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Who Fears Russia? Not the Europeans!

NATO leaders got acquainted with President Donald Trump during his recent visit. Their main objective was to reinforce his aides’ efforts to turn him into a traditional American cheerleader for European dependence.

For those seeking to revive an alliance created almost 70 years ago, in a vastly different time, Russia has resumed its role as the “necessary” enemy. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said the U.S. was returning troops to the Europe NATOcontinent as part of the “transition from assurance to deterrence.” Their “mission is to deter Russia,” he added.

Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine there has been much fevered rhetoric about the Russian Threat. Shrill demands arose for allied, and especially American, deployments along NATO’s border with Russia, as well as expanded alliance membership.

Yet the Europeans don’t fear a Russian variant of Blitzkrieg. Ignore what they say. Look at what they do.

Moscow occupied Crimea in March 2014. That year NATO Europe reduced its real collective military spending by one percent. In 2015 the same countries increased real outlays by just .5 percent. Last year the hike, heralded as a grand turnaround and harbinger of future increases, was an anemic 3.8 percent.

Last year NATO Europe devoted 1.47 percent of GDP to the military, up slightly from 1.44 percent in 2015. Only Estonia, Great Britain, Greece, and Poland joined the U.S. above the NATO standard of two percent of GDP going to the military. However, Poland made it for the first time, and only through a bit of statistical legerdemain. Britain also tortured a few statistics to get over the two percent line.

Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovenia, and Spain all came in at about one percent or less. Germany, with Europe’s largest economy was 1.19 percent. Latvia and Lithuania, supposedly in mortal peril, came in at 1.46 and 1.49 percent, respectively.

We are moving in the right direction, alliance officials intone. In 2014 the members pledged to hit two percent by 2024.

Yet this is a curious policy if Moscow really is poised to commit murder and mayhem across Europe. A cynic might conclude that the latest promise was designed to satisfy Washington rather than deter Russia. Why spend money today when you can wait another seven years?

Does anyone really imagine that Belgium and Spain are going to more than double their military outlays? That Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands will almost do so?

Last year nine countries either reduced outlays or had increases below one percent. Eleven had single digit increases. Of the five nations with double digit hikes, only one, Italy, has a substantial military budget.

Yet even Europe’s military laggards don’t see much reason to spend on the military. After all, they already spend far more on the armed forces than does Russia. Last year NATO Europe devoted an estimated $265 billion to defense, almost four times Moscow’s expenditures of $68 billion. The Russian Republic is not the Soviet Union reborn.

Russia can do great harm to its smaller neighbors, but Moscow’s performance against Georgia in 2008 was hardly inspiring. Even with subsequent reforms the Putin government could not successfully swallow Ukraine. A revived Red Army certainly won’t steamroller to the Atlantic.

Moreover, while economics is not destiny, it is the foundation for military strength. The European Union has roughly 13 times Russia’s economic strength. Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy all have larger GDPs than that possessed by Russia. Europe’s population is around three times as large.

Set aside capability. There is no indication that Putin is suicidal. What would he plausibly gain from starting a war that he could win only if the allies essentially chose not to fight, a wild gamble?

The actions he took against Georgia and Ukraine were rational and measured. That he was not justified in doing so doesn’t change the fact that he believed he was responding to allied provocations. He’s never shown any desire to assemble an empire and rule over non-Russians.

Of course, Putin’s Russia poses even less threat to America. The former looks a lot like the pre-1914 Russian Empire, concerned about border security and international respect, but with few aggressive designs elsewhere. Nowhere does Moscow threaten fundamental U.S. security interests.

NATO succeeded brilliantly, allowing Europe to revive behind an American military shield. Now Europeans should take over responsibility for Europe’s defense. Let them decide whether there are threats against which they must defend.

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