WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia’s actions in Ukraine have shattered the myth of European security in the post-Cold War era and underscored the danger NATO allies have created by failing to meet their defense spending pledges, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday.
The Pentagon chief, in a speech on the future of the 28-nation alliance, said Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula and other actions “reminded NATO of its founding purpose” and “presented a clarifying moment for the transatlantic alliance.”
“NATO must stand ready to revisit the basic principles underlying its relationship with Russia,” Hagel said in remarks at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
He also raised a longstanding U.S. concern about NATO defense spending, noting that American outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the U.S. gross domestic product is smaller than their total GDP.
“This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability - and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security,” Hagel said at the think tank. “We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO members.”
Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013 - Estonia, Greece, Britain and the United States. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said later Hagel was talking not just about “pouring more money into defense” but about better coordinating spending with the allies to avoid duplication so that taxpayer money is used in “wise, efficient ways.”
“We want to make (spending decisions) in concert with our partners because some of them have capabilities that, frankly, we don’t have or that they can develop in ways we can’t develop or shouldn’t have to develop,” Kirby said.
Hagel said a big obstacle to defense investment among the Western allies was that many people believe the end of the Cold War has eased the risk of conflict among nations.
“Russia’s actions in Ukraine shatter that myth and usher in bracing new realities,” he said. Given Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, NATO in the future “should expect Russia to test our alliance’s purpose, stamina and commitment,” he added.
Hagel’s address came amid increased violence between Ukrainian loyalists and Russian separatists despite an international peace deal, and echoed calls by other U.S. officials this week for renewed commitment to NATO.
On Friday, pro-Russian rebels shot down two Ukrainian helicopters, killing two people, as Ukrainian forces tightened their siege of separatist-held Slaviansk.
The United States and European allies have been watching carefully the movements of 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border and the takeover of buildings in cities in eastern Ukraine by armed pro-Russian militants.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday called on Russia to persuade the pro-Russian military groups to stand down, and he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that key sectors of the Russian economy would face sanctions if Moscow disrupts Ukraine’s plan to hold elections on May 25.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday urged NATO allies who are not meeting the 2 percent defense spending benchmark to boost their payments to the alliance in the next five years.
To help meet the goal of increasing defense spending, Hagel called for NATO members’ finance ministers or budget officials to attend an alliance meeting to discuss the issue.
Spending imbalances among the NATO partners has been a longstanding complaint of U.S. defense secretaries.
Three years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates used his final speech in Europe as Pentagon chief to warn that NATO members risked “collective military irrelevance” unless they bore more of the burden and boosted military spending.
His remarks came in the context of the Western-backed 2011 ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s government, which exposed a number of weaknesses among the European partners’ militaries, such as a lack of intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft and specialists needed to identify bombing targets.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao