In his first appearance on the world stage meeting NATO allies, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wasted no time telling them that the Trump era of strained relations is over.
“The secretary reaffirmed the President’s message that the United States intends to revitalize our relationship with the alliance,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters about the message Austin conveyed to a virtual NATO ministerial meeting that is taking place on Wednesday and Thursday.
“Secretary Austin emphasized that NATO’s most important task is protecting our populations and territories by presenting credible deterrence and a strong military,” Kirby added.
Austin went beyond traditional issues emphasizing that NATO needs to protect supply chains and technologies from “strategic competitors,” Kirby said. The implication was clear that it is time to worry more about China and particularly Russia.
Ahead of the meeting Austin used a Washington Post op-ed to underline that the US if back in full support of NATO and the US’ traditional role in defense of Europe after President Donald Trump had spent his time in office criticizing the alliance.
“For the Defense Department, this means fielding a credible force, ready to back up the hard work of diplomacy. It also means working closely with our allies and partners to secure our common interests and promote our shared values abroad. Simply put, we cannot meet our responsibilities alone, nor should we try,” Austin wrote.
He is also telling NATO that the US is grateful for increased defense spending commitments by member nations but is not expected to offer commitments on issues such as the future of the US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Germany, as well as other issues allies want clarity on.
“I would not expect specific decisions at this meeting,” a senior defense official familiar with the Austin’s thinking told CNN. Instead, he plans to consult allies before the US makes final decisions in contrast to Trump’s go it alone attitude.
Warning about Putin
Austin is making clear he knows that NATO’s chief rival – Vladimir Putin’s Russia – isn’t waiting. “Aggressive and coercive behaviors from emboldened strategic competitors such as China and Russia reinforce our belief in collective security,” Austin wrote in his Washington Post piece.
“It’s very apparent Russia’s a threat to all NATO allies, including the United States. Russia erodes transparency and predictability. They are using military force to achieve their goals. They support proxy groups and sow chaos and doubt, and undermining the rules-based international order,” said a second defense official involved in US preparations for the ministerial. “So this administration has already made clear that we will work with Russia to advance our own interests while holding them to account for their reckless and aggressive actions. And so we’ll look forward to discussing that with our allies this week.”
Cyber attacks by Russia continue to top the list of worries. NATO is now bringing other nations into its closed-door discussions on how to deal with that threat.
Overt Russian military moves are also causing concern. Moscow is stepping up military activities in northeast Syria where the US still has 900 troops. There are concerns the Russians may not obey long agreed procedures to stay away from US areas, several defense officials say.
And the US and Russia are jockeying for position and presence in the resource rich Arctic. By the end of the month B-1 bombers will begin flying out of Norway for the first time off Russia’s western coast. The Russian news agency Tass reported that two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers flew over the international waters of the Barents, Greenland and Norwegian seas earlier this month.
NATO also reported several air encounters with Russia in recent days. NATO fighter aircraft from Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey on February 10, flew in response to several Russian Tu-22 long range bombers and fighter jets flying near NATO territory above the Black Sea. The Russian aircraft flew without transmitting a transponder code and did not indicate their position, altitude or file a flight plan.
Keeping a robust number of US troops in Germany and deeper into NATO’s eastern flank by rotating troops in Romania, Poland and even Ukraine for exercises and training would send a clear message to counter Putin, officials say. Biden already has put a hold on taking troops out of Germany pending a review and Ukraine publicly says it is going to build two new naval bases.
US officials say the approach to the NATO meeting is designed to send a clear message to Moscow that the US is back in the fold and has more moves coming.