BRUSSELS One of the top positions of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at NATO’s ministerial conference this week was to keep the focus of the 30-member alliance on China, but some Eastern European allies say the rivalry between the US and China should not overshadow concerns about Russia.
The two-day meeting between defense chiefs sparked new agreements on technology investment and policy, reflecting the Pentagon’s focus on technology competition with China. When asked by reporters about China, Austin made it clear that the US sees NATO as its ace.
“As for China, let me just say that… alliances like NATO are one of our greatest assets. No other country enjoys the kind of alliances and partnerships we do,” Austin said on Friday, adding, “We are seeing an increasing interest in our allies and partners. [in the Indo-Pacific] to ensure that the region remains free and open and that the rules-based international order remains in force.”
But the West’s problems with Russia are far from going away.
Among other flashpoints in the relationship, Russia gathered troops on the border with Ukraine in the spring, and Russia claimed it fired warning shots at a British destroyer in an incident this summer. Russia ended diplomatic ties with NATO after it expelled eight accused Russian spies, prompting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to say this week the relationship “hasn’t been harder since the end of the Cold War”.
Some Eastern European allies want the United States to deploy more troops on their territory, fearing the Pentagon could reduce its military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.
“Russia, of course, wants US attention to be away somewhere, in the Pacific, and not in our region,” Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet said at the Warsaw Security Forum in Poland, a week before the ministerial meeting. “We need to talk about what kind of message we send [to Russia] and our message must be common and strong, united.”
While Eastern European states have called on the Biden administration not to lose sight of the threat posed by Russia, Austin visited the Black Sea countries of Romania, Ukraine and Georgia to reassure them of America’s continued support before attending the ministerial meeting. attended.
In Ukraine, which has been in conflict with Russia since Moscow took Crimea in 2014, Austin spoke out his sharpest words about Russia from the trip. During a press conference with Ukraine’s Defense Minister Andriy Taran, Austin resolutely expressed his support for Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.
“We call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to end the perpetuation of the war in eastern Ukraine and to end its destabilizing activities along Ukraine’s borders, and its continued cyber-attacks and other malicious activities against the United States and its partners,” Austin said.
“Let’s be clear: Russia started this war. And Russia is the obstacle to a peaceful solution,” he added.
Taran said Ukraine had “no doubt” about America’s support for Ukraine in its struggle.
“The US clearly understands that Ukraine is at the forefront of the struggle against Russian expansion in their desire to restore their imperial ambitions and thus create a threat to the entire European continent,” Taran said through an interpreter.
But the US has no immediate plans to increase its permanent troop presence in Europe. When Austin was asked by reporters in Romania, where U.S. troops are stationed in rotation, if the Pentagon would have a permanent presence there, Austin said he had nothing to announce.
“Not only are we not increasing the force, but there are currently no plans for a permanent base in Romania,” a senior US defense official said in a statement.
America’s allies will have to wait for the Pentagon’s months-long “global position review,” aimed at repositioning troops, ships and planes to focus more on China and Russia without backing out of the long-standing threats in the Middle East — and to make this shift with potentially leaner Pentagon budgets.
The overhaul, which Austin ordered just after taking office, could lead to significant shifts in the US military footprint in the Middle East, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Then-President Donald Trump last year ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 troops from Germany, but President Joe Biden rejected that move in April and increased the number of troops by 500 to 35,500.
With Germany and France no longer calling China an opponent, the Biden administration has sought to rally allies to speak with a more united voice about China’s military aggression in the Pacific and its human rights record. Biden won a victory when NATO leaders declared at their June summit that China poses a constant security challenge and is working to undermine world order.
While none of the ministerial sessions this week were devoted to discussing China, senior Pentagon officials said Austin would voice these concerns and that they would be “mixed up” with planning sessions, especially in talks to advance NATO’s strategic concept. promote.
This week, Stoltenberg said the alliance’s new agreements on policies for artificial intelligence and to pursue more technologically advanced weapon systems are “also relevant to the challenges posed by China’s rise.
“What we have seen in NATO is a fundamental shift where we are now focusing our efforts on collective defense to respond to a more competitive world, interstate rivalry. And of course that includes the rise of China, which is fundamentally changing the global balance of power,” said Stoltenberg.
Defense ministers from several Baltic countries – who sit on the West’s front lines with Russia – told Newsweek that the US and its NATO allies must remain vigilant about the challenges posed by both Moscow and Beijing or risk encouraging new aggression.
Jüri Liège, Estonia’s former defense minister and now its permanent representative to NATO, said Russia’s status as a threat is manifested by its “continuous stream of provocative actions”, such as building up troops on the Ukrainian border, the internal repression and the murders of enemies worldwide.
“Of course it’s very important to us that while the United States turns to Asia, the United States will maintain its focus on the European arena — as they have said —,” Liège told Defense News.
“We are not looking for dramatic moves, but we are certainly looking for a steady increase in the alliance’s current power. The presence of Allied troops on our soil is vital. We also always emphasize the importance of exercises, especially strengthening exercises,” said Liège. “Obviously, to defend Poland and the Baltic states you need an advanced, powerful system to strengthen in times of crisis, and this can only be developed through exercises.”
With coverage by the Associated Press.
Joe Gould is the congressional and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy issues on Capitol Hill, as well as industry news.