s economic engine. The Obama administration has not publicly admonished or discouraged Germany on Nord Stream-2. It could insist Germany demonstrate how the gas deal is a matter of energy security, not adverse  with sanctions policy, and maybe assist it in doing so. During the final plenary session at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2016, Putin seemed to deliberately sow seeds of suspicion regarding the solidarity of two main members the EU with the other 26 members by saying: “I believe that the Federal Chancellor of Germany and the President of France are being sufficiently objective today, and though it is obvious for political reasons they support the current Kiev authorities, in my opinion they have a sufficiently fair assessment of the situation. They already have an understanding that the problems that have accumulated there are not only black and white—it is much more complicated.”

Observing Germany’s moves, other EU countries have rushed to strengthen ties with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in February 3, 2016, Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner confirmed Austria’s commitment to Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Europe at a meeting with Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Austria

Observing Germany, other states contributing far less to the EU and NATO, have visited Putin, seeking to strengthen their business and economic linkages with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in February 3, 2016, Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner stated that EU sanctions against Russia have made no political progress and brought negative effects to Austria’s economy. Recent statements from Putin support the Vice Chancellor’s claim. Putin explained: “Concerning our possibilities on the international financial markets, the sanctions are severely harming Russia. But the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices of oil and gas, which we can partly compensate for elsewhere.” Putin added: “The trade balance, however, is still positive.” For Mitterlehner, the low impact of sanctions on Russia and their reverse impact on Austrian firms put the continued implementation of them in question. On that, Mitterlehner complained: “We have over a thousand companies doing business with Russia from Austria, and another 500 Austrian firms working in Russia. 40,000 employees are being affected.” He confirmed Austria’s commitment to Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Europe at a meeting with Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Hungary

In a press conference at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on February 17, 2016, Putin referred to Hungary as an “old and faithful partner.” Orban returned with similar pleasantries, but contrary to thinking within the EU of which Hungary is a member, Orban also stated that the time for the automatic extension of the sanctions on Russia had passed, and that more EU countries are starting to oppose the restrictions on Moscow. Orban and Putin had signed a number of agreements two years earlier to include the expansion of Paks-2, Hungary’s only active nuclear power plant, built by the Soviet Union. The four Paks reactors are currently producing up to 50 percent of Hungary’s electricity. However, the remaining reactors will go off-line between 2032 and 2037, and Hungary would lose the bulk of its electricity. The €12.5 billion contract, partly aided by Moscow’s €10 billion loans, would add two new 1,200 megawatt reactors to nuclear power plant. The Orban and Putin also agreed to extend a gas deal which will see Russia supply Hungary until the end of 2019. About 85 percent of Hungary’s gas flows from Russia. Orban and Putin already signed a gas agreement in 2015 that replaced a 20 year contract that expired in December 2015. Under the agreement, Budapest is paying only for the gas it actually consumes, as opposed to the volume it contracts, making it a lucrative offer for the low-demand client. Putin said: “We are satisfied even despite a well-known drop in trade turnover. We are content with the nature of our relationship.” In 2015, Orban told Putin “Hungary needs Russia.” In 2014, Orban said Europe “shot itself in the foot” as the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia.” Putin said that the Kremlin is convinced that the “normalization of Russia-EU ties will happen sooner or later.”

There is discernible frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration. Russian propaganda has influenced Georgia’s disillusioned. Despite tension between Moscow and Tblisi, the prospect exists that Georgia might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration and abandon closer EU and NATO ties.

Stirring Disunity Politically

What galls the US and EU is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in what he refers to as Russia’s “near abroad”. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin is provided with additional space from which he can exert his influence in the home country. In the Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine, Russia moved in with its forces, under the causality of rescuing ethnic-Russian lives. So far, Russia has refrained from taking military action in other near abroad countries. However, Russia has used state-controlled media outlets to beam programs and reports into near abroad countries attacking the notion of European unity.  News stories on Europe on RT_com and Sputnik in particular are usually negative, designed to stoke cynicism citizens may feel toward their leaders. Eventually, such propaganda will be structured to drive citizens in those countries away from European economic and security structures. Vulpem pilum mutat, non mores. (A fox may change its hair, not its tricks.)

