From talks to tanks: how Russia has forced Europe’s hand on defence policy


In the wake of the Second World War, European defence was almost entirely organised and, to some extent, dominated by the American government. With numerous EU member states failing to commit 2% of GDP to defence, as requested by the US government, former President Trump threatened to pull his country out of NATO entirely. This strained relationship was met with equal distrust from EU leaders who looked to forge a foreign policy path independent of Washington. Enter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seeing a return to large-scale kinetic warfare on the continent; an event so surprising France fired their head of military intelligence, General Eric Vidaud, for failing to foresee the coming invasion. With the war having passed its first anniversary, Europe has been compelled to respond. In addition to sending extraordinary amounts of military materiel to Ukraine, European defence spending continues to hit unprecedented levels post-Second World War.

Overall, member states of the European Defence Agency (an EU scheme) will aid in advancing this year’s budget by 15%, totalling €214bn. Specifically, EU member states are dramatically increasing military spending per NATO and EDA requests. For example, having previously allocated less than 2.5% of GDP to defence, Poland will now jump to 4%, a move deemed “unprecedented” by Prime Minister Morawiecki. Similarly, France’s next seven-year defence budget will increase to €413bn from 2024-30 with a 60% hike in spending for military intelligence. French President Macron acknowledged that there were no more post-Cold War “peace dividends”, and the security situation in Ukraine demanded a re-examination of French defensive posture. In addition, Sweden and Finland announced steep increases in military spending as part of their bid for NATO membership. Separately, Germany is currently pledging an extra €100bn of the budget to the armed forces. According to the EDA, European defence spending has surpassed €200bn for the first time in its history. In a recent press conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that on behalf of the alliance: “Since [2014] we have seen eight consecutive years of increased defence spending across Europe with an additional 350 billion extra dollars spent”.

While the increase in military spending across the EU may seem self-evident to many as a natural response to a rapidly deteriorating security situation, this change has more long-term geostrategic implications. Since 2011, the United States has confirmed a shift in strategic military objectives from a more global ‘world policeman’ approach to a concentration in the Far East. Then President Obama called this America’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, a gradual shift from Europe towards the Indo-Pacific region. With the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now abundantly clear that America cannot assert influence in all parts of the world, hence the ‘pivot to Asia’ will continue to become more of a reality. The American military and current president have agreed that given a choice between defending Europe and countering the ever-expanding Chinese hegemony over Asia, the latter option is of more strategic importance to the country.

[European states] must be willing to fund first-rate armies

With Russia continuing to destabilise European peace daily and the American government shifting its geostrategic priorities to Asia, Europe can solidify collective defence on its terms. If European states are tired of American micromanagement of its defence spending and allocation, they must be willing to fund and field first-rate armies. When Russia launched its full-scale ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, this reality became tangible for Europe. However, as mentioned above, the unanimous response from the EU and other European states establishes that the continent may soon be ready to field a formattable armed force, assisted by substantial budget allocations.

All these changes in spending and strategic priority would culminate in the European Union (and its allies) standing as a formidable bloc working alongside, rather than subordinate to, American strategic policy and direction. If the Russian Ground Forces continue to make little progress in Ukraine whilst suffering significant losses at the hands of a NATO-armed adversary, Europe (and the entire Western world) would emerge steadfast in conviction and unified in deliverance. If Russia’s misjudged invasion of Ukraine has sparked a fundamental re-evaluation of European defence, the continent will become a stronger and more unified bloc; perhaps then Europe is the true victor of this war.

Image: Ministry of Defence via Wikimedia Commons

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