The nuclear threat and Europe’s defense

Morag, Poland, May 26, 2010: U.S. Patriot missiles are put on display for the media (source: dpa)
Morag, Poland, May 26, 2010: U.S. Patriot missiles are put on display for the media (source: dpa)

The danger of nuclear war in Europe is growing, Igor Ivanov, Russia’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2004, told a conference in Brussels last month attended by the foreign ministers of Poland and Ukraine. These words have to be taken seriously. Mr. Ivanov is a seasoned and rational politician, certainly not a hothead. His warning must not be ignored, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

The trigger was a decision by the United States and its allies to station antiballistic missiles in eastern Poland in 2018. Russia sees this deployment as a provocation, and does not give credence to NATO’s claim that the new system is to protect against Iran.

The Kremlin has threatened to retaliate by deploying nuclear-tipped missiles to the Kaliningrad exclave between Poland and Lithuania, both NATO members. An arms race and escalating propaganda is a disastrous mixture, with the potential to spiral into war.

Since 1945, Europe has sheltered under the security umbrella of the U.S. Europeans owe a lot to American protection and help, which was crucial during the Cold War.

It is now more than a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall fell, and Europe still has not developed a credible defense capability. Since the U.S. can no longer afford to commit large conventional forces to Europe as a deterrent, the decision was made to deploy missiles at NATO’s eastern border.

The situation would be completely different if Europe took responsibility for its own defense. In theory, this should be possible. In practice, the picture is much more discouraging.

As of today, 500 million Europeans spending close to $200 billion on defense each year find themselves virtually at the mercy of Russia, which has less than 150 million inhabitants and spends some $60 billion annually on its armed forces.

This shows that the amount of money matters less than how it is spent. What counts is efficiency of procurement and the willingness to fight.

Europe’s problem is that each country has its own military, its own budget and its own procurement. This results in high overheads, inefficiency, lack of coordination and uncertainty on who will really fight in case there is an attack.

NATO is helpful, but it is not a solution. The only way the North Atlantic alliance can work is if Europe is able to defend itself.

With a credible defense and foreign policy, Europe would be able to negotiate more effectively with Russia. Since geography doesn’t change, Russia and Eurasia will remain Europe’s neighbor, and the relationship must be managed. A defenseless Europe has little bargaining power.

The U.S., on the other hand, is pressing European countries to increase their defense budgets. However, Washington is not particularly keen on helping Europe install a common defense, preferring to keep NATO structures paramount. But bigger defense budgets alone will not solve the problem. The issue is what is done with the money. Without a joint European defense strategy, wasteful spending will continue.

Only an effective collective defense will keep the peace in Europe, sustain the NATO alliance and allow peaceful and hopefully friendly relations with Eurasia. With a genuine European deterrent, it would not be necessary to deploy antiballistic missiles next to Russia’s sphere of influence. Now, unfortunately, it is.

Related statements:
Saber rattling intensifies in Washington, Moscow and Beijing
The new peacemakers
Threat of war edges closer to Europe

Related reports:
Europe at a crossroads: toward a global strategy
New doctrine shows Russia willing and able to use force
The EU needs a security strategy based on common interests

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