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Hagel: Idea of permanent peace in Europe is gone

May. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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Ukrainian Army soldiers line up in front of pro-Russia civilians who where blocking the road in the Andreevka, 10 km south to Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Friday. (Manu Brabo/The Associated Press)
A woman cries with her back to police troops guarding the burnt trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine, on Saturday, where more than 30 people died trying to escape during clashes the day before. Odessa had been largely tranquil since the February toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. But clashes erupted Friday between pro-Russians and government supporters in the key port on the Black Sea coast, located 550 kilometers (330 miles) from the turmoil in the east. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Russia is emerging as a long-term threat to the U.S. and its NATO allies, but stopped short of calling for an increase in U.S. troop levels in Europe.

In one of his first major public speeches about the 2-month-old crisis in Ukraine and its impact on NATO, Hagel said the post-Cold War era belief that permanent peace had come to Europe is over.

“Russia’s actions in Ukraine shatter that myth and usher in bracing new realities,” Hagel said in Washington on Friday.

“NATO must stand ready to revisit the basic principles underlying its relationship with Russia,” Hagel told defense experts at the Wilson Center, a think tank.

As he spoke, the crisis in Ukraine intensified amid reports May 1 that Russian-backed militants shot down two Ukrainian helicopters that were seeking to regain control over territory that has has been seized by Russian-speaking paramilitary forces.

Meanwhile, Russia continues to keep about 40,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, implicitly threatening a full-blown ground invasion. While Ukraine is not a NATO partner, the Russian aggression has prompted the U.S. and NATO to shift troops into Eastern Europe, including 600 U.S. soldiers moving into Poland and the Baltic states in late April.

Hagel’s speech made no mention of current U.S. troop strength in Europe, which stands at 67,000. Instead, he called on Europe to ramp up its defense spending and military contributions to the alliance’s plans.

He noted that the European economy overall is larger than that of the U.S., but U.S. defense spending is three times the total among NATO partners.

“Going forward, the Department of Defense will not only seek, but increasingly rely on closer integration and collaboration with allies — and in ways that will influence U.S. strategic planning and future investments,” Hagel said.

Both Europe and the U.S. are facing tight budgets and politicians are reluctant to spend money on defense. Hagel said the NATO defense community must mount a collective effort to convince those civilian decision-makers about the long-term stakes in Europe.

“I am therefore calling for the inclusion of finance ministers or senior budget officials at a NATO ministerial [summit] focused on defense investment. This would allow them to receive detailed briefings from alliance military leaders on the challenges we face. Leaders across our governments must understand the consequences of current trends in reduced defense spending … and help break through the fiscal impasse.”

The Russian threat is unlikely to fade anytime soon, Hagel said.

“Over the long term, we should expect Russia to test our alliance’s purpose, stamina and commitment. Future generations will note whether, at this moment of challenge, we summoned the will to invest in our alliance. We must not squander this opportunity or shrink from this challenge. We will be judged harshly if we do.”

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