By F. Stephen Larrabee and Ian J. Brzezinski, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security, Emeritus, at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration. Ian Brzezinski is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy in the administration of George W. Bush. The views expressed are their own.
Just weeks before its scheduled September 4 summit in Wales, NATO is bogged down in bureaucratic wrangling and losing important momentum. Without firm intervention and leadership from the White House, the summit is unlikely to provide the far-reaching strategic vision and initiative that is badly needed in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to destabilize Ukraine.
To its credit, the Obama administration has pressed its European Allies to do more to reverse the decline of their defense capabilities. Many of Washington’s proposals – including reanimating the goal that alliance members should spend two percent or more of GDP on defense, hold more assertive exercises, make command structure modifications and carry out more realistic contingency planning – are sensible and point the alliance in the right direction. But without a more forceful engagement from President Obama, many of them may never be implemented.
Moreover, there is a real danger that before the summit opens, Putin may succumb to strong nationalist pressures to send Russian regular forces into eastern Ukraine, presenting NATO with another fait accompli on top of its occupation of Crimea.
What impression will be given if, as Russia carves up Ukraine and adopts a more threatening posture to its other European neighbors, the alliance’s main response is continued fiddling with long-term institutional defense reforms?
Yet while time is running out, the summit can still be turned into an instrument for forging a strong response to President Putin’s attempt to destabilize eastern Ukraine and redraw the boundaries of Europe.
The Wales meeting's first priority should be to reassure Ukraine and other democracies along Russia’s border that the alliance supports the preservation of their independence and territorial integrity.
If Putin continues his proxy war and support for the separatists, the alliance should be prepared to provide Ukraine lethal military assistance, including anti-tank weapons and surface to air missiles, and to deploy intelligence platforms to improve the situational awareness of Ukrainian security forces and military trainers. The alliance should also resume military exercises with Ukraine to help train its armed forces. True, Ukraine has made gains against the rebels in recent days. But Ukraine’s military is not in a position to standup to more direct Russian aggression.
To reinvigorate the summit planning process and ensure its success, the president or a senior White House official (Vice President Joe Biden or National Security Advisor Susan Rice) should give a speech in early August outlining the president’s goals for the summit. It should highlight the steps the United States has taken to reinforce NATO's security in the midst of an increasingly aggressive Russia and call upon European allies to do their share in shoring up the alliance and Ukraine.
Such a speech should put on the table what the president considers to be the key deliverables for the Summit. But it should also give substance to the European Reassurance Initiative the president announced in early June. This important initiative promised to reinforce Central European members of NATO and to help East European partners strengthen their militaries, yet two months later no one knows what the initiative actually entails. As a result, it increasingly appears as an empty promise to Central and East Europeans
Finally, the president should invite key congressional leaders from the House of Representatives and the Senate from both parties to be part of his delegation to the NATO summit. Their participation would underscore bipartisan commitment to the alliance and help make them key stakeholders in programs and initiatives agreed upon in Wales.
Through these actions, the president can ensure that the Wales summit will underscore transatlantic resolve and capability in the face of Russian aggression and provide the strong, decisive U.S. leadership NATO needs in this time of crisis.