- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
After months of harsh rhetoric and threatening tweets, some NATO allies are preparing to spend big on defense.
The Romanian government — already uneasy over Russian activities in the Black Sea — announced it will spend tens of millions of dollars on advanced weaponry to join just five other NATO countries that have reached an elusive spending goal that Trump has used as a cudgel to criticize the alliance.
“NATO is already as a whole stepping it up because they’ve been hearing Trump’s rhetoric, so while there is no new grand strategy, there’s a feeling that allies are looking for ways to do more, and quickly,” said a former defense official who spoke under the condition of anonymity.
In fact, the alliance was already shifting before Trump entered the White House. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and war in Ukraine galvanized member countries, which gave NATO’s military commander, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, more flexibility to deploy forces. Thousands of troops have taken up positions in the Baltics as part of multinational units.
Trump’s influence will be tested when he attends a meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels on May 25, marking the first time many allies will interact with him face-to-face. The meeting will give him the opportunity to speak directly to the alliance’s heads of state, where he is expected to call again for increased military spending to meet the alliance’s goal of each member spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense.
For NATO’s newest members, however, it is Russia, not Trump, that is motivating their spending. Romanian officials point out that Crimea sits less than 200 miles from its shores, and their country shares a long border with Serbia, which has moved closer to the Kremlin as it buys Russian warplanes and air defense systems. And when NATO opened a missile defense site in Romania last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the country to be in Moscow’s “crosshairs.”
In response, Romania surprised many last month when it announced plans to buy the Patriot missile and air defense system, a U.S.-made platform already in the inventories of 13 allies in Europe and the Middle East.
“We need a serious posture of deterrence,” Romania’s ambassador to the United States, George Maior told FP. “Crimea is being militarized by Russia and it can be used as a platform for power projection not only into the Black Sea, but to the southeastern Mediterranean.”
The ambassador, who helped shepherd the country into the NATO alliance in 2004 and led the Romanian Intelligence Service from 2006 to 2015, said his government sees the Black Sea “as a demarcation line between various threats emerging from the eastern frontier of NATO.”
With the fastest growing economy in the European Union, Romania has put together a shopping list that includes small, fast corvettes to patrol its coastline, armored troop carriers, multiple-launch rocket systems, and the latest surveillance and communications equipment.
But Russian officials are pushing back, complaining loudly that the existing missile defense installation already in Romania, called Aegis Ashore, lowers the threshold for a nuclear exchange and breaks a decades-old arms control treaty. Another Aegis Ashore system is slated to open in Poland in 2018.
The Aegis Ashore site includes a powerful radar and air defense missiles that can take down long-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East, and is described as a defense against a potential attack from Iran.
The Kremlin says the system violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which bans land-based cruise missiles with a range from 300 to 3,400 miles, but NATO rejects the claim.
“We’ve been very clear,” about what Aegis Ashore can and can’t do, said U.S. European Command spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez. “And we have consistently and openly said this system is not capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs, and any claim otherwise by the Russian government is baseless.”
The Russians are pursuing their own missile defense sales to international clients, however. Belarus has taken possession of four battalions of the Russian-made S-300 air defense system and Serbia is currently in talks to buy several of the long-range interceptors.
In August, Russia also deployed an advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile battery to the Crimean peninsula. The weapons can hit targets over 150 miles from its launch site, putting aircraft flying inside Ukraine, and over the Black Sea, well within range.
The deployment underscored Romania’s increasing unease over Russia. “Once Crimea happened, the new NATO allies scrambled to figure out what their priorities should be, and air defense is a big part of that,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from 2009 to 2017. “Romania shows that they take their defense seriously, because the Black Sea has become an important front with Russia.”
In addition to the likely deployment of a Patriot battery to Romania, Moscow has bristled at Poland’s widely publicized $7.6 billion deal for eight Patriot batteries, which is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks. There are also growing indications that Sweden — a non-NATO country — and Lithuania may be looking to buy the Patriot system in the coming months several sources told FP, though no announcements have been made.
Though the administration may claim these investments are in response to his strong arming, others say it differs little in substance with the prior administration.
Trump’s demands that NATO open its wallet “just continues building off of what Obama did,” said Jackie Ramos, an advisor to the assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs under Barack Obama. The administration “pushed hard to get nations to reach the 2 percent” spending goal.
The effort wasn’t a secret. In April 2016, Obama declared in an interview with The Atlantic that “free riders aggravate me.” Obama also complained that some NATO allies, along with several Gulf states, were piggybacking on the security that America provides. He even warned then-U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron that London needed to increase its investment in NATO. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama said.