The Secretary General of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is already in the departure lounge, due to be succeeded in a few months by Norway’s former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. It seems to have given him a freedom to speak with great frankness about a situation on Europe’s borders that hasn’t looked so bleak since the Cold War ended two decades ago.
The cause, of course, is a newly expansionist Russia, still digesting its conquest in the Crimean peninsular and apparently poised to move further into Ukraine whenever it takes Vladimir Putin’s fancy. With 40,000 or so troops conducting "exercises" on Kiev’s doorstep, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe warned today that Russia could take all its main objectives in Ukraine within 3-5 days.
If the tanks rolled, Nato would not intervene. That much is clear. Ukraine is not an issue on which the West is about to go to war with Russia, "but”, Secretary General Rasmussen told me today:
It would be an historic mistake. It would isolate Russia further internationally, and would have grave consequences for relations between the western world and Russia.
But what if Russia were to go beyond Ukraine? In his Kremlin speech on March 18th, President Putin spoke of bringing the Russian speaking peoples, the ’narod’, back to Mother Russia from which they’d been so cruelly separated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that speaks of a "revanchist" ambition stretching far beyond Ukraine. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Moldova are all home to substantial ethnic Russian minorities.
So too are Latvia and Estonia, but the difference with these two are that they are both now full members of NATO, and both enjoy the alliance’s unequivocal guarantee that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.
I asked Anders Rasmussen just how steadfast that guarantee is these days? Would NATO really be prepared to go to war with Russia? He responded:
It is a steadfast guarantee that we would take all steps necessary to defend our allies. This is really the essence of our alliance, that an attack on one ally would be considered an attack on all, and in that case we would help that ally.
Not much room for equivocation there.
Poland wants more than that. It is now asking Nato to station forces, at least an armoured brigade, on its soil, as a clear message to Russia that if it were to cross the Polish border it would immediately be confronted by US, British and German troops.
That would require a major change of policy in Western capitals. The US has withdrawn two brigades from Europe since the end of the Cold War and is not about to move them back again. Britain is still bringing forces home from Germany, and in spite of some disquiet among retired generals, is not going to cancel that redeployment.
On this Anders Rasmussen was as blunt with his own side as he had earlier been with Moscow.
I asked him if Europe in particular is spending anything like enough on defence? He said:
The brief answer is no. We can’t continue to disarm while Russia continues to increase its defence spending. While defence comes at a cost, insecurity might be much more expensive and you can insure your freedom without investing in security.
The Nato target for defence spending is 2% of GDP, a target reached only by Britain, Germany, France and a handful of others.
The US still spends 4% of GDP. During the Cold War, Washington and the US public were happy to pick up more than their fair share of the burden of defending the West. It’s not at all clear that the same applies today.
At a time when everyone in Europe is under pressure to cut deficits, it seems unlikely in the extreme that any country in Europe is about to start rearming. Which may be something that President Putin has already factored into his thinking.