Assessing Europe’s potential to defend itself

On paper, Europe is capable of becoming a security giant. But will the tumult of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine be sufficient to wake it from its present slumber?

Rishi Sunak and Jens Stoltenberg (Europe defense potential)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak inspect weapons in Warsaw, Poland, on April 23, 2024. A united Europe would have more than enough strength to face Russia on its own – but so far European countries have not been able to align their strategies. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Europe has the resources to fend off Russian aggression
  • Post-Cold War complacency has atrophied the continent’s defense capabilities
  • Russia believes Europe is divided and weak, and lacks the will to defend itself

With the initial shock of Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine having worn off, Europeans are now having to come to terms with three sets of disturbing realizations. 

One is that the war is not going to end any time soon. The second is that it remains unclear what that end might look like, and the third is that Europe’s initial reactions to Russia’s aggression have vindicated the Kremlin’s belief that Europe is divided and weak. The last realization is by far the most ominous. 

After last summer’s Ukrainian counteroffensive quickly ran out of steam, cautionary voices suggested that a Russian victory in Ukraine would be followed by a Russian assault on NATO itself – perhaps even within the span of a few years. As the Kremlin rattles its nuclear saber, with an obvious faith that its bullying will be successful, Europe’s past weakness and indecision raises the question of whether Europe would have the strength, and the will, to defend itself in the future.

On paper, the strength of the West, both military and economic, vastly exceeds that of Russia. For Russia, a military confrontation with NATO would end very quickly – and very badly. Even without the United States, Europe has an economic potential that easily dwarfs that of Russia. 


Facts & figures

Defense expenditure as percentage of gross domestic product

The reason why the Russian leadership has not been deterred by these facts is that it is so clearly convinced that Europe lacks the will to resist aggression. This is the core of the European security dilemma. As the late U.S. Senator John McCain noted after the Russian invasion of Crimea: “There is nothing that provokes [Russian President Vladimir] Putin more than weakness.” 

If, at the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe had been united and resolute in mobilizing its theoretical potential, then the war could have been brought to a swift conclusion. Indeed, if Russia had been convinced that Europe would respond forcefully, it is unlikely it would even have launched its invasion in the first place. 

The paramount question now is this: “Is the rest of Europe currently ready to face the threat of more Russian invasions, deeper into its territory?” That question is made all the more urgent by the distinct possibility that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump might win the November U.S. presidential election. That would potentially leave Europe facing a Russian assault without the support of the United States. After investing so much in “soft power” to engage with the Kremlin, Europe now has a severe shortage of hard power in the face of a revanchist and aggressive Russia.

The deciding factor will be whether Europe can make a credible case that it is both willing and able to stand up in its own defense. This means that governments must be ready to pay the price for rearmament, and that populations must be ready to take up arms and risk death in defense of their homelands. Making the case to the Kremlin that Europe is indeed ready to do so will be a tall order indeed.

Much is presently being made of how Russia is placing its economy on a war footing, how its military industries are working flat out to produce hardware, and how manpower is being mobilized to make up for those who are being killed in the “meat grinder” in Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, the military forces of several European countries are in a sorry state. The German armed forces, if called on to defend the country, would run out of ammunition in two days, media reports say. And Germany is not alone in having a domestic public opinion that objects strongly to preparing for war.

Growing rift between European countries

Ukraine, and by extension Europe, gained some hope of relief on April 20 when the U.S. House of Representatives finally approved a $60.8 billion aid package that had been kept in legal limbo by U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, for six months. The Kremlin reacted furiously, which points to the potential military significance of the move: When the aid was delayed, the tide on the battlefield began to turn in Russia’s favor, but with the arrival of fresh weapons and ammunition, Ukraine now has a chance to stabilize the situation. 

Another glimmer of hope is that French President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear, at least rhetorically, that France will not allow Russia to win. Mr. Macron’s suggestion that NATO troops may have to be sent to Ukraine reverberated across the continent, finding strong support in some quarters and equally strong opposition in others. His promise to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that French troops stationed in Romania would be ready to intervene if Odesa comes under attack has further added to the creation of strategic ambiguity. 

More by Stefan Hedlund

The remaining hurdle is that some NATO countries have made it abundantly clear that they prefer appeasement. Hungary has declared that it will never go to war with Russia, and Slovakia is sliding into the Hungarian camp. And even if Western governments could achieve unity, making reluctant populations accept the sacrifices involved in rearmament and troop deployment would still be a long, uphill struggle.

In stark contrast to the defeatism that reigns in some quarters, Czech President Petr Pavel has demonstrated that where there is a will, there can indeed be a way. When other NATO powers reacted to reports about an alarming Ukrainian shortage of ammunition by looking the other way, Mr. Pavel, a retired army general, took the initiative to scour the world market and soon found 800,000 shells that could be quickly bought and delivered to the Ukrainian army. Having shamed other countries into providing the necessary financing, he projected his vision that the first deliveries of shells could be made by the end of March. Although this has still not happened, there is hope that within weeks Ukrainians will receive this much-needed replenishment.

