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Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn't invited to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Wales this week, but the Kremlin will cast a long shadow.
"I think this is the single most important NATO summit since the fall of the Berlin Wall," Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's former Supreme Allied Commander from 2009-13, told NBC News. "The biggest issue on the agenda is Moscow."
The two-day gathering kicks off just outside the Welsh capital of Cardiff on Thursday as President Barack Obama and leaders from 27 other member nations confront a swarm of security crises that have seemingly thrown the world into chaos — from the terrifying rise of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria to the bloody rampages of extremists in Somalia.
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"When it rains, it pours — and everything is coming down at once," said Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But amid the global turmoil, Putin will still be the center of attention, unseen but virtually omnipresent during the most pivotal meeting of the 65-year-old military alliance in nearly a quarter-century.
A united front against Putin
The Kremlin's apparent military incursion in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have alarmed Western security powers and rattled Russia's neighbors, a crisis all but demanding a united front from NATO, according to Lee A. Feinstein, a former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and founding dean of Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. Meanwhile, Putin has flatly denied that Russia has invaded Ukraine.
NATO nations will likely express their strong solidarity with Kiev, condemn Putin's aggressive moves and show support for vulnerable nations like the Baltic states, which only regained their independence from Moscow in 1991 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The allies this week are expected to back the use of a rapid-reaction force that can swoop into hot spots in Eastern Europe at a moment's notice. They would be prepared to deploy 4,000 troops within 48 hours to troubled territories — including former Soviet republics like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that fear they may be prey for Russia, which has bristled at NATO's wide reach.
The members of NATO are also expected to reaffirm the alliance's core principle of common defense — an attack on one country is an attack on all — during the summit. President Obama on Wednesday said the mutual protection principle, inscribed in Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlanta Treaty, is "crystal clear."
In remarks in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, Obama said: "If in such a moment you ever come to ask again, 'Who will come to help?' You'll know the answer: The NATO alliance including the armed forces of the United States." After Obama's speech in Estonia, Putin outlined out a seven-point plan for ending hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
Confronting the ISIS threat
President Obama is hoping to persuade more nations to join America in the fight against ISIS amid criticism that he has not acted forcefully enough against the terror group.
The well-funded and media-savvy brand of militant Islam has attracted hundreds of members from Europe and Americas and stoked fears of an attack on Western targets. The meeting of NATO leaders gives the president an opportunity to build support for continued airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Iraq and to get help curtailing the flow of money and weapons to the Sunni fighters.
European leaders have sounded the alarm about the dire threats posed by the militants. In Parliament on Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed that “a country like ours will not be cowed by barbaric killers." Cameron said he'll use the NATO summit to decide if the United Kingdom will resort to "military measures" against ISIS.
Germany has announced it will arm Kurdish fighters battling ISIS extremists in Iraq, the first time it will send weapons into an ongoing conflict since the end of World War II. Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her government's decision on Monday, calling ISIS a major security threat to Germany and Europe as a whole.
Winding down operations in Afghanistan
NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan will end this year, and more than 335,000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel trained by the alliance are due to take over the majority of security and policing operations after a bloody and costly thirteen-year war.
"(We) must now consider how to support the Afghan government in the years ahead, ensuring they maintain the progress we have made together and stop the country from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists," British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a list of the United Kingdom's goals for the summit published Monday.
Stavridis said the alliance needs to "seal the deal" in Afghanistan and make sure that the ANSF agrees to shoulder the burden in the years ahead.
Beefing up defense spending
Only a few NATO members currently meet the financial commitment expected by the alliance: Two percent of a nation's gross domestic product devoted to defense spending.
"Many of the European NATO states have not kept up their commitment, and very few states have come close to spending two percent of GDP on defense," Feinstein said. "One of the things to watch out for is whether NATO states rise to the challenge and affirm their pledge to maintain defense spending at that level."
The U.S., in recent years, has spent significantly more on defense than other NATO states, shelling out roughly four percent of its GDP on defense, according to data from the World Bank.