Putin Won't Like It, But That's OK

It ain't Kansas.

Photographer: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

Russia has reacted angrily to reports that the U.S. is planning to position tanks and other heavy equipment in Poland and on the territory of other eastern European allies. That response is unfortunate but unsurprising. Regardless of Russia's tender feelings on the point, the move is necessary.

Needlessly provoking Russia is unwise. Yet so is deferring to Russia's sensitivities, and today that's the greater danger. The plans that the U.S. is suggesting are needed to show both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's easternmost members that the alliance is determined to defend itself.

Cool War

The deployment of tanks and other equipment under consideration would be small. The idea is to put equipment for a potential U.S. fighting force of 150 troops in each of the three Baltic states, and up to 5,000 across the region. In its own right, this is not a meaningful defensive force, much less an offensive one -- Russia has 770,000 active-duty troops. It's a "tripwire" to ensure that any attack launched on NATO's eastern members would kill Americans, and so dictate full-scale U.S. involvement. Russia's leaders understand this perfectly, and their statements to the contrary are disingenuous.

Even a small tripwire force had until now been avoided out of deference to the agreement NATO signed with Russia in 1997. The alliance said it would avoid the "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" on the territory of its new ex-Soviet-bloc members. Those were different times, when the two sides talked of building a common security architecture and promised not to invade their neighbors. Still, the U.S. appears to be trying to stick to the letter of that agreement, and rightly so.

A full-scale, permanent troop deployment would inflame, and even go some way toward justifying, Russian fears about the threat it faces from NATO. Pumping U.S. weapons into Ukraine for use against (undeclared) Russian troops would be a mistake for the same reason.

Yet short of such actions, NATO needs to make its commitment to collective defense clear. Russia has annexed Crimea, stoked war in eastern Ukraine and greatly increased its defense spending -- not in response to NATO aggression, but with the knowledge that its neighbors were too weak to resist and the West wasn't about to defend them. NATO's response to Russia should now be firm but restrained, neither inviting attack through weakness nor triggering a dangerous spiral of escalation. The plans for a tripwire force fill the bill.

In one vital respect, though, they aren't enough. A judicious commitment of U.S. power is a necessary response to Russia's efforts to intimidate, but so is a greater commitment -- any commitment -- of European effort in the cause of Europe's own defense.

Officials in Moscow must have been delighted to read a new poll that found that in only two of the NATO states surveyed -- the U.S. and Canada -- would most citizens back a military response to a Russian attack on a fellow alliance member. This lackluster resolve isn't just talk: Europe matches it with lackluster military spending.

You'd never guess that Europe needs NATO more than America does. When will the continent realize that Russia is no friend and stop expecting the U.S. to do it all?

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.