A column of Russian tanks and artillery weapons rolled toward Donetsk in Ukraine recently, the latest move in a proxy war that’s seen Crimea and much of the country’s Donbas region pass from government control.
At the same time, fighting was raging in Kobani, Syria, between an assortment of Kurdish fighters and the radicals of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Donetsk is smack in the middle of Eastern Europe. Kobani is just beyond Europe’s southeastern edge, and thousands of radical fighters there come from Europe. The two hot spots span what military experts call the full spectrum of modern warfare, from the traditional Russian force to the far-too-common asymmetric threat of the terrorist Islamic State. Both represent very real and serious threats to European security.
Yet European militaries aren’t prepared to deal with either one, much less both. European security remains dependent on the might of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and NATO increasingly is dependent on the might of the United States. The European nations NATO was set up to defend contribute less and less to the organization.
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“If we think about the threats from this year, there was no real possibility that Russia would push beyond Ukraine, because the Russians knew invading a NATO country would mean facing the might of the American military,” said Patrick Keller, an international security expert at the prestigious center-right Adenauer Stiftung research center in Berlin. “They most certainly would not have had similar concerns about facing the Bundeswehr,” the German army.
History isn’t kind to nations that neglect their own defense, a point military experts agree is on the minds of European leaders in light of the twin threats. But NATO’s over-reliance on the United States was built into the organization from the beginning, military analysts said. It was fundamental to the American role in a two-superpower world. Europe was never expected to contribute much, said Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, in Virginia.
“The European contribution is not so much the military force, but the rights/privileges/logistical support for the U.S. presence in Europe,” he wrote in an email.
Even so, the imbalance has gone wildly out of whack in recent decades, to the point where many military experts think the way NATO functions needs to be redefined.
The European members of NATO have about 230 million more people than the United States and a combined gross domestic product that’s slightly larger than that of the United States. Yet European nations today spend only 37 percent of what the United States does on defense: $270 billion vs. $735 billion.
In 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, European nations were spending about 60 percent of what the United States spent: $186 billion to $306 billion.
This trend has hardly gone unnoticed. At NATO’s September summit in Wales, Europe’s deteriorating militaries were a focus. The summit declaration even said: “We agree to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets. . . . Our overall security and defense depend both on how much we spend and how we spend it.”
Specifically, the declaration encourages NATO nations to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, a longtime goal that 2013 NATO figures indicate is being met by only four of 26 European nations, though France and Turkey are close. The United States spent 4.4 percent of its GDP; European nations spent an average of about 1.6 percent.
Countries outside NATO have shown just as little commitment to defense. Austria this year cut the number of fighter pilots it has to 12, sold equipment, including tanks, and cut back on personnel, all to stay within a military budget that’s just 0.5 percent of its GDP. Military experts say the policy is tantamount to abandoning the idea of self-defense and that Austria would have to rely on neighbors for its security.
Experts doubt whether anyone would rally to Austria’s defense – or the commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on the military. Neither parliaments nor voters have shown any interest in following through.
Etienne de Durand, the director of the Security Studies Center at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris, notes that even reaching 2 percent wouldn’t necessarily solve problems. For one thing, 2 percent of how much?
“If you have to rebuild a full-spectrum military, 2 percent is not enough unless you’ve got a raging economy,” he said.
Part of the problem, de Durand asserts, is that the United States, the United Kingdom and France have encouraged European nations to build forces geared toward expeditionary missions such as Afghanistan – sending troops far away from national borders. Once the point of military spending was divorced from defending the homeland, spending on manpower and weapons became optional for many countries. When budgets got tight, it was easy to shift tax money to social programs, such as higher education and national health care. European politicians were happy to grab that option.
Germany is perhaps the best example of that. Europe’s most populous nation, with its strongest economy, Germany spends a relative pittance on defense, and a recent internal study concluded the German military is only “conditionally ready.”
That was on display in recent months. When the German Defense Ministry announced it would send weapons to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State, the follow-through became what German media described as slapstick: few transport helicopters and planes were in working order, and a contingent of trainers was stuck for days in Bulgaria while their plane was fixed.
Ukraine has become the cautionary tale of a European nation that neglected defense. In the past five years, the government spent just one-tenth of what its military leaders deemed necessary to maintain its force, officially reasoning, “Ukraine has no enemies who might invade.”
When Russia made its move on Crimea last March, the Ukrainian military was shambolic: Troops were untrained, vehicles broken and without fuel, and arms were too few. In Kiev, officials admitted they couldn’t stop a Russian advance. Their hope was that Russian President Vladimir Putin would change his mind.
Ukrainian troops in Crimea fired no shots to oppose the Russian takeover. Many joined the Russian army; the rest left for the Ukrainian mainland.
Kathleen McInnis, a security expert at London’s prestigious Chatham House research center, said Poland, a NATO ally, was the only European nation with a strong program of military spending. That’s driven by worries about Russian aggression triggered by the invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Not even the United Kingdom, whose prime minister, David Cameron, pledged to continue his nation’s commitment to defense, can be counted on, she said. She noted Cameron also has made a political commitment to spending more on social programs.
“If that’s his priority, where does defense really fit?” she asked, noting that budgets remain tight across Europe and the financial crisis hasn’t yet ended.
“Putin is absolutely interested in pushing the limits, testing the political credibility and capability without provoking a massive response,” she said. “Right now, Moscow is calling into question what NATO is going to do about Ukraine, and NATO wasn’t ready for this.”