Russia’s war on Ukraine has already changed European security after only one week, with the most serious fighting almost certainly yet to come.
Vladimir Putin’s immediate military objectives in Ukraine may be met, but the victory will be a Pyrrhic one. Europe’s post-Cold War vacation from hard power and difficult choices has come to an end.
For more than a half-century, American presidents have lamented European free-riding and refusal to shoulder a fair share of the collective defense burden under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even avowed Atlanticists like President Dwight Eisenhower complained at the height of the Cold War that the Europeans were “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam.”
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, all NATO nations, including the United States, took a peace dividend and reduced their militaries. However, many European countries went much further, opting for military emasculation. Germany was the worst offender.
During the Cold War, the Bundeswehr was a large and respected frontline army, but it became a hollow force. By 2017, most of Germany’s fighter planes had been grounded due to maintenance issues, and all six of the country’s submarines had been decommissioned. During a training exercise with NATO’s rapid response force, a German battalion had to substitute black broomsticks for machine guns.
For nearly 30 years, European nations ignored the growing gap between their militaries and US forces, even after European inadequacy was exposed during bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Libya. The war in Afghanistan, to which the majority of NATO members sent troops, exposed the limits of European military capability and risk tolerance.
Many European leaders believed that war was obsolete — at least for their continent. In the twenty-first century, economic strength and “soft power” were crucial. Boutique armies were really only needed for multilateral humanitarian interventions in other countries. Territorial defense was no longer an issue.
In 2018, Sweden reintroduced its military draft, a key component of its Cold War defense, while neighboring Finland established rapid response readiness units to counter the threat posed by Russia. Finland announced in December that it would replace its aging F-18s with 64 new F-35 fighters, the equivalent of 3,840 F-35s for the United States.
However, the majority of Europe remained slumbering under an American security blanket, with only rhetorical nods to the changing security climate. NATO members spent an average of 1.7 percent of GDP on their militaries, which is less than half of what the US spends on defense. The majority of that money was spent on pensions and manpower, not on modern weapons, ordnance, and communications systems.
Ukraine has changed all of that in an instant. Europe has banded together to impose unexpectedly harsh economic sanctions on Russia while also rushing military aid to Ukraine. Finland and Sweden, both neutral and non-aligned throughout the Cold War, are seriously considering joining NATO.
Scholz promises to bring the rest of Germany along with him in this newfound commitment to national defense and collective security as the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has long been inclined to accommodate Russia. Outside, 500,000 people gathered in Berlin to show their support for Ukraine.
Because of Putin’s recklessness, the United States may finally get what it has wanted for decades: a Europe that takes its defense seriously. President Joe Biden, as the leader of NATO’s preeminent power, has the ability to shape this sea change to America’s greater strategic advantage if he is willing to resist the urge to reflexively reinforce Europe once the immediate crisis has passed. In the absence of a major geopolitical shock, Russia is likely to remain a persistent adversary of Europe and the United States for the foreseeable future. However, America’s most dangerous adversary is still five time zones away: the People’s Republic of China.
Europe, with three times the population and nearly ten times the GDP, has more than enough resources to contain Russia. It may have finally found the will.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, German frigates belong in the Baltic, not the South China Sea. Instead of looking for counter-terrorism missions, European commandos should be preparing to counter Russian irregular warfare.
If NATO’s European members are finally willing to stand up to Russia, America will be able to complete its postponed pivot to Asia and fully focus on competition with China. The biggest impact of the war in Ukraine may be felt a continent away.