* European defence cuts, U.S. withdraws questioned
* NATO leaders to discuss cuts at September summit - UK
* States will find it hard to fund more defence spending
* Washington may stop force withdrawals from Europe
* U.S. would struggle with simultaneous Russia, China crises
(Adds comments from NATO secretary-general in paragraphs 4-5)
By Peter Apps and Adrian Croft
LONDON/BRUSSELS, March 19 For defence planners
in Washington, London and Brussels, the sight of Russian forces
pouring into their second neighbour in six years will overturn
two decades of strategic assumptions.
The result of Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine,
following its 2008 war with Georgia, could be a modest reversal
of years of European defence cuts and a bigger U.S. military
presence in the NATO members of central and eastern Europe.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Western alliance has
shifted its attention to Afghanistan, Kosovo and counter-piracy
operations off the coast of Somalia, as well as Libya during its
2011 civil war. But by the time NATO government leaders meet in
September in Wales, some people believe their focus will have
returned to deterring Moscow.
In Washington on Wednesday for meetings with senior
officials, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused
Moscow of acting to "rip up the international rulebook, trying
to redraw the map of Europe and creating... the most serious
security crisis since the end of the Cold War".
"It goes to the heart of what NATO is about," he told a
forum at Georgetown University.
While a major war in Europe remains extremely unlikely, it
is no longer unthinkable, say officials and analysts. But
finding the money for more military resources will be tough.
In the past fortnight, Washington and NATO have tried to
reassure members of the alliance that were once part of the
Soviet bloc, such as Poland and the Baltic states. Sending a
message that NATO stands with them in any confrontation with
Moscow, the United States deployed F-15 fighters to Lithuania
and alliance early warning aircraft have increased patrols.
While some Western governments regarded Russia's war with
Georgia as a one-off, they see its annexation of Crimea as a
sign of things to come.
Since 2008 European Union states have cut their military
budgets by about 15 percent, according to a report last year
from the Centre for European Reform, whereas Russia has
increased its by about 30 percent.
While Moscow lacks its Cold War-era strength to overrun much
of Europe, President Vladimir Putin seems increasingly confident
in intervening in his neighbourhood.
"This requires a complete reappraisal of how we approach
Russia," says Fiona Hill, U.S. national intelligence officer for
Russia from 2006 to 2009, who now heads the Europe program at
the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Putin has made it very
clear he intends to reassert Russia's sphere of influence ... We
don't have a strategy to deal with that."
Putin has said Sunday's Crimean referendum, which Kiev and
the West have refused to recognise, showed the overwhelming will
of the people to be reunited with Russia. Moscow has also said
that worries it might now move on Russian-speaking areas in
eastern Ukraine are unjustified.
Western officials and analysts say there is little NATO can
do to stop Moscow in former Soviet states that are outside the
alliance, such as Ukraine and Georgia, although some say NATO
membership for them might come back on the agenda.
The potential flashpoint, however, is the Baltic states.
These former Soviet republics are now in NATO and therefore
protected by Article 5 of its treaty, which requires all members
to help an ally under attack. Like Ukraine, they are home to
significant Russian minorities.
"Western nations have minimised the prospect of having to
reinforce our eastern allies," said one senior Western official
on condition of anonymity. "At a stroke, all that has changed."
ERA OF WAR IN EUROPE "NOT OVER"
Another NATO diplomat put it more strongly.
"I think people do understand continental wars in Europe are
not over," he said on condition of anonymity. "We will not be
credible if we simply continue as if nothing has happened."
U.S. forces in Europe have shrunk dramatically since the
Cold War. Their numbers are about 80,000, including 14,000
civilian staff, according to the U.S. military's European
Command, down from just over 300,000 in the last decades of the
Speaking on condition of anonymity, U.S. officials played
down suggestions of a major shift in America's European presence
following events in Crimea. Other officials and analysts,
however, say a change in strategic mood is already underway.
Reversing defence cuts is likely to be a major topic of the
NATO summit, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky
News earlier this month. Some analysts are sceptical.
"Frankly there is no appetite for increasing defence
spending," said Judy Dempsey, senior associate at Carnegie
Europe, noting that despite Hague's comments there were no signs
of Britain reversing its defence cuts.
The most likely scenario, she said, was for countries to
pool more resources and aim for greater efficiency.
Some countries such as Germany might put off planned further
cuts, while U.S. force withdrawals could also cease.
Some analysts had expected the Pentagon to pull a squadron of
F-15 fighters out of their base in Lakenheath, England, as it
prioritises the Pacific. That now looks less likely - 10 of the
squadron's aircraft are in the Baltic states.
Ultimately, some Western officials privately say Washington
and perhaps others may end up with a permanent presence in
Eastern Europe. That would overturn an unwritten agreement with
Moscow not to base U.S. forces in former East bloc states.
In the shorter term, temporary deployments and training
missions look likely to increase dramatically.
"Russia is not posing a mass army threat but rather the
ability to selectively use its local military advantages
decisively, backed up by the threat to escalate," says Elbridge
Colby, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for a
New American Security. "The corresponding NATO response needs to
be to present a deterrent to Russia's ability to pull this off
against NATO members."
Last year, NATO conducted one of its largest recent
exercises, "Steadfast Jazz" in Poland and Latvia, deploying its
rapid response brigade in a show of force that some officials
said was aimed at reassuring local states. That followed a major
Russian exercise code-named "Zapad-13" in which 10,000 Russian
troops fought "Baltic terrorists" in Belarus.
Nuclear weapons are also back on the agenda.
With the rhetoric rising during the Crimean crisis, a
senior Kremlin-backed broadcaster made an explicit nuclear
threat this week, saying Russia remained "capable of turning the
United States into radioactive ash".
That could have an effect on those countries - Germany, the
Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey - with U.S. nuclear
weapons still on their soil. This arrangement had seemed
anachronistic and there had been talk of ending it.
Experts say NATO faces another awkward reality with
conventional weapons. In the event of simultaneous crises with
Russia and China - perhaps over the Baltic states and disputed
South China Sea islands respectively - Washington would probably
struggle to reinforce both regions.
"The week before Russia went into Crimea, we published our
defence budget and Quadrennial Defence Review," said Nikolas
Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S.
Naval War College. "That accepted a risk of war with China. But
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by
David Stamp and Lisa Shumaker)