The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ukraine smolders as Europe comes slowly awake

Ukrainian, European Union and other European countries' flags are flown in Bucha, Ukraine, on May 9, 2022. (Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures ror The Washington Post)
5 min

A pair of news items last week encapsulate what Europe is doing, and failing to do, to provide for Ukraine’s defense — and for its own.

One suggests that the continent has been jolted awake to the mortal threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s ruinous aggression. The other is further indication that for all its wealth, industrial might and sophistication, the bloc remains benumbed, oblivious to its sclerotic arms production incapacity and content to continue outsourcing its mounting security needs to the United States. Together they reflect Europe’s cognitive dissonance on security and should amplify the alarm bells set ringing by Moscow’s unwarranted invasion 13 months ago.

The positive news was a landmark deal under which the European Union agreed to a $2.2 billion package to send 1 million artillery rounds to Ukraine over the next year and simultaneously accelerate the continent’s ability to ramp up production of even more. The immediate goal is to replenish Kyiv’s dangerously dwindling stocks of the 155mm howitzer shells, fired by its forces at a rate of roughly 3,000 daily — which comes to 1 million over 12 months. Longer term, the idea is to enable European arms manufacturers to triple their production of the munitions as a coordinated effort.

That initiative, proposed by Estonia, was a historic departure for the E.U. — known mainly for bureaucracy, not arms shipments — and a literal call to arms. It fit a broader picture of Europe’s response since Russian armor and infantry stormed into Ukraine in pursuit of Putin’s imperial fever dream. Despite soaring energy prices, most of the continent weaned itself remarkably fast from Russian oil and gas. Many European countries depleted their own arsenals to rush arms and munitions to Ukraine, and pitched in to train Kyiv’s forces. The fact that Finland and Sweden broke a decades-long tradition of neutrality and applied to join NATO represented the sea change in European views of Russia — and of their shaken sense of security.

Yet Europe has left unaddressed the corrosive, longer-term problem of defense industries in most E.U. countries that were left to atrophy after the Soviet Union’s collapse more than three decades ago, and today remain supine.

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That dilemma was cast into relief by the second recent news item — the publication last Tuesday of NATO’s annual report, which detailed the sluggish progress made by most of Washington’s European allies in beefing up spending on military forces and equipment, notwithstanding their own commitments to do so. To put their underperformance in stark terms, consider these takeaways from the report:

– The estimated rate at which NATO countries boosted defense spending last year, 2.2 percent, was the smallest jump since 2015, reflecting budgets approved on the eve of an invasion that triggered Europe’s biggest war in seven decades;

– None of the continent’s biggest economies have met the alliance’s common goal of earmarking at least 2 percent of economic output for defense, a target set nine years ago following Putin’s illegal land grab and annexation of Crimea;

– The United States represents about 54 percent of the combined gross domestic product of NATO’s 30 member countries, but accounts for 70 percent of its total defense spending. Besides the United States, whose defense spending is roughly 3.5 percent of GDP, only the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and the Baltic states exceed the 2 percent threshold, which all the members agreed they would reach by next year.

A pointed example of the cavernous gap between stated intentions and current action was the pledge by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, issued days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, that Berlin would spend an additional 100 billion euros ($108 billion) on defense over four years. But even Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy and Europe’s manufacturing dynamo, has been incapable of jump-starting military industrial production on a timeline suited to Ukraine’s dire needs. Although one-third of the funding promised by Mr. Scholz has been earmarked, none has so far been spent. That reflects assembly lines that have withered for more than 30 years and a bloated bureaucracy that has contributed to procurement bottlenecks and thwarted years of attempted reforms meant to speed reviews and approvals.

As for Germany’s authorization to send its top-shelf Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, only a relative handful, in stocks across Europe, have to date been mustered for transport — such is the poor state of repair that afflicts most of them and so much other military equipment listed in military inventories on the continent.

Yet as Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Sophia Besch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “if the EU can jointly procure ammunition, there is no reason why it can’t take similar steps to jointly acquire artillery or to step up Leopard tank production.”

The continent’s awakening has been too slow, and its collective efforts to provide for its own and Ukraine’s security too sluggish. The E.U.’s funding for artillery shells does respond to an acute immediate need, a need that Europe rightly regards in its own interests given its overreliance on U.S. brawn, and a dawning future in which Washington may shift its strategic gaze toward China. But while Europe sees the threat clearly, the anemia in its long-term planning, capability and strategy remains. That is not tenable.

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