When a great power takes a gamble, the world shakes. By ordering an attack on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed a chain of reactions whose endpoint no one can yet foresee. Already apparent, however, is one consequence for the United States. Overstretched to begin with, America has just seen its strategic burden increase. Just as suddenly, however, a new solution is coming into view: Europe is ready to take on greater military duties.
Before the war, many Americans, including some political leaders, had determined to be more realistic about their country’s strategic ambitions in an increasingly competitive world. Sensibly, President Biden had sought to stabilize relations with Russia and reduce U.S. war-making in the greater Middle East while turning attention and resources toward managing a rising China. But Putin’s Russia has refused to be sidelined. By invading Ukraine, it has caused NATO’s eastern flank, with four countries bordering Russian territory, to demand reinforcements — and the United States has risen to the task. Biden has sent 14,000 American troops to Europe since the crisis began, bringing the total to 100,000.
Providing temporary reinforcements is the right decision today in the face of Russia’s bald aggression. But the United States should resist the inclination to revive its role as the military protector of Europe, especially since Europe is awakening to its responsibilities. Britain is sending troops to the Baltic states and Poland. France is pushing “strategic autonomy” for the European Union. And days after halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline supplying natural gas from Russia, Germany reversed a long-standing ban on providing military assistance and sent weapons to Ukraine. Germany also vowed to spend more than 2 percent of its economy on defense, finally committing to meet NATO’s target. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared his country, and Europe, to have reached a “historic turning point.”
Both Americans and Europeans would benefit if Scholz’s words prove true. In the coming years, European states should move to take the lead in their collective defense, and the United States should do everything possible to encourage them. To stake the defense of Europe on the United States, over the next decade and beyond, would be to answer Putin’s rash gamble with a slow-moving gamble of our own.
It might seem as though the United States will remain able and willing to protect all of NATO’s 28 European countries far into the future. After all, America has orchestrated Europe’s defense for the past eight decades. Yet it did so under two markedly different conditions.
During World War II and the Cold War, the United States sought to stop totalitarian powers from conquering the region. An Axis or Soviet takeover of Europe would have closed off the entire continent to liberal, American-style interaction and influence, and put the Western Hemisphere on the defensive.
After the Cold War, however, as the Soviet threat collapsed, the United States recommitted to Europe not because the stakes were high but arguably because they were low. Threats were so negligible that it seemed U.S. leadership could keep things that way through modest exertion — and spread democracy to boot. Expanding NATO eastward, American officials convinced themselves that what had been a military alliance was more comparable to a political club, one that need not become an adversary of Russia.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine ends that chapter and begins a new one. The prospect of further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe cannot be dismissed as negligible, as it was in the 1990s or 2000s. At the same time, Russia poses far less a threat to overrun Europe and threaten American security or prosperity than the Soviet Union did. After all, the Russian economy is roughly one-fifth the size of that of the European Union, and that was before the severe sanctions of the past week. Although Russia has built a formidable military, one that enables it to launch wars like that in Ukraine, NATO’s European members collectively outspend Russia on defense. During the Cold War, by contrast, the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact boasted land forces superior in number to those of NATO (including the U.S. share), and the gap between its economic output and that of Western Europe was several times smaller than Russia’s shortfall today. In the security environment now emerging, with Russia menacing Eastern Europe, the United States is set to face major costs and the ultimate risk: great-power war between nuclear peers. Yet the threat Russia poses remains one that Europeans could handle themselves, with America acting as a supporter rather than the leader.
The United States remains a superpower. Why shouldn’t it be the main counterweight in Europe to Moscow? There are two reasons both the United States and Europe would be better off if it declined this role. One lies in Beijing, and the other in Washington.
The United States has already identified China as its primary rival, embarking on “strategic competition” with the world’s number-two power. Taking on China and Russia at once would be unwise and likely impossible. True, the Pentagon has previously planned to fight two wars at once, but those wars were envisioned as “regional” conflicts against small states like Iran, Iraq or North Korea. In practice, the United States had difficulty prosecuting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously. China and Russia represent challenges of a far greater magnitude, which explains why the Pentagon abandoned its two-war standard in 2018, even as its budget has grown. If the United States doubles down on European security while leading the charge in Asia, it may either fall short in both places or default on its commitments in Europe just when they come due.
America’s domestic divisions must also be taken seriously. The Republican front-runner for 2024, former president Donald Trump, initially called Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a “genius” move. How reliable, then, is America’s commitment to Europe? Even in better times, it would remain uncertain whether a U.S. president would place the American people in peril for the sake of repelling a Russian attack in Eastern Europe — for example, potentially trading a nuclear attack on Boston to protect the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Under present circumstances, it would be folly for Europe to trust its fate to doubtful promises, and wise for the Biden administration to Trump-proof American alliances.
Today, even smaller European countries like Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are ferrying arms to Ukraine, while perpetually neutral Switzerland is freezing Russian assets. Yet proclamations of a “new Europe” are premature. If the United States does not galvanize and incentivize its allies to step up, they are unlikely to make the profound changes needed to build a European security architecture that can last.
In the coming months, the administration could formulate a multiyear but time-limited plan to transition to a European defense led by Europe. Such a plan would build on the work of the British-Baltics-Polish coalition that reinforced Eastern Europe before the war, but it must also involve the major Continental powers of Germany and France, whose participation is key to forging a durable order. By publicizing the plan, and doing so while passions remain high, the United States and its allies could create a credible commitment on both sides of the Atlantic.
Europe would have to act quickly to redress its strategic deficits relative to Russia, which are real but too often exaggerated. The European members of NATO already possess around two dozen armored and mechanized brigades, enough to make a Russian offensive difficult in the early stages and allow Europe to prevail through its overwhelming economic and demographic advantages. The most urgent task is to improve the readiness and sustainability of European forces. German determination and funding will go a long way toward that end. In particular, Europe must develop certain critical capabilities, such as surface-to-air missile batteries, combat-support assets, and air-refueling systems — all essential for high-end operations, and at present possessed mostly by the United States.
During the transitional period, U.S. military would continue to provide command-and-control functions and logistics support so as not leave an opportunity for Moscow to exploit. The Biden administration would, however, begin to shift command of NATO to European leadership, and deepen its support for E.U. defense efforts, which previous administrations sought to suppress. As European forces steps up, the United States could bring most of its personnel home, with some air and naval forces remaining.
Europe would also need to grow its defense-industrial base, both to develop cutting-edge technologies and to create enduring political support for higher spending. Since 2017, the E.U. has implemented promising new measures to increase and coordinate investments in defense. If the E.U. could borrow 750 billion euros to fund pandemic recovery, it could borrow billions more to finance new defense capabilities. Here, as elsewhere, the United States would have to take concerned action just to keep from getting in its allies’ way. To allow European industry to grow, the White House and Congress ought to be less aggressive in facilitating sales of U.S.-made military equipment. The profits of domestic contractors should yield to the vital defense needs of the United States and Europe.
In another era, the prospect of letting Europeans lead Europe’s defense would have caused an outcry in some quarters of Washington. Even today, it will cause controversy. But political reality suggests it is necessary. Biden has a once-in-a-generation chance to realign America’s strategic priorities while demonstrably strengthening Europe’s defenses. By doing so, he could inspire bipartisan unity. He could forge a path that his successors could follow, regardless of party or personality, by building a Europe-led, U.S.-supported order to preserve the next decades of peace and prosperity across the Atlantic.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.