NATO Needs to Stand Strong Against Putin

Regular exercise is the key to good health.

Photographer: Sean Gallup

The political turmoil stirred up by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has left NATO with an urgent task: to demonstrate to Russia’s Vladimir Putin that Europe remains strong, united and invulnerable to his meddling.

In recent months, through espionage and efforts to incite unrest (notably in Germany), Putin has sought to exploit European political and social divisions to advance his goals. After occupying one-fifth of Georgia, taking over Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine, Putin has responded to sanctions by threatening Russia’s other European neighbors and sending planes and ships far and wide to probe and play chicken with NATO forces. Meanwhile, Russian hackers have reportedly targeted not just websites, but the Ukrainian power grid, Estonia’s financial system, and a German steel mill. 

NATO’s 28 member countries, meeting this week in Warsaw, have to recognize this behavior for what it is -- an escalating threat to their interests and values -- and respond with a long-term strategy.

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The alliance should, for one thing, expand and strengthen its deployment of four battalions to the Baltic nations, to make it a more credible deterrent. It should conduct more joint exercises in Europe, especially in the Baltic Sea, and see that Germany begins to participate more fully. It should also beef up its ability to coordinate its member countries’ intelligence resources, not least to monitor the surprise military training exercises that Russia has been conducting.

At the same time, NATO countries should seize every opportunity for dialogue with Russia, to try to dispel the paranoia that colors Putin’s worldview, and to be prepared to avert any unintended military confrontations.

More fundamentally, the alliance has to step up its military spending. NATO’s membership has nearly doubled since 1990, but its total defense spending has fallen by one-quarter over the same period, as the U.S. accounts for a growing share of the total. Notwithstanding last year’s small uptick in defense budgets, all but five NATO countries have fallen short of the alliance’s goal of dedicating 2 percent of gross domestic product to military spending.

This shortfall constrains NATO’s ability to take on critical new missions such as supporting the fight against Islamic State or expanding its patrols to stop human trafficking in the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the 2 percent goal is an important political symbol. NATO’s members will always argue among themselves over strategies and priorities -- that is democracy’s messy prerogative. But in the long run, the alliance must demonstrate to Putin and the world that it can depend on the support and shared commitment of all its members. 

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