Home News Europe European attitudes towards defense undergo sea change in wake of Ukraine war

European attitudes towards defense undergo sea change in wake of Ukraine war

European attitudes towards defense undergo sea change in wake of Ukraine war
Map of Western Europe. Credit: Shutterstock.

Countries closer to Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic States, always had a firmer grasp of the danger, “but if you look at the Netherlands, Portugal, Luxembourg, there’s still this sense that Russia is far away,” says Bruno Lété, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.


 The defense awakening across Europe in response to the invasion of Ukraine is most dramatic among Western European countries, which had resisted the previous U.S. administration’s appeals to increase their defense budgets. In a Feb. 27 address to the Bundestag, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Europe faced a Zeitenwende, or “watershed” moment. He asked: “What capabilities does [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia possess? And what capabilities do we need in order to counter this threat—today and in the future?”

Among the European countries that have announced defense hikes are Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Romania, Poland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The latter two have also expressed an interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

“The events in Ukraine have really sent shockwaves through European capitals, east and west,” Bruno Lété, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), told JNS.

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, European thinking rested on three assumptions, he said: 1) a sense of false security; 2) reliance on the United States for Europe’s defense needs; and 3) a belief among many Western Europeans, diplomats or political leaders that war is obsolete; “that conflict is to be resolved by economics or diplomacy, and large standing armies are something from the past.”

“These three things combined made many European nations conclude that defense spending was not a priority,” he said, which caused them to downplay earlier warnings, like Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its seizure of Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014.

Lété noted that European countries closer to Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic States, had a firmer grasp of the danger, “but if you look at the Netherlands, Portugal, Luxembourg, there’s still this sense that Russia is far away.”

“The Baltic states and eastern states have never underestimated the potential for aggression from Russia,” agreed Rachel Tausendfreund, editorial director of GMF, telling JNS that the “starkest change” is in Germany, both in its view of Russia and its mindset on defense.

While Germany’s foreign-policy establishment has long understood that the country was not spending enough on defense, the German public did not. “Many Germans really were living in a world that was free of danger. Danger was something that happened far away on the other side of the Mediterranean,” she said. “They now understand they can’t solve everything by talking and trading.”

The second change is in attitudes towards Putin, whom they trusted. Public outrage towards the Russian president, together with fears of vulnerability, have put the wind in the sails of German politicians who want to see the country strengthened—“if they can capitalize on it and keep up the momentum,” said Tausendfreund.

In his Feb. 27 address, Scholz announced concrete steps that included an injection of 100 billion euros into the 2022 defense budget and a pledge to invest more than 2% of Germany’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in defense each year going forward.

Two percent of GDP is based on NATO guidelines, which sets that target for member states. “It used to be 3%. It got lowered to 2%. That’s what NATO members have actually agreed to spend for their own defense. Germany hasn’t reached that number since 1990,” said Tausendfreund.

By way of comparison, according to Statista.com for the year 2020, in terms of GDP, Saudi Arabia was the highest-spending country (8.4%), followed by Israel (5.6%), Russia (4.3%), the United States (3.7%), India (2.9%), South Korea (2.8%), U.K. (2.2%), France (2.1%), Australia (2.1%) and China (1.7%).

The list’s order changes when looked at in dollar terms. The United States is No. 1 at $766 billion, China No. 2 at $252 billion and Russia No. 3 at $61 billion. Israel comes in at No. 14 with $57 billion.

Tausendfreund said even with the change in public sentiment, it still won’t be easy for Germany to reach its 2% target, despite the fact that the center-left Social Democrat Party (SDP), which heads the ruling coalition, has abandoned its prior anti-military positions, among them arguing for the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons kept on German soil. (Scholz said Germany would promote “nuclear sharing,” a NATO concept that allows countries, like Germany, to launch nuclear weapons not their own).

Tausendfreund noted that the chief difficulty is that the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a member of the ruling coalition, controls the purse strings and is focused on reduced government spending. She said while “the party does strongly side with Ukraine in its defense, on the flip side, it doesn’t want to spend money to do it.”

In another change, Germany has expressed interest in purchasing Israel’s Arrow 3 missile-defense system and Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles. (In late 2020, the SDP blocked an effort to allow German troops serving in places like Afghanistan and Mali to use armed Israeli Heron TP drones.)

An illustration of the Arrow-3 missile interceptor. Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries.

‘All these treaties are gone’

Ofer Shelach, a former Knesset member who served as a senior member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and is now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told JNS: “I think we’ll see countries arming themselves with systems that have been developed in Israel, for example, missile-defense systems such as Iron Dome, anti-tank missiles, precision munitions and so on.”

He approves of Israel providing arms to its allies in Europe, but said Israel should refrain from giving advice, despite signs that Israel may become a model for some European countries. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on April 5 that he envisions the Ukraine of the future to be less like Switzerland and more like a “big Israel.”

Shelach said Israel should be having a discussion—“one we’re not having now”—on the lessons that will come out of the Ukraine war. “The whole concept of how, under what circumstances and to what purpose you use military power will come under new scrutiny once this war is over,” he said, noting that the more Russia succeeded militarily, the tougher the sanctions were against Putin.

“In the world following the Ukraine war, the lines will be drawn much clearer between those who want a world ruled by certain rules. I’m not saying a world order, but certain rules. One of the rules will be that the use of force is less acceptable than it was before,” he said.

A post-Ukraine war world is something that also preoccupies Lété. He could only say with certainty that Europe’s current security architecture, shaped by a series of treaties struck since the end of the Cold War, was finished. “All these treaties are gone. Either Russia withdrew from them, or the West withdrew from them,” he said. “The problem right now is that there’s nothing else in their place.”

He said NATO may become much more muscular. Since the end of the Cold War, it was an organization casting around for a mission. That mission has been thrust on it with Russia’s attack. “For 70 to 80 years, NATO’s frontline basically crossed through Germany. NATO would occasionally have some presence in the Baltics and Poland. But we’ve seen now that NATO is recalibrating its military strategy,” said Lété. “This historical frontline that went through Germany is now being pushed to the east. NATO’s new frontline is now going from the Baltics to the Black Sea.”

He added: “We will see quite a lot of change happening from the military perspective, where this eastern front line will be massively reinforced.”


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