Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 7 December 2023


Europe’s weak defences risk a Russian attack


Does anyone else have a sense of déjà vu? Here we are, with less than a year to go until a US election and a possible Donald Trump victory, with worries growing about his commitment to European security and dark talk about the future of Nato.

It’s just like 2016 — except there is a major war on Nato’s eastern flank and our ally, Ukraine, is almost entirely reliant on crumbling US support. In Europe, we have had seven years to reduce our crippling dependency on America. We have squandered nearly all of it.

The threat to Europe is much more severe than it was back then, when the conflict in Ukraine was limited to localised battles in the eastern Donbas region. Both Moscow and Nato have staked their credibility on victory.

Russia may have suffered numerous humiliating setbacks but Putin recently redoubled his commitment to a long war, with massive increases in defence spending and planned military industrial capacity, plus further rounds of troop mobilisation.


At the same time, Kyiv has recently been forced to admit that its counter-offensive has so far failed, meaning the war is at an impasse. The White House has warned that its Ukraine war effort is “out of money and out of time” until Congress votes for more aid.

With a few exceptions, Nato members have been consistently slow in delivering arms to Kyiv when they are needed most. The kerfuffle earlier in the year over whether to send tanks did eventually reach an agreement after the US gave Germany cover by saying it would join in the donation — but not until Russia had spent the whole summer building 100 miles of fortifications across a key attack line protecting its gains in the east. We have sent longer-range missiles as the war has gone on but each consignment has fallen just short of what might pierce the Russian line or cut off Crimea.

Now the shells are running out. Ukrainian troops are having to ration their shots on the front line and are even firing up Second World War field guns. As the chairman of Nato’s military committee said recently of western ammunition stocks: “The bottom of the barrel is now visible.”

Throughout all of this, the leading donor of military kit has been and remains the US. As of July, according to a tracker maintained by the Kiel Institute, the US had sent equipment worth €42 billion, versus €17.1 billion from Germany, €6.6 billion from the UK, €5.6 billion from the EU and only half a billion from France.

To be sure, there are other kinds of aid too and the EU has certainly promised a lot of money while other countries have taken in many refugees. But what will determine the outcome of the war is defence capacity — and in that, Europe is lagging to an unacceptable degree.

There is no great change here. An internal analysis by the Foreign Office from a few years ago, before the Ukraine war, estimated that American taxpayers foot the bill for between a third and a half of Europe’s defence. When Trump wonders why they bother, and right-wing American strategists worry that Uncle Sam cannot bear the burden, it is honestly hard to argue with them.

It’s true, of course, that Europe has started to raise defence spending, but not by enough. Last year, according to EU data, it rose 6 per cent, still putting the continent years away from meeting its Nato commitments or making up for years of under-investment.

European governments have committed to billions more but have spent months tied up in arduous negotiations with one another, the EU and with defence companies over how and when to spend it. So while the state-owned factories in the US have doubled production of much-needed 155mm shells since the war started and plan to increase capacity fivefold by the end of 2025, Europe’s ramp-up has proceeded more slowly, delivering only a third of the EU’s target volume for this year.


One reason is that Europe’s defence companies are privately run and therefore had to wait for orders to be placed through the EU’s new international procurement agency (itself negotiated over months) before investing. Even now, so-called “ethical” investment rules are starving them of capital and European governments’ stop-start approach to placing orders is keeping costs high and investment slow.

Europe’s dysfunction persists despite the stakes in Ukraine being manifestly much higher for us than for the US. If Washington does decide to cut the flow of supplies, or finds it cannot supply both Israel and Ukraine, Kyiv’s war effort may not only stall but could collapse into defeat.

This is perilous for Europe. In Germany, wonks are warning that we are likely to see a direct Russian attack on Nato within six to ten years. The head of Poland’s security services said that the timeline was probably closer to two or three years if the stalemate in Ukraine continues.

We need to reinforce Nato’s eastern flank urgently, he said. The aim is certainly not to fight a war with Russia, God forbid, but to avoid the need to fight a war. The stronger Europe looks, the less likely any attack is.

Yet we continue to rely heavily on US largesse while many of our leaders snipe at Trump and carp about other Republicans, apparently without shame, for questioning America’s commitments. It’s true that we Europeans are chronically short of cash, but shoring up Ukraine’s war effort is ultimately the cheapest way to deal with the Russian threat — far cheaper than running the risk of a direct war.

Europe also needs the US to remain visibly capable of facing down other threats, from China to Iran, in order to reduce the risk of more wars breaking out in other arenas. We can no longer afford to be such a money sink for our greatest ally.

For decades, Europe has pocketed a giant security dividend from America’s military might. We have spent it all on government social programmes while sneeringly denouncing our benefactor for failing to support its own poor.


The US meal ticket won’t last forever. Rather than fretting over an adverse vote in Congress or a Trump victory or whatever else comes after that, we should get our act together and take full responsibility for defending our own continent. At some point, after all, Europe’s luck is bound to run out.

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