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HomeLanguageEnglishAgonizing over Europe’s Defence: Some Narratives are Getting Ahead of the Facts

Agonizing over Europe’s Defence: Some Narratives are Getting Ahead of the Facts


This article was issued by the Toda Peace Institute and is being republished with their permission.

By Herbert Wulf

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in February two years ago was a shock to European security policy. It did not come entirely out of the blue, however, because Russia had already annexed Crimea in 2014 in violation of international law. But the great rupture in European security architecture happened in February 2022. Previously, Europe had hoped to find a peaceful solution through the Minsk agreements. Today, for many, Russia is the greatest threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

Then the Zeitenwende happened, probably best translated as “an epochal tectonic shift”. The new security situation is not a temporary break in an otherwise stable equilibrium. The crisis we are experiencing, according to the almost unanimous assessment in the West, is a turning point in history. Zeitenwende is not only a completely new assessment of the threat. It also means that decisions should be made to counter the new danger, even if they are painful.

NATO and EU pledged full solidarity with Ukraine and promised political, economic and military support. Arms production is being accelerated in many countries in Western Europe. NATO countries have vowed to increase military spending to at least 2% of GDP. Finland and Sweden were admitted as new members of NATO. Everything should be done to put Russia in its place and to protect us from Russia’s imperial aspirations.

Just a few months after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, literally all NATO member countries had announced an increase in their military budgets. Europe was called to react in a forceful and coordinated manner. The division between the more transatlanticist countries and those opting for an autonomous EU security policy seemed to have been overcome. The EU Strategic Compass, agreed upon in March 2022, promises “a stronger and more capable EU in security and defence”. Since then, the need for a unified EU security, defence and armaments policy has become a mantra. But all too often the typical EU formula compromises papered over the obvious fractures and divisions among member states.

After 2014, NATO initiated an armament program with a 2% GDP target for military spending, because Russia’s attack on Ukraine was also understood as a military threat to the West. The primary argument for this program was: to catch up with Russia; to close the gap in defence capabilities and remove the shortfall in our defence, as quickly as possible. But was or is there a European or NATO deficit? Sometimes narratives may be getting ahead of the facts.

According to official NATO figures, growth of military expenditures of NATO Europe and Canada (in real terms) has fluctuated between 1.6% and 5.9% per year between 2015 and 2022. In 2023 the budgets grew by 8.3%. European NATO countries, plus Canada, increased their budgets from a low point of US$235 billion in 2014 to an estimated US$380 billion in 2024. Total NATO expenditure, including the US, reached US$ 1,160 billion in 2024.

Over the past decade, Russia has spent around 4% of GDP annually on the military (more than double the percentage NATO is targeting). This amounted to US$71 billion, or 6 trillion roubles in 2022. The Russian defence budget increased drastically and is estimated to amount to 10.8 trillion roubles in 2024. More and more resources are being poured into the war. Nearly a third of the roughly US$350 billion of the state budget (US$109 billion) is spent on the armed forces, an estimated 7.1% of Russia’s GDP.

Comparing NATO’s and Russia’s military expenditures reveals an interesting picture. Although military expenditures are a heavy burden on the Russian economy, which has now been transformed into a war economy, NATO Europe’s and Canada’s expenditures are three and a half times higher. Adding Finland and Sweden to this comparison, Russia’s negative quantitative military balance is even more pronounced. Russia’s military expenditures amount to just about 10 percent of NATO’s expenditure, if the entire US budget is included. France (US$57) and Germany (US$57.8) alone have spent more in 2022 on their armed forces than Russia plans to spend now.

Apparently, compared to Russia, no gap has existed and there is no backlog today, despite all efforts in Russia. Even if the difference in purchasing power in Russia and NATO is considered, NATO has a clear superiority. A similar picture emerges if one compares the number of soldiers or their equipment: fighter planes, battle tanks, missiles, fighting ships, submarines, etc., NATO figures are higher in all categories. Russia’s armed forces, constantly praised as a powerful modern army before the invasion two years ago, have been unable to occupy Ukraine.

So why the narrative that Europe is not able to defend itself? Why are alarm bells ringing in Western Europe when former US President Donald Trump proclaims that if you don’t pay, you won’t be defended by us? Is Europe unable to defend itself conventionally against Russia without the US? Why is the US protection so important? The argument that the existence of nuclear weapons in Russia will require a US response ignores the fact that France and Great Britain are also two nuclear powers.

That the Europeans were incapable of an independent security and defence policy is confirmed by many internationally significant military actions. In the 1999 Kosovo war, the Europeans proved incapable of implementing their problematic policies without the United States. The haphazard evacuation of Western troops from Afghanistan in 2021 ended in chaos, with Europe relying largely on US transport capacities. Recently, the EU military-backed Sahel strategy ended in a complete failure and the withdrawal of troops.

The main reason for the decades-long inability of Western Europe to achieve strategic autonomy within the framework of the EU or in the European part of NATO, which French President Emmanuel Macron has long demanded, is its uncoordinated policy. Efforts for intensified cooperation in Europe date back as far as 1976 when the Independent European Program Group (IEPG) was founded as a forum for cooperation in defence production and procurement. One could even go back to the mid-1950s if one counts the failed efforts of the Western European Union. Already in 1978, the European Parliament published a pertinent, but inconsequential report that called for better integration of production and procurement of weapon systems.

There is a wide gap between the declarations and promises for an independent European security policy and its implementation. Money alone is not enough to guarantee security. The recent discussions about the possibilities of deploying European ground troops in Ukraine confirm the gap between aspiration and reality. No sooner had the French president raised the possibility than the EU split into two camps: supporters and vehement opponents. This is what happens when theory meets reality.

German Minister for Defence, Boris Pistorius, tried to convince the Germans that “we must become fit for war”. Really? Is fitness for war what we need in Europe? The call for more guns in all European countries is a substitute act for failed common concepts and strategies. It “only” costs money. A waste of scarce resources. Mind-boggling gazillions of Euros are pledged. What has happened to the more than US$3,000 billion that NATO Europe has already spent on their armed forces during the last decade?

Russia’s war against Ukraine should have been a stop sign for nationally-oriented security and defence policies in Europe. But the opposite is the case as the dispute about a possible appointment of an EU Commissioner for Defence illustrates. It’s not a lack of resources but of political will to arrive at a common EU security and defence policy. Such efforts remain highly controversial. EU security policy’s credibility is in tatters and the EU’s ambition to act as a peace maker has de facto been abandoned.

Related articles by this author:

Boots on the ground (3-minute read)

In search of an exit strategy (3-minute read)

Skyfall: Cluster munitions for Ukraine (3-minute read)

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Council of SIPRI.

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