Since 1945, Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in its history, outside the Balkans. It has been so long that we have settled into the comfortable assumption that a conventional war on European soil can never happen again. When Nato originally agreed to hold its summit in Newport on Thursday and Friday, it seemed that it would be an introspective affair, as its leaders wondered about the future of the alliance after the inglorious withdrawal from Afghanistan.
They can thank Vladimir Putin for a renewed sense of purpose. Suddenly we are in a dangerous situation where the Western democracies have depleted their armed forces and apparently surrendered the will to fight, while in the East a heavily armed, centralised state is on the rampage.
The Newport summit will be free from the folly of six years ago, when Nato’s leaders seemed to think they could expand indefinitely without encountering resistance. It seems unbelievable now that the summit in Bucharest could foolishly talk of adding Ukraine and Georgia to the alliance without allowing for the reaction this would set off in Moscow. Russia has since effectively torn chunks out of both countries, under the pretext of protecting their minorities, leaving the Balkan states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – worrying whether their own Russian minorities will qualify for similar “protection”. Had Georgia or Ukraine been Nato members, attacks on them would have qualified under the Washington Treaty as attacks on every member state, theoretically requiring military retaliation for which there was no will anywhere in the organisation.
Since 2008, Russia has increased its defence budget by 50 per cent, while Nato’s member states have decreased theirs by an average of 10 per cent. The UK is one of only four Nato members that have held to an agreement to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, and British public opinion is instinctively opposed to military action abroad. As the Russian bear steps menacingly out of its den, even voices from the political left are calling for an increase in the Nato budget. “All Nato countries spending less than the benchmark of 2 per cent of GDP on defence should set a timetable for reaching the 2 per cent target,” the Labour MP, Hugh Bayley, president of the Nato Parliamentary Assembly, said.
In Eastern Europe, there are those who would go further. It is reported that Poland and the Baltic states want to break the Nato-Russian Founding Agreement that Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and other Nato leaders signed in 1997, under which the alliance undertook not to station troops permanently close to Russia’s borders. Earlier this year, Poland appealed for 10,000 Nato troops. The request was turned down, but Nato promised that 4,000 troops would be kept in “high readiness”.
That is the sort of pointless compromise offered by politicians who do not know what to do. Mr Putin has not been a respecter of international agreements. It is time for Nato to take this crisis seriously, give Poland and the Baltic states the protection they have requested, and demonstrate that Nato is prepared to do more than talk about Western democratic values.