Georgia

In February 2016, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure. The rethinking of its Euro-Atlantic orientation would be due in part to Russian efforts. According to Clapper, “even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. In 2008, Putin first tested NATO, moving against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” Pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, along with Russian Federation troops, fought a war for independence against the Georgian Government. Once peace was established between the warring parties by then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russia occupied the two rebellious regions and continues to do so today. Russia also recognized their independence. There are now nearly 5,000 Russian Federation troops based in South Ossetia and 5,000 based in Abkhazia. There was little Georgia could do then, or can do now, to recover those regions, yet it had the support of the US, and the EU. The big change that has occurred is the growth of a discernible frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration. Russian propaganda has also been effective in Georgia and the prospect exists that Tblisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration and abandon closer EU and NATO ties. That could occur despite the fact that tension between Tblisi and Moscow remains high. A similar assessment was made about Georgia in 2015, but the risk is now increasing. At best, Russia could ask Georgia to join a Russia-led customs union and sign up for the Moscow dominated Eurasian Economic Union. That might be countered by increased public visits by senior US and EU officials to hear Tblisi’s ideas on accelerating the pace of integration.

Moldova

In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. Moldovans in response elected a pro-EU government in 2009. It was a pro-EU government that in 2014, which against Russia’s wishes, signed an Association Agreement with the EU. However, Moldova entered 2016 without a government and mired in a deep political crisis following a corruption scandal which forced the ruling pro-EU government of Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet to resign in late October. Earlier revelations concerning the same scandal knocked down his predecessor, Chiril Gaburici, in June 2015. The crisis began early 2015 when it was discovered that over $1 billion, equivalent to about 15 percent of the country’s GDP, had disappeared from three Moldovan banks in 2014 following parliamentary elections. When Gaburici’s administration fell,  the question was raised whether leaders in Chisinau would ever be able to enact reforms needed to bring the country in line with EU standards. Despite the fact the a pro-European government was eventually approved by lawmakers, Moldovans engaged in street protests, discontented over its right wing and pro-Romania elements. Officials in power feared that if early elections were called, Moldovans would vote for representatives of the left, who are pro-Russian, and who seek to develop political and economic ties with Russia. In addition to other benefits such as trade, the coming to power of a pro-Russian government in Moldova would be a public relations coup for Moscow. It could claim that Moldova was a state that experienced all of the charms of European integration and decided to return to orient itself toward the tried and proven path toward Russia and long-established Russian markets.

Regarding Transnistria–an unrecognized republic which declared independence in 1990 and defended it in the War of Transnistria in 1992. It has been governed since as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a pro-Russian government in Chisinau could help diffuse the crisis, but very likely in Moscow’s favor. To firm up agreements that ended the war, talks that include the US, EU, and Russia, are underway on the Transnistria Peace Settlement. Chisinau, along with Kiev, has blockaded Transnistria, preventing not only trade but the entry of citizens with Russian passports into its territory. After the War of Transnistria of 1992, the Russian Federation stationed 2,500 troops in the republic. Today, 1000 Russian Federation troops remain there ostensibly as peacekeepers. In 2014, Transnistria announced it hoped Russia would annex its territory into Russia following the Crimea referendum. As a sign of support, in 2015, Moscow had 400 Russian Federation troops there to hold military exercises using armored personnel carriers and live ammunition. Still, Moscow always considers the big picture, and apparently does not believe annexing Transnistria would be advantageous. It does not want the Transnistria issue to negatively impact its efforts to bring Moldova into its Eurasian Economic Union. Discernable steps to bring Moldova closer have included: the courtship of pro-Russian political elements; efforts to create stronger economic ties; and, diplomatic overtures on establishing a new security relationship. If Moldova moved closer to Russia, security risks might increase for Europe, especially with regard to Ukraine and Romania. In a calibrated way, the US and EU might invest directly into Moldovan communities, focusing on schools churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects. Supporting Moldovan economic growth by seeking more international markets for Moldovan goods and services worldwide might take some dtrains off of Chisinau. The US and EU could enable Moldova to better integrate itself militarily with Europe by providing its forces equipment and training from US and European military advisers. Diplomatic efforts could relax pressures on Chisinau from Ukraine and Romania.

