Military spending may now figure in public conversation about NATO. But the alliance, at 70 years old, still lacks military capabilities strong enough to protect Europe from Russia
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO pledged to adapt to the new situation the action heralded. At the Wales summit that year the alliance recommitted to the 2 percent spending goal, extended the role of the NATO Response Force (NRF), and created a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) to react within five days to a contingency on NATO’s eastern flank. Two years later in Warsaw, the alliance agreed to send battalion-sized military contingents to each of the Baltic countries and Poland. The US would later add three battalions to rotate between eastern flank states. And at its 2018 Brussels summit, NATO put the NRF’s readiness goals in more tangible terms: 30 battalions, 30 fighter squadrons, and 30 warships to be ready within 30 days. In addition, the alliance’s command and logistics structure was to be updated to deal with deployments of larger formations in the same region.
In both Berlin and Warsaw, domestic politics and populism still trump defence
But it is much too early to declare “mission accomplished”. The steps taken after these three post-Crimea NATO summits are not enough to deter Russia from further use of military threats and force against other European states, even NATO members. A RAND wargaming exercise carried out in 2016 showed NATO forces on the eastern flank to be insufficient to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia would be able to field ground forces in superior numbers and, together with air forces and air defence, could defeat local forces before NATO reinforcements arrive. If surprised by a Russian offensive, Russia’s spearheads may even circumvent NATO-Enhanced Forward Presence forces (NATO battalions based in the Baltics), leaving them unable to join battle. Indeed, Russia’s ability to dictate the time and location of any assault entrenches its military superiority across the entire eastern flank – not just the Baltic states, but from the high north down to the Black Sea.
NATO’s eastern flank presence amounts to reassurance – which was the alliance’s original aim – not deterrence – which is what western Europeans eventually began to call it. The limited forces stationed there would serve as tripwires, at minimum triggering a war to retake territory were they not able to hold it. But for Russia to be deterred from invading, the Kremlin would have to be sure that, in case of a military incursion (even one with no clear attribution, such as the 2014 invasion of Crimea), the alliance would stand resolutely behind each and every member. Reassurance requires rigid strategic cohesion to be credible. But Trump’s tweets, Germany’s recent unilateral push for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and European inaction following the end of the INF treaty do not suggest this strategic cohesion and solidarity would materialise in a more severe crisis.
Europe’s cohesion leaves room for improvement, but what about Europe’s commitment? Usually, commitment is measured in financial terms. Figures show that the decline of defence spending that occurred after the 2008 economic crisis has halted, but also that spending has not improved on pre-crisis levels. Moreover, defence spending rose mostly on NATO’s eastern flank, in those states directly threatened by Russia. In any case, it is important to grasp that spending alone is not a benchmark for comparing military capacity or for understanding how secure a country is. Purchasing power differences, national regulations, funding of bureaucratic apparatuses unrelated to military tasks as such – all these things can make a difference to military capability.
Have European military capabilities improved since 2015? In some respects, yes. Over the last five years the Baltic countries, and non-NATO members like Sweden and Finland, have established an impressive track record of strengthening their defence capacities. Not only have they increased budgets, Sweden and the Baltic countries have also reoriented from international crisis response to national defence, a shift which requires different sets of capabilities. Finland never embraced the interventionist cause and has therefore had little to adapt, always maintaining its territorial defence focus. All these countries, and Romania too, have grown the size of their armed forces, created reserves, increased their constantly available forces, and qualitatively modernised their armed forces. But little has changed in the rest of Europe. Defence policy is still – at best – a secondary matter that domestic and party politics overshadow.
