U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, prepare to leave following a news conference in Helsinki, Finland. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

NATO's East Is Rearming, But It's Because of Putin, Not Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump has taken credit for a rise in military spending by NATO states, but in the alliance’s eastern reaches, it’s his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who’s driving the rearming effort.

Last month, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked the U.S. President for “clearly having an impact” on defense spending by allies while Trump said his demands had added $41 billion to European and Canadian defense outlays.

But the jump in acquisitions behind the former Iron Curtain of aircraft, ships and armored vehicles began when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, well before Trump’s 2016 election victory, according to analysts including Tomas Valasek, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. While the median defense expenditure of NATO members is 1.36 percent of gross domestic product, below the alliance’s requirement of 2 percent, eastern members comprise seven of the 13 members that are paying above that level.

“Countries on NATO’s eastern border do not need Donald Trump to boost defense spending,” Valasek said. “They decided this long before he came to power. The spending boost was because of a president, but it was Vladimir Putin, not the U.S. President.”

Constant overflights by Russian aircraft into NATO airspace, cyberattacks on government and military installations, wargames on the borders of the Baltic states and accusations that Russia was behind a failed coup in newest member Montenegro have put NATO’s eastern quadrant on alert for what it says is an increasingly expansionist Russia. Of the 15 members exceeding the bloc’s guideline that 20 percent of total defense spending should go to equipment, six are from eastern Europe.

NATO's East Is Rearming, But It's Because of Putin, Not Trump

At the time of the NATO summit in Brussels, Romania said it would buy five more F-16s from Portugal, raising its squadron to 12, after it signed a $400-million deal to acquire a Patriot missile air-defense system with Raython in May. The country of 20 million people bordering Ukraine, Moldova and the Black Sea plans to buy 36 more F-16s, four corvettes, at least 3,000 transport vehicles and coastal gun batteries over the next five years.

Slovakia also announced the purchase of F-16 fighter jets at the summit to replace its aging Russian Mig-29s in a deal that was years in negotiating. And last month, Bulgaria asked for bids for at least eight new or used fighter jets by October at a total cost of 1.8 billion lev ($1 billion).

By end-2018, the government in Sofia plans to buy 1.5 billion lev worth of armored vehicles and two warships for 1 billion lev. Neighboring Hungary said in June that it had agreed to buy 20 Airbus H145M multi-purpose helicopters, the country’s largest military purchase since 2001.

NATO’s European members are expected to spend around $60 billion on equipment this year, with the 13 eastern members accounting for about 10 percent, said Tony Lawrence, a research fellow with the International Center for Security and Defense in Tallinn. The newer members will together spend about $2 billion more on equipment this year than last, he said. According to NATO, seven of its 10 biggest spending increases will be in the east.

“Since these nations’ membership in NATO, there has been a clear inclination to foster and strengthen their link with the U.S.,” said Martin Lundmark, a researcher with Swedish Defense University in Stockholm. “By procuring strategic defense systems, they willingly become interdependent and inter-operable with the U.S.”

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