It was the United Kingdom that raised European awareness of the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy and has kept the concept alive. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and to potential threats elsewhere on the continent. Nothing would make Putin happier than seeing the United Kingdom give-up on its Western partners.

Brexit

Nothing would make Putin happier than seeing the United Kingdom give-up on its Western partners. It was the United Kingdom that raised European awareness of the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy and has kept the concept alive. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and potential threats elsewhere on the continent. Cameron has been frank in expressing mutual positions of the Western powers to Putin in meetings. It has also been the United Kingdom that has argued for the liberalization of European markets and global free-trade in unison with the US. The Obama administration is agonizing over the possibility of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU on its watch. It would create unsettling changes in the US dynamic with the United Kingdom and EU as well. It was on January 23, 2013 that Cameron made his renowned “Bloomberg speech”, in which he promised an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Cameron said the referendum would follow a period of negotiation with other EU countries on the internal working of the EU and the United Kingdom’s relationship to it. Those negotiations occurred, and despite some firm resistance from France, Cameron got most of what he wanted. Four main points sum it up: an opt out from the ambition of an “ever closer union” (The phase appeared in the Treaty of Rome, which the United Kingdom is not a signatory and the non binding preamble of the Treaty of Lisbon.); greater powers for national parliaments block EU legislation; safeguards to ensure the single market cannot be rigged in favor of eurozone members; and, reducing access to social benefits to EU nationals, which is tied to concerns about immigration. Next comes the national referendum on June 23, 2016. “In/out” campaigning is underway. During the Greek, news about the crisis on the Russian state news channel, Russia-24, was accompanied by the graphic declaring “Greece—almost over.” The Russian daily Kosmomolskaya Pravda ran the headline: “Greek tragedy. Divorce already near.” The Greek crisis was perceived then as just the start of the EU’s problems, suggesting Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy could be next if Greece left the eurozone. It should be expected that Russian media houses roll out similar coverage on Brexit.

Obama is counting on Cameron to capture the imagination of the United Kingdom and not let it recede further into the distance. The United Kingdom has been an important intermediary between the US and Europe. It is not near the center of European power, which is now concentrated around Germany and France. The United Kingdom has become weaker militarily and increasingly paralyzed by domestic issues. Washington fears that the United Kingdom is moving out of the international power game. Keeping an active United Kingdom in the EU is central to US efforts to keep Europe united. Obama might visit Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street to signify his support. Obama could ask Cameron then what exactly he can do as the US president to support the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU. Cameron might just accept his offer and present Obama with a laundry list of requests. Nothing on that list should be subject to political bargaining. The special relationship between the US and the United Kingdom is genuine. By supporting Cameron, the Obama administration may leave the most positive legacy regarding US-United Kingdom relations since World War II.

Since Obama supports the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU, perhaps he could visit London, and ask Cameron directly what he could do as the US president to assist him. If Cameron wants his help, he might just provide Obama with a laundry list of requests. Not one item should be subject to bartering. The special US relationship with the United Kingdom is real. By supporting Cameron on Brexit, the Obama administration may leave the most positive legacy regarding US-United Kingdom relations since World War II.

The Way Forward

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was quoted as saying: “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.” It is good the Obama administration in its final year has taken an interest in European unity and pressures from Russia. The administration has clearly indicated that it is not conceding to anything that is difficult, uncertain, and perhaps even disconcerting in international affairs.

Among Europeans in 2015, Obama received strong support, although his ratings dropped slightly over the past seven years. To give an example, he has the confidence of 83 percent of France, 76 percent of the United Kingdom, and 73 percent of Germany. Yet, perhaps there may be less interest in what Obama says at this point. He is, after all, a lame duck president with months left in office.   Europeans may be transfixed on the very interesting candidates of the Election of 2016, pondering who the next US president will be. Perhaps pride may cause them to reject what Obama may offer. Yet, whether Europeans want to hear from Obama or accept his help or not, they must recognize the need to remain united and maintain the Atlantic bridge to the US. Outside of the EU, European countries would have a superficial existence, underestimating their destiny, dignity, and nature. To that extent, a dialogue with Obama about capabilities and possibilities for assisting their countries in 2016 should be sought.

NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine Crisis; A Military Response to “Russia’s Moves” Must Exist, But There Is Still Room for Diplomacy

US soldiers (above) training for combat operations. To respond to possible “Russian moves” against its Member States in Eastern Europe, NATO is organizing a new Rapid Reaction Force that will include US units. Political leaders of all NATO Member States must think deeply about situations that the use of the new force may create.

According to a September 7, 2014 Reuters article entitled, “NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine, Iraq Crises”, NATO leaders emerged from a summit in Wales with a plan to protect eastern members from a resurgent Russia, a pledge to reverse the decline in their defense spending, and a Western coalition to combat Islamic militants in Iraq. Ways were sought to use NATO’s military power to avert additional moves by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin against vulnerable Eastern European Member States. Senior alliance officials sought to reassure those countries that there are teeth behind the pledge (contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document) that an attack on one Member State will be considered an attack on all. A key decision made at the summit was to create a new NATO Rapid Reaction Force of some 5,000 troops assembled from existing national high-readiness forces based at home. It would eventually be deployable within 48 hours’ notice, instead of up to several weeks now, to deter an aggressor in a crisis. It will be supported with logistics and equipment pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia. The new force may also be used for expeditionary missions outside the NATO Treaty area. (Such operations would be subject to a unanimous political decision of the 28-nation NATO Council and to national caveats limiting what troops can do abroad.) A “Readiness Action Plan” was also adopted to shield former Soviet bloc Central and Eastern European countries that joined the alliance in the last 15 years by modernizing military infrastructure, further pre-positioning equipment and supplies, rotating air patrols and holding regular joint exercises on their soil.

Before the NATO Summit, seven NATO allies planned to create a new rapid reaction force of at least 10,000 soldiers as part of plans to boost NATO defenses in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The aim was to create a division sized joint expeditionary force for rapid deployment and regular exercises. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to announce the creation of the force at the NATO Summit. The United Kingdom-led force would include an air and naval units as well as ground troops. Countries involved include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, and the Netherlands—Canada also expressed an interest in taking part. Political leaders of these countries apparently became uncertain and impatient regarding US efforts to mitigate the threat of further Russian advances westward. At the summit, the force’s size was reduced to a level short of what Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania wanted. Yet, after US President Barack Obama spoke in Estonia on the eve of the summit, underlining the US commitment to defend the Baltic States, they were accepting of the change.

Yet, the September 7th Reuters article notes that despite ringing declarations of resolve, the US-led alliance cannot fix the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Questions remain about the allies’ plan to create a Rapid Reaction Force and their aim of raising defense budgets to 2 percent of national output over a decade. Both are subject to political caveats. Most analysts say the main security problems on NATO’s eastern flank lie less in a Russian military threat to its allies than instability in non-aligned former Soviet republics between NATO and Russia. Coping with a Russian military push there, may require more than 5,000 NATO troops.

NATO appears to be in a situation similar to what it faced during the Cold War. Yet, continuous draw downs of Member State forces since that time has left it without robust military capabilities and harmed its ability to transmit, by actions, a message that would deter Russia from further advances. Now that Putin and Russia are on the move, it is not feasible for NATO to create an effective defense through a Rapid Reaction Force, the prepositioning of materials, and exercises that could reestablish a deterrent from the new Rapid Reaction Force now as if before the draw downs never occurred. Nunc pro tunc! (Now for then!)   The United Kingdom and France bolstered Europe’s defense with their own nuclear arsenals. As in the past, the mere consideration of the use of force against Russia brings the world closer to World War III. A diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Europe may exist. It would require NATO Member States, despite all that has transpired to date, to engage in a new process of communicating with Russia through diplomacy, not with sanctions and new plans to use force.

NATO’s New Rapid Reaction Force

As US and NATO officials have tried to quickly respond to the evolving crisis in Ukraine, they have noted an alarming pattern of behavior by Putin. While Putin emerged as the dominant power in Moscow, Russia was hardly realistically judged by the West. Indeed, wishful thinking of NATO Member States’ political leaders of a post-Cold War compliant Russia ruled. At the end of the NATO Summit in 1990, there was even hope of establishing a strategic partnership between NATO and Russia. Caution was not exercised. A reversal of such good fortune was viewed as unlikely. With a sense of near certitude over Russian actions and intentions, they made staggering cuts in their forces and NATO Member States failed to meet defense spending goals.   Political leaders of NATO Member States must accept that their assumptions about Russia were wrong. Any plans of working with Russia were scrubbed in May 2014. (The NATO-Russia Council created in 2002 has not been formally shut-down).

