Politics & Government

Obama takes fight over Ukraine to a Europe that may not care

If you want to know what the real western European view is of the Ukraine crisis, instead of looking for reaction to President Barack Obama’s strong words Tuesday in Warsaw, look at the recent elections that put anti-European Union nationalists into the EU Parliament.

Or look at European defense budgets that for decades have been acknowledged as inadequate to deal with any serious new threat. Experts point out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and its shadow invasion of Ukraine’s industrial east haven’t resulted in those budgets being bumped up.

Not only does that mean something, but it’s also a message that’s unlikely to have escaped the notice of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“What’s been made very clear to everyone in this crisis is that in bringing about a solution, Europe has no tolerance for pain,” said Bobo Lo, a Russia expert at the British research center Chatham House, noting that Europe would shy away from deep sanctions against Russia that could hurt European economies, and would flee from any idea of military support.

“Putin knows Russia does have a tolerance for pain. This isn’t to say that Europe has completely given up on Ukraine, though Crimea is clearly Russian now and will remain so. But Europe has no stomach for a fight of any kind,” Lo said.

It was against that backdrop that Obama arrived in Warsaw on Tuesday and reassured Poland of the American commitment to Eastern Europe.

In his first comments in the region since the February invasion of Crimea, he pledged $1 billion in increased military spending in the region. He talked about increasing the number of American troops in eastern Europe, and noted that a missile defense system for the region “is on track.” He warned Russia against continuing on the expansionist path seen this spring in Ukraine.

“Further Russian provocation will be met with further costs for Russia, including, if necessary, additional sanctions,” he said. “Russia has a responsibility to engage constructively with the Ukrainian government in Kiev, to prevent the flow of militants and weapons into eastern Ukraine.”

But perhaps the most telling words he spoke weren’t directed at Putin, but at NATO allies. “Every ally needs to carry their share and truly invest in the capabilities of the alliance that are needed for the future,” he said.

Right now, there’s consensus that western European allies are not carrying their share. NATO’s guidelines call for each nation to commit to spending no less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product _ a measure of the size of an economy _ on defense. The United States more than doubles that investment. A World Bank compilation of military spending per nation shows it’s pretty much alone among its allies.

The World Bank study shows that in 2012, the global average spent on military was about 2.4 percent of GDP. U.S. defense spending was calculated at 4.2 percent of GDP; Russia’s, about 4.5 percent.

Of the 28 NATO members, only the United States and four others _ France, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom _ topped the 2 percent level. Estonia, Poland and Portugal were just shy at 1.9 percent, but most members were far below the NATO guidelines.

Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Romania spent 1.3 percent of their GDP on defense. Iceland spent 0.1 percent and Spain spent 0.9 percent.

Polish President Bronisław Komorowski told Obama that his country would do more. “Poland intends to increase the defense budget of our armed forces,” he said. “Poland is going to increase the funding of the modernization of the Polish armed forces up to the level of 2 percent of the GDP.”

But experts note that in much of Europe, there’s been no scramble to increase defense spending, even as signs continue that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is far from over. For example, Russian television stations now include the eastern section of Ukraine and Crimea on their weather maps.

“As much as Russia’s renewed aggression has concerned Europeans _ and it’s easy to argue that it should concern them far more than it should concern Americans, both because of proximity and economic ties _ it’s clear Europeans don’t see this as an existential threat,” said Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond. “They’re not going to carry any more of what would be their fair share.”

In fact, the signs are to the contrary. While many who study Europe acknowledge that European Parliament elections are not a good reflection of much of what goes on in member nations, results such as those late last month do reflect a deep dissatisfaction with extra-national politics.

So-called Euro-skeptics from France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom were all elected _ some from the far left, others from the far right.

While they won’t come close to controlling the European Parliament, their elections send a strong message that many Europeans are tired of taking responsibility or orders from the world outside their borders.

“It’s needed right now, but there has never been any agreement on a single European security policy,” Long said. “And this is not the mood that brings about that sort of change.”