05/05/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

Europe Begins to See the Light


If there is one salutary benefit to Vladimir Putin's aggression it has surely been a wakeup call to remind the Europeans why they still need a military deterrent.

Since the end of the Cold War the lessening of tension has enabled the European nations to sharply curtail their military spending, even as the United States also reduced its level of forces in the area. I spent much of my military career in Europe when the U.S. presence was clearly geared to forestall an invasion from the East. We are still there but no longer at the same level of the Cold War period.

Over the past five years, military spending has declined to 1.4 percent of GDP in Germany, compared with 3.8 percent in the U.S. and 4.1 percent in Russia. To be sure, I believe the EU still has ample force to deter any direct aggression from Russia which has also suffered a diminution of conventional forces.

But Russia does not appear to have suffered a commensurate diminution of willingness to engage in aggressive behavior. It invaded Georgia, took over the Crimea and is now insidiously destabilizing Ukraine, which is not in a position to stand against its much more powerful neighbor.

The problem is not just one of boots on the ground. The U.S. and the EU have about the same number of people in uniform -- but we spend about four times as much per soldier as they do, meaning we are much better prepared to fight if need be.

The problem in both the EU and the U.S. is willingness to respond to aggression. President Obama has sought to convey a message of strength by sending a few hundred U.S. troops into the Baltic countries and Poland on NATO exercises, but I doubt if this gesture is making much of an impression on Putin.

There is danger here and it is aggravated by the fragile state of Russia's economy which was already in the tank before Putin's latest gambit. History teaches that where nations are under economic stress, unprincipled leaders will often provoke foreign adventures to revive their political standing. Putin must know he is playing with fire, but he also knows his own position is very weak. Perhaps most worrisome, he is a diehard Cold War warrior still smarting from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If there was ever a time when our diplomatic corps needed to be on its best game, that time is surely now.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.