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, NATO members have taken a number of short-term steps to reinforce the security of allies in Eastern Europe who are worried about Putin’s assertiveness. Putin’s actions have been in line with his vision of a resurgent Russia at the center of an orbit of compliant neighbors. This concept is manifested in his proposal for a “Eurasian Union,” an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, most notably, Ukraine. The words of the NATO Summit declaration pulsate for the education of all both West and East. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the new Rapid Reaction Force “will ensure that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place, at the right time.” Troops would be regularly rotated and equipment and supplies, including weapons, ammunition and fuel, would be pre-positioned in Eastern Europe. Rasmussen explained it would also require command and control and logistics experts, “so this force can travel light but strike hard if needed.” Russia’s “aggressive behavior,” he said, will mean “a more visible NATO presence in the East for as long as required.”

However, much work will be required for NATO to rejuvenate itself. Over the years, several NATO Member States have been nonchalant about failing to meet their defense spending pledges. US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending. This uneven burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.   Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, the United Kingdom and the US. France, Turkey, and Greece fell just shy of the 2 percent goal, while other major countries such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have fallen well behind. The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine.

Longstanding Members of the NATO have cut their military forces dramatically. The United Kingdom and France have reduced warships in their arsenals to the point that they have contemplated sharing a single aircraft carrier. The United Kingdom, traditionally the closest and most reliable US military partner plans to reduce its regular ground forces to just 82,000 troops. Germany is in the process of reducing its armed forces from 250,000 in 2010 to 185,000 active duty planned for in 2017. The Dutch have eliminated their heavy tank forces. Putin undoubtedly took great interest in these force reductions and the Obama administration’s decision to also make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts have left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. As noted in the greatcharlie.com post entitled “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way; In Putin’s View, Obama’s Doing Just Fine”, in 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. When Putin received the Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces, he may have discerned that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. US Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, stated “Over the last several years we’ve allowed our capabilities in NATO to slip.” He further explained: “So now we have to rebuild those capabilities. We need to understand where they reside, and what countries have which capabilities. We have to have more military exercises, improved [military] interoperability, and we need to reassure our Eastern partners in NATO that we are serious about [our commitments].”

Lessons from the Past

Throughout the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to defend against Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces along the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic as well as Czechoslovakia. In the 1980s, for example, the NATO Alliance filed 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. The objective of the Western defense was to halt any attempt to push westward beyond Germany. It was understood that the Soviets and their partners held a numerical advantage in conventional forces, particularly in heavy armored and mechanized units. Under the attrition-oriented forward defense strategy, NATO forces would use units present and, if possible reinforcements from the US, to fight and defeat the advancing force. If they failed, it was also understood that tactical nuclear weapons would be used to prevent a breakthrough beyond Germany. The threatened use of strategic nuclear forces ostensibly was also used to deter Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders from believing any successful advance would at all be tolerated and the US was fully committed to Western Europe’s defense. By the 1980s, the introduction of the US AirLand Battle Strategy with its emphasis on greater mobility and maneuver, the use of attacks in depth, and use of weapons systems that served as combat multipliers, greatly enhanced the possibility for Western success against a Soviet and Warsaw Pact advance. The battle would no longer be confined to the Inter-German border, but deep within Soviet and Warsaw Pact territory. Although Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges from Europe in the same period, there still existed an understanding that tactical nuclear weapons could be employed by other means to halt a possible breakthrough of advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. (It should be noted the Soviet and Warsaw Pact doctrine called for the use a chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to support their conventional forces.)

Western military theorists of the past hardly could have imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient highly-mobile armored and mechanized NATO forces would be not be based in Europe to meet it. While 5,000 NATO troops in a Rapid Reaction Force may appear to political leaders at the NATO Summit to be sufficient to deter or combat Russian forces which could presumably be well reinforced from within Russia. Further, halting any additional US troop reductions in Europe and rejuvenating “Reforger Exercise” (Return of Forces to Germany), that rehearsed the reinforcement of forces in Europe through the deployment of large units from the US, may send a signal that the West is becoming more assertive regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It may deter Russia from possible action against the 15 other former Soviet Republics elsewhere along its border, particularly those that are now NATO Members States. Yet, sending signals to Russia in this way may do little to improve the situation. So far, Russia has been most effective at sending signals to other former Soviet republics contemplating stronger military or economic ties to the West. In addition to acting in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has created fears that it may stir-up “frozen conflicts” in Moldova or between Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop those countries from moving closer to the West.

