National Security & Defense

To Counter Putin, More Spending and More Resolve

U.S. Army M1A2 tank during Saber Strike 2015 exercises in Lithuania, June 2015. (Photo: US Army)
Restraining Putin will require more than a bolstered NATO

According to the New York Times, President Obama will seek a $2.9 billion spending increase for U.S. military operations in Europe. The money will be spent pre-positioning U.S. armored units in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.

This is a welcome step. While the U.S. accounts for 72 percent of NATO members’ defense spending — an unfair burden — Vladimir Putin’s antics are shredding U.S.-led international order and deterrence. This credibility deficit facilitates the flaying of U.S. interests from the South China Sea to Iran.

Unfortunately, more money alone won’t be enough to deter Putin from new aggression. As I explained last June, NATO’s military posture in Europe is inadequate. And while new spending will improve matters, it will not be decisive. First off, the assumption that increased funding can deter Putin misreads his strategy by presuming that his actions in Ukraine and Europe more generally are rooted in opportunism. In fact, while Putin’s aggression has certainly been encouraged by U.S. hesitation (see President Obama’s pathetic reaction to Russia’s downing of MH-17), he is ultimately driven by his belief that he can reimagine Russian imperial power into tangible reality.

Obsessed by the loss of prestige that Russia suffered in the chaos and corruption of the post–Cold War 1990’s, Putin is determined to make NATO yield to his realpolitik agenda. As John Schindler notes, Putin’s impulses are driven by emotion as much as by reality. So the first step in challenging Russian aggression is a U.S. strategy that forcefully challenges Russia’s imperial claims in unambiguous ways, with aggressive public disdain backed by U.S. armored brigades. Obama must prove that he knows how and why Putin feels as he does, but nevertheless be unwilling to bend. Confident rhetoric must be linked with strategic positioning. A few dozen tanks and a few billion dollars do not constitute a credible strategy.

#share#Countering prospective Russian aggression will also require U.S. willingness to provide weapons that can — bluntly — be deployed to kill Russian intelligence and military personnel. To some degree — as evidenced by Estonia’s new advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles — this escalated U.S. military support is already underway. Yet more must be done. We must, for example, engage in far more aggressive counterintelligence operations against Russian provocateurs in Eastern Europe. For too long, these Russian intelligence officers — and their thinly veiled cutouts (front agents) — have been able to intimidate and influence U.S. allies into the cold embrace of Putin’s bosom. They must learn to fear the darkness.

#related#Finally, the Obama administration must abandon its short-term tick-a-Beltway-box strategic philosophy. Desperate to leave office as a president who avoided new foreign entanglements, Obama is refusing to make the necessary investments to ensure American credibility with our Eastern European allies. To be specific, President Obama should be shuttering Western European bases and investing in basing deals and military construction projects in Eastern Europe. These long-term investments would send an unmistakable signal of U.S. resolve to defend our democratic allies. Just as the Berlin tripwire of the 1950s and 1960s served to remind the Soviet Union that the U.S. would hold the line, to break Putin’s cycle of intimidation, Eastern Europeans must know that Uncle Sam has their back.

As I say, this new investment is good news. But alone — without associated political support — it offers only a fresh Band-Aid on a suppurating wound. It is unacceptable that wealthy NATO states like Canada and Germany commit only paltry sums to the West’s collective security. Then again, if not America, who?

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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