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Ukraine crisis prompts security rethink in Europe

Friday - 3/21/2014, 4:50pm  ET

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 file photo, A NATO AWACS plane takes off the NATO Airbase in Geilenkirchen, Germany. Russia's readiness to use military force in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for many European countries, which since the Iron Curtain crumbled have slashed defense spending. Some shifted their priorities toward international missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere rather than deterring potential aggression from the East. Now, a serious recalibration is underway, particularly in countries with memories of Soviet tanks rumbling across their borders. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

KARL RITTER
Associated Press

STOCKHOLM (AP) -- After the Cold War, Sweden refocused its national security strategy to give more weight to deployments in faraway conflict zones and even non-military challenges like climate change. Critics who dwelled on a Russian threat were dismissed as dinosaurs.

They are now having an "I-told-you-so" moment.

"An obvious misjudgment," said former Swedish defense minister Mikael Odenberg, who resigned in 2007 to protest military spending cuts.

Russia's readiness to use military force in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for many European countries, which since the Iron Curtain crumbled have slashed defense spending. Some shifted their priorities toward international missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere rather than deterring potential aggression from the East. Now, a serious recalibration is underway, particularly in countries with memories of Soviet tanks rumbling across their borders.

"If we don't do something quickly about it, some of our capabilities will be degraded to such an extent that they cease to exist," Czech armed forces chief Petr Pavel warned last week at a conference marking the 15th anniversary of his country's entry into NATO.

Only a handful of NATO's European members meet the alliance's goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. Meanwhile, Moscow spends more than 4 percent of GDP on its military.

Strained by the financial crisis, European defense budgets dropped even as Russia resumed muscle-flexing exercises and patrols near European borders, including the resumption of long-range strategic bomber flights in 2007. Although Russia's brief war with Georgia in 2008 was a warning, Russia's buildup was widely seen as just modernizing military forces that had fallen into disrepair.

"I think a lot of people did underestimate the willingness of Russia to actually use them," said Samuel Perlo-Freeman, a global military spending analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

He said it's very likely that Moscow's assertiveness in the Ukraine crisis will prompt an increase in military budgets in countries near or bordering Russia in central Europe and around the Baltic Sea.

There are signs of that already. The Czech defense minister recently called for raising military spending to 1.5 percent of GDP, although there's no concrete budget proposal yet. Such outlays are down to 1.1 percent after a series of cuts that military officials say have eroded the country's military readiness.

Lithuania spends less than 1 percent of its output on the military but plans to ramp that up now, although "it is unrealistic that Lithuania will reach (NATO'S) 2 percent objective in the short run," Finance Minister Rimantas Sadzius said this month.

Officials in Lithuania and Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia have called on NATO to move more resources there including ground troops and missile defenses. The U.S.-led alliance has boosted its air patrols over the Baltic countries and France offered Friday to add four more fighter jets.

The three former Soviet republics have a history of quarrels with Moscow over the situation of Russian-speaking minorities in their countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited protecting Russians as the reason for seizing Crimea from Ukraine, and for fighting Georgia in 2008.

However, the Ukraine crisis has not produced any talk in Obama's administration of altering the downward direction of U.S. defense budgets -- still by far the biggest in the world -- or of putting additional U.S. military resources in Europe. In February, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said while at NATO headquarters that the U.S. is shrinking the size of its military without compromising its capabilities. He said European allies need to take the same approach.

Overall, Europe's defense spending is likely to remain constrained by broader fiscal pressures, said Giri Rajendran of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Western Europe's two largest military spenders, Britain and France, are unlikely to depart from existing budget trajectories, while in Southern Europe, "fiscal austerity has already seen some of the largest percentage reductions in defense outlays in Europe," Rajendran wrote in an email.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi wants to cut 3 billion euros ($4.1 billion) from the defense budget, by rolling back on commitments to buy jets, selling disused barracks and restructuring the military, among other things.

In contrast, countries in central and northern Europe "are likely to consider additional budgetary allocations in light of now-heightened threat perceptions," Rajendran added.

In Sweden -- which is not a NATO member and therefore has no guarantees that anyone will come to its aid in a conflict -- the Ukraine crisis has triggered nervous discussions about the state of the country's armed forces.

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