Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 12 March 2024


Europe bickers while the Russian threat grows

French President Emmanuel Macron, next to Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, speaks at a conference on Ukraine in Paris on Feb. 26. (Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP/Getty Images)
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PARIS — Nothing could have delighted Vladimir Putin more than a recent series of unforced errors by top European leaders, which dovetailed neatly with Kremlin propaganda, exposed rifts in the Western coalition backing Ukraine and culminated with French President Emmanuel Macron warning his allies “not to be cowards” in confronting Moscow.

In the resulting fallout, German, French and British officials took turns skewering each other for ill-considered comments. The trouble is that in dwelling on minor gaffes, the recriminations missed Europe’s far deeper strategic problems, including frail fighting forces and anemic military production, as it faces the most dangerous threat since the Cold War.

That threat, the specter of further Russian aggression, is prompting sharp defense spending increases and a rethink of the continent’s reliance on the United States and other far-flung arms suppliers.

But even as European members of NATO scramble to meet the alliance’s spending target of 2 percent of total economic activity on defense, Putin has earmarked more than 7 percent of Russian GDP for military outlays this year. And sober analysts across the continent believe a direct showdown with Russian forces could come before the end of this decade.

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That chilling scenario, coupled with Washington’s growing preoccupation with China, should provide a bracing moment for European unity. Instead, it seems to be prompting squabbles — a sneak preview, perhaps, of what to expect if the United States scales back its principal role in NATO after seven decades as the bloc’s undisputed leader.

The headline-grabbing slips began late month when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz defended his fuzzy-minded refusal to send his country’s most powerful long-range missiles to Ukraine. In doing so, he intimated that the British and French, who have shipped their own missiles, have also sent military personnel to help Kyiv target Russian forces precisely — a move he said was out of the question for Germany.

The reaction to Scholz’s remark was furious in London, muted in Paris and gleeful in Moscow, where the remark, along with a leaked recording of German air force officers discussing the use of missiles against Russian targets, was used to buttress Russia’s specious narrative that NATO’s aggression triggered its invasion of Ukraine.

That same day, Macron infuriated his European partners by urging that they consider deploying troops to Ukraine to help fend off Russian advances in the absence of sustained U.S. arms supplies. It was the ensuing uproar over what most allies regarded as a broken taboo that prompted him to say, “Europe clearly faces a moment when it will be necessary not to be cowards,” adding that people “never want to see the tragedies that are coming.”

The French president has a point — not that Europe should put boots on the ground in Ukraine (it shouldn’t, at least not in combat) but that it has not fully come to terms with Moscow’s menace.

In Europe’s most militarily formidable countries, the gaps are enormous between the peril they perceive and the preparations they are making.

In Brussels, European Union leaders have proposed subsidizing a major shift to joint weapons procurement that would prioritize purchases from homegrown arms-makers. The goal would be spending half of E.U. defense budgets within the bloc by 2030, and 60 percent by 2035.

But the E.U. cannot defend Europe on its own. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out last month, 80 percent of the alliance’s military expenditures come from non-E.U. allies, meaning the United States and a handful of others.

A major weak point is Germany. Scholz responded to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by establishing a $108 billion special fund to rebuild Germany’s depleted armed forces, along with major arms shipments to Kyiv. But there is no plan or realistic prospect to sustain the new spending once it runs out in 2028.

The reason is the German constitution’s draconian limit on borrowing, which means a long-term military buildup could be financed only through a major tax increase or massive cuts in health, welfare and climate programs.

Neither is politically feasible. Yet there is no serious debate about scrapping the debt limit despite years of infrastructure underinvestment that has sapped the German economy.

France poses a different problem, which is that Macron has allowed the perfect strategy — as he sees it — to be the enemy of a good one.

He has insisted that Europe beef up its homegrown defense industries, not least French ones, a sensible goal given the swelling tide of isolationism among U.S. Republicans. Yet under the banner of what he terms Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” he has spurned a Czech-led plan for Europe to buy 800,000 artillery shells for Kyiv from sources outside the E.U., even as Ukraine runs short on ammunition.

The sniping among European leaders is a sideshow that obscures the bigger challenge, one that the continent is rising too slowly to face. Putin will be sure to notice.


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