Ukrainian soldiers transport their tanks from their base in Perevalnoe, outside Simferopol, Crimea, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Ukraine has started withdrawing its troops and weapons from Crimea, now controlled by Russia. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

After years of watching as budget cuts sliced away at the army he once led, Richard Dannatt decided that Russia’s thrust into Ukraine marked the right moment to start rebuilding the British military.

Dannatt, now a member of Parliament after an army career that spanned 38 years, this week sought to do just that with legislation that would have saved a brigade — or about 3,000 troops — in Britain’s rapidly shriveling active-duty force.

But the modest bill was quickly nixed by the government, and on Tuesday, Dannatt conceded defeat.

“When [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is running rampant, it’s not a good time to look weak,” Dannatt said. “Right now we’re looking weak.”

President Obama on Wednesday sought to coax his European allies to wake up to the renewed threat of Russia and reinvest in militaries that have gone fallow. But for the moment, there appears to be little appetite among European leaders to bust their recession-scarred budgets or buck their war-weary populations in order to shore up thinly stretched armed forces.

Military spending

Military spending across Europe fell dramatically after the Cold War, then ramped up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the five years since the global financial crisis struck, it has been cut sharply again, while Russia’s defense spending has surged by more than 30 percent.

More European cuts are on the way, even as leaders hurl a daily dose of tough rhetoric toward Moscow.

That has frustrated Washington policymakers, who have long agitated for Europe to pay its fair share for security on a continent that, until last month, had looked remarkably tranquil but now faces its biggest crisis since the Cold War.

Speaking in Brussels, Obama chided fellow NATO members for not contributing to the collective defense.

“The situation in Ukraine reminds us that our freedom isn’t free, and we’ve got to be willing to pay for the assets, the personnel, the training to make sure we have a credible NATO force and an effective deterrent force,” Obama said in a news conference at the Council of the European Union.

Only a handful of countries other than the United States met NATO’s target last year of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Even stalwart members of the alliance have sharply reduced spending in the past five years, with Germany down by 4 percent, Britain off by 9 percent and Italy slashing nearly a quarter of its defense budget, according to figures compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Unease in the east

Diminished military spending in Europe has contributed to a deep unease among some of the continent’s smallest and weakest nations, which happen to be on the front lines should Russia decide that it’s not content to add Crimea and wants to go for more.

How much has Russia's military been reduced since the Cold War

The impotence of Ukraine’s military was on vivid display in recent weeks as Russian troops overran base after base in Crimea. Badly outgunned Ukrainian forces gave up without a fight, and the country’s new leadership was forced to admit that its military would have to be rebuilt from scratch.

The ease with which Russia seized Crimea has raised fears that its conquests may not be over.

NATO this week warned that Russia had massed an unusually large force on Ukraine’s eastern border, and could be preparing to go in, either to seize eastern Ukraine itself or to hop across to the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria.

Both regions are heavily populated with Russian speakers, whom Putin has said were victims of a great injustice when the dissolution of the Soviet Union left them outside Russia’s borders.

Neither Ukraine nor Moldova is a member of NATO. But Putin has long bristled at the alliance’s expansion into its former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

To mollify Putin, NATO has traditionally held back from actions in the east that might be seen as provocative, analysts say. That reticence has left NATO countries such as Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia wondering how seriously the alliance will take threats to their interests.

During a visit by Vice President Biden last week to reassure anxious European allies, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski pointedly reminded Biden of Russia’s recent military spending binge and called it “a challenge as well as a lesson to be learned for the future of the whole NATO.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a similar point while speaking in Washington last week, calling the Ukraine crisis “a wake-up call.” He warned that Putin would reach for more territory without a robust Western response that included greater defense spending in Europe. “It’s a dangerous situation that NATO allies are cutting defense budgets deeply, while Russia and other powers in the world are investing more and more in defense,” Rasmussen said in an interview.

But even with officials acknowledging the danger, they are reluctant to respond by reversing planned cuts in military spending that were enacted when Europe was more stable.

“The hope is still there that political and diplomatic means will succeed. And budgets are still tight,” said Michael Clarke, director general of the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “There’s also a sense in Europe that we lived in the Soviet shadow for 50 years, and we learned not to overreact.”

Wary of new Cold War

Indeed, there’s strong sentiment in Europe against any kind of response to Russia that would set off a new Cold War. With most Europeans regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as failures, voters would rather see their governments focus on domestic spending than risk getting entangled in another foreign conflict.

“We all love to think of the Russians as 10 feet tall, and we got used to that view of them in the Cold War. But the Russian military is really not in very good condition,” said Nick Witney, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who served as the first chief executive of the European Defense Agency. “There’s no reason for Western Europeans to feel themselves threatened by even a very badly behaved bear.”

There’s a question, too, of whether a more robust European military posture would really succeed in deterring Putin. British defense secretary Philip Hammond said Wednesday in Washington that his government would conduct a thorough review of defense spending next year. But “if across the board, Europe had been spending 10, 20 percent more on defense, I’m not sure that this would have made a difference to the way we responded to the crisis.”

Dannatt, the former British army chief, said he believes it could have, and that Western diplomacy has failed in part because it’s not backed up with military might. “Soft power works best with a bit of muscle behind it,” he said.

But when he tried to make that point with legislation that would have preserved 3,000 troops due to be shifted to reserve status when the active-duty army falls from 102,000 soldiers to 82,000 by 2020, he found few takers.

“You can’t underestimate the effect of Iraq and Afghanistan not just on the British public, but also on the British government,” Dannatt said. “Politically speaking, there are no votes in defense.”

Karla Adam in London and Ernesto Londoño and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.