In Germany, defence spending has become a bone of contention between the governing parties. Social Democrat pressure to increase social spending has meant the government has agreed no further increases in defence spending, which stands at 1.2 percent and by 2022 will have risen to 1.3 percent. The 2022 budget will allocate around €43 billion to defence. But to build up the troops and weapons systems it has already promised NATO as a contribution to the alliance’s defences, the government requires a minimum budget of €60 billion. The German government has postponed the date by which its successors are meant to reach the target, first from 2024 to 2027, and now to 2032. Who will fill the gap in forces Germany leaves behind in NATO as a result of this? On 1 January Germany stepped up by providing NATO’s VJTF, but it only managed to do so after cannibalising formations across the Bundeswehr into one functioning brigade. And this brigade is less than one-third of the forces Germany promised the alliance in 2016.
Underspending is one issue in NATO; misspending is another. Poland spends more than 2 percent of its GDP on defence, but the government’s key priority is to build up a territorial defence militia. The military value of the 17 light infantry brigades it intends to form for territorial defence is very limited. They comprise volunteers with no military experience who receive 30 days’ training a year. In practice it is hard to mobilise and deploy reserve forces in the very short timeframe that a crisis with Russia would demand. And it is impossible to form larger functioning military formations and train them in combined arms manoeuvre warfare if they are made up of inexperienced volunteers. In August and September 2014 Russian regular armoured formations crushed Ukrainian volunteer light infantry units. In addition, the Polish government has postponed key procurement programmes for its regular army and has allocated this money instead to territorial defence. These moves led a number of top-tier officers to tender their resignations in protest.
In both Berlin and Warsaw, therefore, domestic politics and populism still trump defence. Compared with the mindset of NATO members’ political elites during the cold war, defence is far from being the “raison d’état” it once was.
At a geopolitical level since Crimea, a certain unity on Russia has emerged in Europe, even if it sometimes has a fragile feel. No EU member state has recognised the Russian annexation of Crimea, and all have maintained economic sanctions despite frequent Italian, Austrian, and Hungarian rumblings. But sanctions alone are not a strategy, nor do they reflect a wider sense of strategic unity on how to deal with Russia. On Ukraine itself, the Minsk negotiations represent a cohesive approach of sorts, but these have stalled for four years. Russia is not fulfilling its obligations under the deal, and it does not refrain from using the threat of force against Ukraine. Militarily, only a few NATO nations dare engage with the Ukrainian armed forces. The United States has delivered anti-tank and counter-sniper systems and various non-lethal goods. The Baltic countries provide ammunition, and Poland and Slovakia supply spare parts for armoured vehicles. The US, Canada, and the United Kingdom have set up a training initiative to improve the Ukrainian armed forces’ tactical leadership training, later joined by Lithuania and Poland. But reservations on the part of several western European states mean that this programme is not a NATO programme, but a separate initiative conducted by NATO members on a voluntary basis. And Hungary has blocked deeper institutionalised relations between Ukraine and NATO following restrictions on the use of Hungarian in Ukraine.
In summary, five years after Crimea, Europe is not falling back into a mood of détente or even fraternisation with Russia (as witnessed after 1991 or the 2008 Russian-Georgian war). But it has still not woken up to the challenge before it. On key strategic questions, Europe has not yet answered major questions in a complete way. Does Russia pose a threat to Europe beyond the immediate post-Soviet neighbourhood? How far should Europe hedge against Russian military assertiveness, through deterrence? And would Europe complement this deterrence with containment measures to limit Russia’s influence and leverage over Europe? What would then be the share NATO and Europe’s militaries would have to bear for both deterrence and for containment? Wales, Warsaw, and Brussels saw member states agree to readjust the current structure of forces and command. But they did so with an implicit understanding that these changes should remain manageable within bureaucratic politics and not require wider consensus building among politicians and the public.
In future crises with Russia, NATO may look much weaker than it appears on paper. No doubt political leaders’ failure to open up a public conversation about this topic lies behind this in part; and too often they have been content to allow Donald Trump’s railings distract attention from European countries’ own – unmet – obligations to NATO. But the burden-sharing debate is not about Trump – it is about the forces, doctrines, procedures, installations, infrastructure, and services needed to defend Europe. The substance of this is more complex than an abstract figure of GDP spent, and the conversation about capabilities remains even more dangerously unaddressed as that about funding.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.