Analysis & Comment

Opinion | It’s Time for Europe to Stand Up for Itself

Since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the narrative of American and European officialdom has been that Russia, a predatory state, is bent on dominating its neighbors, constituting a grave military threat to all of Europe. Finland’s and Sweden’s decisions to join NATO bolster this proposition, and the alliance appeared to accept it at face value during its summit this week in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The consensus in the West was that Putin had transformed the Russian Army into a formidable fighting machine — an assessment exemplified in an Economist headline in late 2020, “Russian Military Forces Dazzle After a Decade of Reform.”

In fact, the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine has been anything but dazzling. Despite a $650 billion modernization drive that kicked off in 2010, it has witnessed surprisingly high equipment losses, tens of thousands of casualties, continual logistical failures and bungled combined arms operations. And yet Europe acts as if it does not have the ability to stave off a Russian attack, continuing to turn to the United States for military backing. At the Vilnius summit, Washington’s allies pledged, as they did nearly a decade earlier, to increase their military spending. But there are differences among them over whether that figure ought to serve as a ceiling or a floor, among other things.

It’s true that European nations’ record in meeting 2014 NATO guidelines — 2 percent of members’ G.D.P. in annual military spending and 20 percent of their military budget for new equipment, research and development — has been spotty. From 2016 to 2022, only four to 10 NATO countries, including the United States, met the 2 percent goal. That failure stems from a lack not of resources but of political will; a motivational deficit rooted in its decades-long dependence on America. Washington, for its part, has cultivated that reliance to boost the revenue of its arms industry and, just as important, reinforce European dependence on U.S. power.

The contention that the wealthy, technologically advanced European nations cannot join forces to acquire enough military power to deter or defeat Russia strains credulity. NATO’s 31st and newest member, Finland, and next member, Sweden, have powerful militaries, and Ukraine’s army — far better equipped, trained and battle hardened than it was before 2022 — would also almost certainly come to Europe’s defense in the event of a Russian attack. American military power will also be a reliable supplement. But ultimately, the reality is that Europeans have not only the wherewithal to defend their continent but also a far greater stake in doing so than the United States. Calling for European self-sufficiency is not equivalent to advocating NATO’s abolition. It’s time for Europe to get serious about its own defense.

Sixteen months into the war, Russia has, without a doubt, inflicted massive punishment on Ukraine, destroying nearly $138 billion (as of January) worth of infrastructure alone, according to the Kyiv School of Economics. (As for the human toll, by mid-June 9,083 civilians had been killed and an additional 15,779 injured, according to the United Nations.) Having been to wartime Ukraine three times, including to places close to the eastern and southern fronts, I have seen some of the destruction firsthand. Press photographs and reportage cannot fully capture it.

But Russia has been unable to transform its massive advantage in troops and arms into anything resembling victory. Its difficulties have doubtless been compounded by the more than $46 billion in American military aid that Ukraine has received, along with additional support from NATO and other countries. But the Ukrainian Army thwarted Russia’s opening drive on Kyiv even before American weaponry started arriving in large numbers. Western arms are part of the reason for Russia’s struggles, but so are Ukraine’s strong morale and better generalship.

The rest of Europe, whose resources far exceed Ukraine’s, is in an even stronger position. Compare Europe and Russia on any metric typically used for gauging power, and Europe proves vastly superior. Take their gross domestic products. Last year the European Union’s was $16.6 trillion, and Russia’s was $2.2 trillion. That means the European Union, even without Britain, has an economy more than seven times as large as Russia’s.

What about technology, another component critical to contemporary warfare? Here things get more complicated, as no single statistic works for a neat comparison. So let’s run an unscientific thought experiment. Think of the high-end electronics, luxury automobiles or anything involving artificial intelligence that you’ve used or seen of late. I’d imagine that few, if any, were of Russian provenance. The mixed record of some top-shelf Russian equipment used in Ukraine’s battlefields bears this out. Inspections of destroyed or captured examples of some of Russia’s most advanced rockets, missiles, air defenses and even field radios revealed that they all relied on critical components made in the United States, Europe, Japan or South Korea.

How does Europe stack up against Russia when it comes to the number of major armaments, such as tanks, warplanes, battleships and artillery? Russia leads in some key categories but mainly not with the overwhelming numerical advantage that an attacking force would require — typically three to one, a rule of thumb that has held up well. And Europe has the economic and technological means to boost its armament production. Britain and continental European countries have world-class arms industries, including giants such as Britain’s BAE Systems, France’s Thales and Safran, Italy’s Leonardo and Germany’s Rheinmetall.

Realizing the potential for greater self-sufficiency will require substantial investment and coordination in European arms production to avoid duplication and achieve a division of labor that maximizes comparative advantage. But these are hardly impossible tasks. Europeans have proved remarkably successful in acting collectively to overcome the traditional barriers of national sovereignty. Consider such landmark achievements as the adoption of a single currency by 20 out of 27 E.U. countries, the creation of the European Central Bank and the Schengen agreement, which abolished internal border controls.

The Russian Army is no paper tiger. But the right lesson to be taken from the war in Ukraine is that Europeans are fully capable of assuming the principal responsibility for defending themselves.

That’s something they ought to do out of sheer self-interest. Like it or not, the focus of the U.S. military will be increasingly focused on the Asia-Pacific as this century advances. America’s European allies have already agreed to play a larger role in Asia-Pacific security to help Washington counter Beijing’s growing power. They should focus instead on defending their own continent. Europe should ditch the decades-long discussions with the United States over better burden sharing and get serious about burden shifting.

Rajan Menon is the director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor emeritus of international relations at the Powell School, City College of New York.

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