Get unlimited digital access to Try it today for ONLY $0.99.

Putin's war of nerves with NATO

Putin tests the NATO alliance, and its members need to up their game.

The Russian Bear is no longer the tame teddy it seemed after the end of the Cold War. President Vladimir Putin has seized Crimea from Ukraine, bombed insurgents fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and announced the addition of 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to his nuclear arsenal.

He seems to be testing the limits of what NATO will accept. His military has carried out exercises within miles of the Baltic states, which once belonged to the Soviet Union. His fighter jets have zoomed through Turkish airspace. It's the biggest challenge the Western alliance has faced in more than two decades.

So far, NATO is not handling it well. The annexation of Crimea spurred members to pledge a boost in their military outlays, which had been on the decline. The plan was for each country to move toward spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Making such increases, NATO thought, would be a strong signal to Putin.

Putin has indeed gotten a signal, but not a strong one. NATO reported in June that total defense spending by the allies would not rise this year but would fall — by 1.5 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms. And that comes after a 3.9 percent reduction in 2014. Wrong direction.

This even as the Russian president has chosen to intensify his war of nerves with the West. In recent days, Russian planes have twice crossed into Turkey, a member of NATO, and Russia's radar has locked onto Turkish jets patrolling their country's border with Syria. Moscow said the airspace incursions were accidental, but they fit into a provocative pattern.

The New York Times reported "a number of other instances recently of Russian military flights entering the airspace of NATO members or coming very close, prompting interception by Western military aircraft." The number of such incidents has tripled in the past two years. The Royal Air Force intercepted Russian warplanes in February — off the coast of England.

Putin doesn't want to set off a shooting war, but if he can make the alliance look hesitant or ineffectual in the face of Russian military power, he gains prestige points in the region and around the world. Over time, he may hope to erode NATO's resolve by putting repeated stress on it.

What should NATO do? This is no time for the alliance members to invite further bullying by shirking their military commitments. Only five of the 28 governments are expected to meet the alliance spending target this year — the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia. The number should be 28, and if not this year, next year. If gravely indebted Greece can do this ...

As for Turkey, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg responded appropriately by saying NATO is ready to send 13,000 rapid-response troops there. "All of this sends a message to NATO citizens: NATO will defend you, NATO is on the ground, NATO is ready," declared Stoltenberg. NATO also has beefed up its presence in the Baltics.

It might also make sense, as Ankara suggested, for the U.S. and Germany to reverse their decision to withdraw Patriot missiles from Turkey. But first, someone ought to ask President Tayyip Erdogan why Turkey has fallen short of that 2 percent defense spending threshold.

No NATO state should be expected to face the Russians alone. But neither should any expect allies to do what it declines to do for itself.

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune