Russian Bear Back: Is NATO Ready?
BRUSSELS AND STOCKHOLM -- A famous 1984 Ronald Reagan presidential campaign commercial warned voters that "there is a bear in the woods."
It was a reminder that the Soviet Union was a dangerous adversary and that America needed a strong military to oppose the Russian "bear."
In 2014, there is a bear in the woods again. But this time, NATO and Western Europe seem unprepared.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western Europe began to disarm. Now, it's scrambling to rearm.
When a suspected Russian sub was found lurking in Swedish waters in October, Sweden, a NATO "partner," was unable to find it, perhaps because it scrapped its anti-submarine helicopters.
One article claims Sweden's military is the weakest it's been since the 1500s.
Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji, a researcher in economics at the Institute for Industrial Economics, calls Sweden's military nothing more than "an answering machine," stripped down to save money.
"Because the assumption was Russia is a peaceful country now," Sanandaji said. "Well we can see that Russia is, at very least, an opportunistic power. If they sense weakness, they're going to push forward."
Anna Wieslander, with the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said that like a lot of countries, Sweden thought Russia would remain friendly.
"During the 1990s and until 2005 you could see that Russia was orienting toward the West and had an interest in a market economy and to stick with the European security system of shared values and respect for territorial integrity, and then things started to change," she said.
Now it will take years to rebuild Sweden's deterrent force.
It's the same story across the NATO alliance: mostly tiny, skeleton militaries on Russia's border.
The Baltic States are said to share a grand total of one old Soviet tank. And the number of dedicated NATO forces across Western Europe is only 10,000 at minimum facing 140,000 combat-ready Russian troops.
NATO Defense Skimpy, Scarce
"NATO defense spending has been declining and you have very thin NATO allied forces. The readiness levels are very low these days," Gary Schmitt, a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said. "There are great examples all throughout the alliance where planes aren't ready to fly, ships are in port because they need repairs and the like."
American tanks were removed from Europe entirely last year before the Pentagon had to return them.
Outside Brussels, NATO is building a massive new headquarters building, designed to show the strength of the alliance.
But a lot of experts and the Russians are wondering just how strong NATO really is. Yes, the quality of NATO troops and equipment is superior to Russia's, but, as Josef Stalin is quoted as saying, "quantity has a quality all its own."
And NATO is outmanned.
"Russia has been exercising their forces in much larger scale with divisions and we've been doing very small exercises," Schmitt said.
America to Blame
American military strength is also partly to blame for Western Europe's military weakness, at least when it comes to Sweden, according to Sanandaji.
"Swedes know of course that the U.S. is a global superpower and they know, even the Left, that if Russia invades Sweden, the U.S. is going to stop them. They've used that as an argument to say, 'Let's cut defense.'" They're free-riding off [America's] generosity," he explained.
Russia could become very dangerous if Western sanctions begin to strangle its economy and create social disorder.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already been meddling politically in the former Soviet Baltic States, threatening Finland, and challenging allied aircraft around the world.
"It's more or less clear, in my reading at least, that we are swiftly moving to the new Cold War," Alexander Golts, Russian military expert in Moscow, said.
Ronald Reagan defeated the Soviets through strength. But Putin may feel he is not looking across at strength when he sees President Barack Obama, but at weakness.
And should Putin miscalculate and make a major move in Ukraine or the Baltic region, experts says NATO forces could repel him, but only after a very dangerous line was already crossed.