By Michael D. Mosettig, Former Foreign Producer at PBS News Hour
The words from the Secretary General of NATO were strong and bracing. The question on the minds of most of his Washington audience: was anyone in Moscow listening?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrapped up two days of talks with Obama Administration officials with an appearance at the Brookings Institution. The title of the speech, submitted in advance, was, "The Future of the Atlantic Alliance: Revitalizing NATO for a Changing World." Its original purpose was to describe how NATO would handle its summer withdrawal from Afghanistan and its plans for a September summit in Wales.
But just how much with world had quickly changed with Russia's annexation of Crimea was in evidence in the standing room only audience. The Brookings event was one of several in the past few days drawing big crowds of diplomats, think tankers and journalists trying to make sense of rapidly unfolding developments in Ukraine, a country that was on the minds of very few just a month ago.
Rasmussen's speech was laced with criticism of the Russian annexation that followed what he called "a referendum at gunpoint that is illegal and illegitimate."
The former Danish prime minister described the events in Ukraine and Crimea as "a wake up call for Europe and the Atlantic Community and all those committed to a Europe whole and free and at peace."
Specifically, Rasmussen said, European nations need to hold the line on defense cuts and increase defense spending.
Just how difficult that might be was spelled out by analysts from the International Institute for Strategic Studies at the U.S. unveiling of their annual "Military Balance," which details defense spending and forces around the world. The 2013 version of the 500 plus page book created a minor sensation, describing how for the first time Asian nations were spending more on their militaries than Europeans. This year the trend continues, while Russia and its Eurasian neighbors increased spending by 31 percent, the reverse was true in most European countries, led by Britain with cuts of nine percent and Italy with 21 percent.
The Russian increases, coupled with a shakeup and reform of the armed forces, have created the kind of mobile and flexible special forces units that moved into Crimea in a casualty-free operation, the IISS analysts said.
At the IISS briefing and at a session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one issue surfaced publicly that has been lurking in a few opinion columns and analysis pieces: criticism of the handling of the original European Union association offer to Ukraine. Its last minute rejection under pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin was the immediate trigger of a revolution in Kiev and subsequent Russian intervention in Crimea.
At the IISS briefing, analyst Samuel Charap deplored the absence of coordination between the EU and NATO, whose headquarters are only a few miles apart.
"The sad story is that NATO and the EU don't communicate with each other," Charap said, attributing the absence to antipathy between Turkey (a NATO member) and Cyprus (an EU member). One result, he added, was that the EU had no contingency plan for Russia's squashing of the Ukraine association agreement, adding that EU officials were lulled into complacency by their Ukrainian negotiating partners.
An even harsher critique came from former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft at the CSIS session, describing the EU association offer as "a little here, a little there that did not amount to anything." He said the U.S. should have been more actively following the process and that the EU, Russia, and the U.S. should have come up with a tri-lateral package for Ukraine.
Scowcroft, in a subsequent question and answer colloquy said, "We weren't paying attention," and that trouble could have been avoided if the U.S. had "been on top of things" as the EU-Ukraine talks were progressing.
Both Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinksi said the Ukraine developments, as disturbing as they were, did not yet amount to a new Cold War. But Brzezinski, who offered a generally more pessimistic assessment of Putin's goals and motives added, "I don't know for sure, but it is beginning to look that way."
Brzezinski said the U.S. and European allies need to develop a whole range of contingency planning for possible Russian moves into eastern Ukraine. But he coupled that with the suggestion the West needs to offer Russia a possible way out of the crisis. Part of that would include assurances Ukraine would not join NATO and that even EU membership would be years away.
Brzezinski said the U.S. and European allies need to develop a whole range of contingency planning for possible Russian moves into eastern Ukraine. But he coupled that with the suggestion the West needs to offer Russia a possible way out of the crisis Part of that would include assurances Ukraine would not join NATO and that even EU membership would be years away.