- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

In another acknowledgment that sanctions and diplomacy haven’t deterred Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, the Obama administration said Tuesday it wants to quadruple military spending in Europe to reassure NATO allies still anxious over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

The spending would increase to $3.4 billion under the new plan, which will be introduced next week as part of Mr. Obama’s final budget.

Having been unable to dislodge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proxy forces from Ukraine through diplomacy, Mr. Obama now wants to spend the extra money on “continuous U.S. armored brigade rotations” through stations in Central and Eastern Europe, beefed-up U.S. participation in NATO military exercises and the deployment of more combat vehicles and supplies.

The president said the move “should make clear that America will stand firm with its allies in defending not just NATO territory but also shared principles of international law and order.” He plans to prod allies to ratchet up their own contributions to the military alliance at an upcoming NATO conference in Poland.

“It is clear that the United States and our allies must do more to advance our common defense in support of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace,” Mr. Obama said.

Some foreign policy analysts said the administration is acknowledging belatedly the proposed “Russian reset” championed by Mr. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been a failure, as Mr. Putin has repeatedly challenged U.S. interests in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“Russia’s aggression in Europe is in large part a direct result of the Obama administration’s misguided policies toward Russia,” said Dan Kochis, a foreign policy specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The administration is now playing catch-up, trying to alleviate the aftermath of a lack of American leadership in Europe. We still do not have a comprehensive strategy toward Russia. Until the U.S. develops and implements one, our policies toward Russia will remain haphazard and a step behind.”

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson International Center, said the proposed military buildup is “reflective of the ongoing dichotomy within the administration and the broader West” toward Russia. He said the administration is still aggressively engaged in talks with Russia aimed at resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

“On the one hand, we’re working at multiple levels with the Russians to try to negotiate,” he said. “Clearly we are investing in diplomacy enough to signal that we’re still serious about it. At the very same time, we are hedging massively on a hard power-deterrence strategy.”

Three high-level Polish delegations are visiting Washington this week, seeking more U.S. support for NATO members nervous about Mr. Putin’s intentions toward other countries with large ethnic Russian populations. Poland and NATO’s Baltic states have been the loudest voices in the alliance, warning against renewed Russian aggression in recent years.

The increased U.S. military presence in Russia’s backyard won’t deter Moscow if the program is seen merely as an effort to reassure NATO allies, Mr. Rojansky said.

“They will realize that it is not reflective of a broader, unified NATO strategy,” he said. “It needs to be made very explicit that these [troops] are here to defend a particular line.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, giving an overview of the administration’s proposed 2017 defense budget of $582.7 billion Tuesday, described Russia as a growing challenge for the U.S. He said the administration was taking a “strong and balanced approach” to deterring its former Cold War foe.

“We haven’t had to worry about this for 25 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do,” Mr. Carter said in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington.

‘Clear sign’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has pressed for greater defense spending across the alliance, issued a statement applauding Mr. Carter’s proposed increase in spending in Europe.

“This is a clear sign of the enduring commitment by the United States to European security,” he said. “It will be a timely and significant contribution to NATO’s deterrence and collective defense.”

Michal Baranowski, head of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, said the increased spending was a positive development and would be a “key ingredient” for success at a NATO summit to be attended by allied heads of government in July in the Polish capital.

“I think it’s great news for Poland, the region and NATO as a whole. The extra investment will make NATO’s flank safer by more effectively deterring Russia. It’s also an important sign of U.S. leadership that is badly needed at NATO,” Mr. Baranowski told The Associated Press.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest rejected suggestions that the additional military spending reflects failed diplomacy.

“I think it is an indication that the United States values deeply the strength of our alliance in NATO, and we are investing in that alliance in a way that will have important national security benefits, not just for the United States, but also for our allies in Europe,” he said.

He said the move is also designed to prod other NATO members to make “a similarly serious commitment” to the security alliance.

NATO countries are required to contribute 2 percent of GDP to the alliance, but only five of the 28 member countries were at or above that level in 2015: the U.S., Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece.

Since Russia intervened in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea in March 2014, the U.S. and its European allies have imposed a series of economic sanctions against Moscow. But Mr. Putin hasn’t backed down from his course of supporting separatists in Ukraine.

The administration said the additional money would allow the U.S. to beef up its “force presence” in Europe with continuous armored brigade rotations, enable more extensive U.S. participation in training activities with NATO allies and bolster positioning of combat vehicles and supplies in NATO allies Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.

Administration officials say they don’t know how Mr. Putin, long a critic of NATO’s decision to expand into Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union, will react to the proposal. Just last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called NATO’s buildup near Russia’s borders “counterproductive and dangerous.”

Mr. Kochis said the military buildup is a step in the right direction, but “doesn’t project resolve and steadfastness in a way that would be most beneficial to our allies because of the temporary nature in which the administration proposes to fund it.”

“Occasionally rotating forces from the U.S. to Europe is a far cry from the reassurance provided by a robust, permanent presence, particularly in our Eastern European NATO allies,” he said.

Meanwhile, Romania has announced its desire to station a permanent alliance fleet — including ships from Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Germany, Italy and the U.S. — in the Black Sea to counter what they see as Russia’s rising involvement in the region.

Though Russia’s military activity has quieted in eastern Ukraine in recent months, Moscow continues to maintain a presence there, working with pro-Russian local forces.

The Pentagon also said Tuesday it was ramping up spending for the battle against Islamic State, doubling from last year’s request to $7 billion.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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