Western Europe had been comfortably enjoying a peace dividend since the 1990s, as countries cut back defense spending and watched with indifference as their armed forces became smaller and less capable with each passing year.
The war in Ukraine, which few believed would happen despite increasingly clear warnings from the U.S. intelligence services, shocked Europe out of its complacency, and set off an unprecedented arms race as governments, having belatedly realized just how low they and their predecessors had allowed their military readiness to erode, scrambled to order new weapons and take others out of long-term storage, and competed to attract American troops to new garrisons.
Western Europe’s arms shopping spree
The enthusiasm with which European governments signed cheques to buy new equipment is inversely proportional to their distance from the nearest Russian border, with Hungary, Poland and the Baltic States investing very high percentages of their GDP in new weapons. NATO’s defense spending target of 2% of GDP, long considered an improbably high ceiling, has now almost turned into a floor, with several European governments saying they are increasing their defense budgets to 3% of GDP.
Poland is the epitome of European rearmament. Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, it has ordered about 350 M-1 Abrams tanks, both new and used, several hundred HIMARS artillery missile launchers, three batteries of Patriot air-defense missiles (with 4 more to follow), 96 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 32 F-35 fighters from the United States, costing over $30 billion.
Deputy Prime Minister @mblaszczak: We have achieved the goal. Polish Patriots are being integrated as we proceed to build a multi-layer, based on components produced by the Polish armament industry, air defense system. pic.twitter.com/KPx4PriaDd— Poland MOD (@Poland_MOD) October 14, 2022
Poland also ordered 32 AW149M helicopters from Italy’s Leonardo, at least two regiments’ worth of Sky Sabre air-defense missiles from the U.K. and over 1,000 tracked and 600 wheeled infantry combat vehicles from its own industry, adding another $26 billion. And, in September, it signed contracts with South Korean industry to buy 1,000 K-2 main battle tanks, 840 K-9 self-propelled howitzers and 288 K239 Chunmoo artillery missile launchers at a cost estimated at around $25 billion, bringing Poland’s bill for weapons ordered this year to about $80 billion, not counting the recent order for South Korean FA-50 lightweight fighters and the recently-revealed order for MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft.
Not to be outdone, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a €100 billion special fund to recapitalize the German armed forces, and initially said defense spending would rise to 3% of GDP, although the government has hedged his promises, and the special fund’s €100 billion are already being eaten away by rising inflation and interest rates.
No less spectacular was the UK’s promise to double defense spending to £100 billion by 2030 (to 3% of GDP), before doubts emerged about whether the UK could actually afford it, while France is continuing the steady increase in defense spending that it began in 2017, with next year’s budget due to increase by 7% over this year’s.
The Baltic Republics, although among NATO’s smaller members, have spent an even greater proportion of their national income on building up their defenses, and are also proportionally among the greatest contributors to Ukraine’s war effort - they border Russia, and vividly unhappy memories of Soviet occupation.
And the same race to rearm is being reproduced across Europe, even in countries which, like Hungary, have tended to be less Russophobe than others.
Russia’s Potemkin army….
All these additional investments in Western European defense, amounting to several hundred billion euros, would certainly allow NATO to better resist the powerful and efficient Russian war machine the Pentagon has been describing for decades, and that Europeans feared for decades following the Second World War.
Alas, that Russian war machine does not exist, and probably never did.
In the 1980s, a Soviet defector using the pen name Victor Suvorov wrote a book (Inside the Soviet Army) in which he described the Red Army as a corrupt and incompetent officer corps leading a band of conscript drunkards who, during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, drained the anti-freeze from the radiators of their vehicles to get drunk on.
Few people in the West believed Suvorov’s tales – this was the time when another book (The Third World War: The Untold Story) by a former commander of the British Army of the Rhine, Gen. Sir John Hackett, forecast that Soviet forces would reach the port of Brest, on the western tip of France’s Brittany peninsula, in a matter of days., having sliced through NATO defenses like a hot knife through butter.
As it happens, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has amply demonstrated that the Russian armed forces are a true paper tiger: bad equipment badly manned, rife corruption, rigid adherence to è0-year old tactics…..all of which led to the world’s most fearsome army being defeated by a minor military power, albeit one that was trained and equipped by NATO forces.
As an aside, this is not much different from the way the Iraqi army, claimed by the Pentagon to be one of the most powerful in the world, immediately collapsed once the allied powers launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
…..will take decades to recover
But back to Russia’s near-collapse after its initial success in Ukraine. Today, NATO countries are investing hundreds of billions or dollars/euros/pounds to shore up their defenses to withstand an attack from what has now been shown to be one the world’s least effective armies.
And Russian offensive power will take decades to recover. Russia has lost, by some estimates, as much as one-third of its modern tanks, armored vehicles, air-defense systems and missile launchers – either abandoned by its troops or destroyed.
Russia’s arms industry has also been crippled to a large extent by Western sanctions, to the point that Swedish police suspect Russians of stealing their highway speed cameras to equip their military drones, since Russian companies can no longer buy those cameras overseas. The same is true of Western microchips and other electronics that are no longer available to Russia, and which its own industry cannot manufacture.
As long as sanctions remain in place, Russia won’t be able to reconstitute its military power, and so there will be no Russian threat for decades -- for once, the West holds most, if not all, all the aces, at least as far as Russia is concerned.
By rushing to rearm once its enemy has lost most of its conventional teeth, after having ignored Russia’s military renaissance since in the 20 years since Vladimir Putin took power, Western governments have shown that they are consistently out of tune.
Why can no Western politician stand up and say that, with the Russian army in the state it’s in, there is no urgent need to spend billions on new weapons? Instead, we’ll spend more on other aspects of our security, because we need more police, more cyber defenses, and more internal security.
Spending billions to rearm against an enemy that has been shown to be a paper tiger, when these same billions would be far more useful in shoring up their weakening economies, smacks of a level of incompetence that does not aggrandize our governments.