In an op-ed in the NATO Review on March 11, President Pavel provided further leadership by highlighting three essential tasks for Europe’s defense. The first is to immediately increase production across key segments of Europe’s defense industries. The second is to enhance the combat capabilities of individual European armies, and the third is to stand strong against Kremlin information operations, which are focused on preventing the first two steps from being taken. Looking forward, three very different scenarios are possible.



NATO provides credible deterrence

In line with the above, this would likely entail agreements to increase the minimum level of defense spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product, to provide government guarantees that enables the private sector to greatly increase military production, to hold joint military drills aimed at deterring Russia, and – above all – to demonstrate a common resolve in convincing Russia that its policy of divide and conquer stands no chance of success.

What makes this scenario so obviously unlikely is the previously noted lack of European will to stand up to the Kremlin. Countries that have no desire to pay the price for rearmament, that have no desire to sour their relations with Russia, and whose populations harbor strong pacifist sentiments will have little trouble coming up with excuses as to why NATO should instead seek to defuse tensions. 

Ample illustration has already been provided by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his coalition government. Much as the upcoming November presidential election in the United States has cast doubt on the provision of further aid to Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz is clearly aiming to shore up his own flagging electoral prospects by appearing to the public as a Friedenskanzler, or peacemaker. 

A recent survey shows he is reading the public mood correctly. While only 5 percent of Germans would respond to a military attack by volunteering for military service, 24 percent would prefer simply to leave the country as soon as possible.

Russia gains ground

The second scenario is based on Russia breaking through the Ukrainian lines. A shortage of Ukrainian air defense has allowed Russian missile barrages to wreak massive damage on civilian targets. If the Kremlin’s forces proceed to threaten both Kharkiv and Kyiv, and with horrific scenes of material destruction and human suffering appearing on the nightly news, some European governments will face vociferous domestic demands for their own troops to be sent to Ukraine to support the country in its fight against Russia.

Meanwhile, countries with large migrant populations are at risk of being targeted by yet more Russian information warfare. They not only face the problem of having large sections of their young populations show little to no loyalty for the country they live in – they must also deal with the rise of anti-immigrant parties that have shown strong sympathies for Russia. 

As a case in point, leading German Social Democrats have responded to President Macron’s bellicose stance by rallying behind Chancellor Scholz in a well-coordinated media campaign calling for the conflict in Ukraine to be frozen. Moreover, Germany is not alone in showing a weakness of will. Both Sweden and – notably – France also have large immigrant populations that may be mobilized via Kremlin propaganda to undermine the people’s willingness to defend their own countries. 

Coalition of the willing

A third, more optimistic scenario envisions the formation of a “coalition of the willing” that has sufficient strength and credibility to deter any form of Russian military aggression. It would be composed of frontline states, ranging from the Nordic and Baltic states in the north, through Poland and the Czech Republic in the center, to Romania in the south, and it would be firmly backed by France and the United Kingdom, both of which are nuclear powers. 

Such a coalition would not only be marked by a strong willingness to pay the price for rearmament, and by populations that are ready to accept the prospects of a reintroduction of conscription and of having to send troops to Ukraine. It would also possess high-tech military industries that offer governments the ability to rapidly boost the production of cutting-edge weaponry, including ammunition.

Yet while the outcome of this scenario would be to deter Russia, it would come at the steep price of creating deep divisions within the West. By assuming a leadership role in spearheading European security, France would come close to its long-time ambition of ensuring European strategic autonomy, but if the United States does pull back from the transatlantic partnership, it would effectively mean the end of NATO.

That outcome would produce a radical shift in the center of gravity of European security. One telltale sign that such a shift could already be underway is that NATO has started building a military base in Romania that will be larger even than the U.S. Cold War base at Ramstein in Germany. The enhanced presence of NATO forces along the eastern border also implies a downgrading of the role of Germany. 

Several countries are also building weapons factories in Ukraine, which itself has a strong tradition of weapons production from Soviet times. Together with massive Polish arms procurement, this suggests that the “Lublin Triangle” of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine could in future be the linchpin of European security.

While the first two scenarios are unlikely to materialize, they serve as a background on which to assess the prospects of the third being successful. One caveat is that Hungary and Slovakia are wedged between Poland and Romania not only geographically, but also politically (the former two are much more friendly to Moscow than the latter two, at least at the moment). This is something that Russia will be sure to exploit. Another is that Germany would find itself in the uncomfortable position of being squeezed between Poland and France, both of which are very frustrated by German self-deterrence.

The likely outcome is that unless Germany and the United States join hands in insisting on freezing the conflict, thus preventing a coalition of the willing from challenging Russia, there will be sufficient resolve in a sufficient number of countries to transform paper strengths into real hard power. The implied deterrence would be sufficient to prevent a war between Russia and the West. 

But it is far from a done deal. The European security giant, for now, slumbers on.

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