Some Considerations Regarding the Rapid Reaction Force

It would be counter-intuitive to believe the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or senior officers of security organizations as the Main Intelligence Directorate, considering how to cope with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force, would in an aggressive act, use the same tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. When NATO prepared to offer a path to membership to Georgia in 2008, Russia sent troops to reinforce peacekeepers in the Russian-speaking, breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After a five-day conflict with outmatched Georgian forces supported by the West, Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway regions, where Russian troops remain. Georgia’s potential membership disappeared from the NATO agenda, Late 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to forgo an Accession Agreement with the EU and join Putin’s Eurasian Union. After months of violent demonstrations by Ukrainian citizens, Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Putin intervened militarily, sending in “green men” to take control of key points in Crimea, leading to its annexation. Reports from Western news media sources indicate Russian forces similarly infiltrated the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine to join rebel forces of “New Russia”.

Russia may rush in with troops massed along the border of a neighboring state with heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units. However, as a matter of speed and surprise, Russia may rapidly deploy forces from based well inside Russia to key points in a neighboring state. In the best case scenario for NATO, the Rapid Reaction Force, in response to intelligence reports of a Russian threat, would be deployed to a NATO Member State in advance of any significant movement of Russian forces into it. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force would be able to set up its defenses, make use of prepositioned systems and ordinance, and air power would be made available to support dynamic defensive actions and negate opportunities for Russian forces to overwhelm units. Russian political leaders would need to choose whether to clash with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force or retreat unable to secure its objectives without displacing a multinational NATO troops. Perhaps the Russian decision would rest on how soon and how large would reinforcements arrive to support the Rapid Reaction Force before it could inflict catastrophic losses upon it. In 1999, Russia found itself in this very situation without prepositioned weapons and ordinance in Kosovo in the aftermath of NATO’s Operation Allied Force to expel Yugoslav Army units and irregular forces from the Serbian province. Then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was viewed as a partner of Russia. As NATO ground forces under the command of then British Army Lieutenant General Sir Michael Jackson reached Pristina, Russian airborne forces that were deployed in northeastern Bosnia as part of the Stabilization Force, rushed ahead to Pristina International Airport to secure the airfield on which several Russian fighters had landed. Jackson did not try to displace the force as ordered by his superior US Army General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (NATO’s commanding general). Jackson famously said, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” Jackson established a rapport with the Russian commanders. It was revealed that Russia, blocked from participating in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, decided to create a role for itself. Unable to move or be reinforced, the Russia relented, but it was agreed Russian troops could serve independently as peacekeepers.

If NATO Rapid Reaction Force cannot get to the Member State first, Russian forces would likely try to displace, destroy any local opposition with a superior force before NATO arrived, and quickly secure key points on the territory of a neighboring state. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force must clash with the Russian force if the objective is to displace it from key points or to expel it. Before NATO sent the force in, political leaders of Member States would need to decide in advance whether the Rapid Reaction Force would fire the shot to likely start World War III. Sending in the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to link up with local forces heavily engaged with Russian forces would guarantee NATO and Russian forces would clash. To get in country, the NATO Rapid Reaction Force would need to hope Russian forces, in preparation for their deployment to a neighboring state, would not destroy air bases and other facilities from which fighter support and transports could land in reasonable proximity to their targets.   Russia would be able to provide air cover and close air support for Russian troops. Russia would surely have air assets available to bring up reserve units and logistical support.

If Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and combat power, to quickly engage the NATO Rapid Reaction Force on the ground, it might be futile for the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to attempt to handle it, even if the absolute maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance were made available. The Rapid Reaction Force would at best be able to courageously hold on until a stronger NATO conventional force arrived to reinforce it and strike back and expel Russia from the country under attack. Again, Russia would most likely create a non-permissive environment for reinforcement. To the extent air power might be used against the Russian force, Russia may also use powerful conventional weapons to destroy NATO forces and support capabilities in the area of the neighboring state. If NATO forces were unable to halt and expel the Russian advance, new options would be needed. It would not be acceptable for the allies to simply retreat. As in the Cold War, the use of tactical nuclear weapons to repel the Russian force might be considered. The Rapid Reaction Force could be publicly declared a trip wire to trigger their use. Europe would once again face the prospect of becoming a nuclear battlefield. The use of strategic weapons in response to Russian aggression could also be threatened.

The Way Forward

Initially having ruled out military action, the West’s primary means to respond to Putin’s support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and elsewhere has been economic sanctions and political exclusion. However, despite their dependence on Russian gas and the economic consequences for trade with Russia, along with the US, EU countries have adopted a fourth round of sanctions. Through NATO, Western powers now seek to reassert themselves militarily. While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic. He would undoubtedly prefer to establish peace and security in Ukraine and in Russia’s other neighboring states, without further conflict and further economic, political, and military expense. It may still be viable to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. One clearheaded option may be to organize a summit meeting between a delegation of leaders from NATO Member States and Putin in Moscow or some other neutral location. Perhaps not all of the leaders from NATO Members States should attend the summit. The goal would not be to overwhelm Putin with numerical superiority, but to transmit NATO concerns and find some solutions. It might be best if a delegation of leaders from senior NATO Member States. Foreign secretaries could attend. However, as a summit meeting, it might be best if the leaders themselves hashed things out alone in a daylong session. They would have a real opportunity to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had at the highest-level and build confidence. A way to work together to satisfy Western and Russian interests may be found. If that is not achieved, at least leaders would remove any ambiguity about where things are headed.

For leaders of NATO Member States in particular, decisions would no longer need to be based on an understanding of “where Putin’s thinking is” in the abstract. For those leaders, speaking face to face, leaders would be given a chance to sense the other’s thinking and feelings. Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know. Every inflexion, tone, and change in the other’s voice provided some insight as to what was on a leader’s mind. Speaking by telephone, when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is not the best option. Without seeing the other party, the call can become tense. Animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of terse comments. The result would not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

Pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem. Political advisers of NATO leaders would explain that a summit with Putin would allow him to show that under his leadership, Russia has returned to the world stage as a global power. The meeting would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people and that Russia that he was a strong leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that he had control over the Ukrainian situation.  If the summit were held in Moscow, Putin would likely receive the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. Yet, whatever public relations benefit or image boost Putin might gain through a summit would be trumped by the having the leaders reach a satisfactory diplomatic outcome.

Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings. Such Cold War meetings between US presidents and their Russian counterparts may have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo. However, leaders understood that maintaining a constructive relationship was not a personal matter; it was their duty. Despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts along the course of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not. With a strong diplomatic action taken now, hopefully the issue of mutual annihilation will not become a major concern all over again.

Merkel Says Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Be Ready to Act if Needed; However, the US and Europe Must Decide How They Will “Act” Together

Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance.  Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.”  She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made.  That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success.  What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement.  A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved.  Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect.  All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.

Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed.  Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.”  His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown.  There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action.  Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.”  However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible.  The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program.  Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe.  If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be.  However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements.  They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.

European Security and Iran

A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.”  European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously.  Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts.  Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel.  It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe.  For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran.  It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action.  However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran.  He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.

Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran.  The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges.  Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending.  Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.”  Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.  The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran.  If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.

European Criticism of the US

In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  For him, that explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”  In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.

The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.  What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations.  Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama.  Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm.  While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon.  He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.

Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders.  They are the stewards of their country’s national security.  There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security.  No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted.  It has value and must be appreciated.

The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach

A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone.  Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible.  The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation.  No state can replace the US on the world stage.

If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US.  Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran.  The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high.  Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine.  After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed.  They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.

None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation.  Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama.  European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own).  To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war.  Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.

There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action.  They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran.  They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support.  If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.

The Way Forward

If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action.  Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail.  However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran.  Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act.  A united European front in support of a military response would not help either.  The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US.  The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering.  Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.

It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program.  For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe.  Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting.  The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary.  Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity.  Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure.  Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.