24.11.23 Review

Waiting for War: NATO and Europe have between five and nine years to prepare for a major military conflict, and the less prepared they are, the more likely it is to happen

While a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO seemed unthinkable not long ago, it is now becoming the subject of serious analysis. Moreover, a report by the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) makes it seem almost inevitable if NATO and the Bundeswehr cannot strengthen their forces in such a way that defeat seems all but inevitable for Russia. While the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the weakness of the Russian army and its low technical capabilities, it has also shown that Europe is not ready for conventional warfare and is unable to organise arms deliveries quickly. Russia, on the other hand, was able to rapidly increase its procurement and production of (albeit outdated) military equipment, as well as to address the problem of replenishment of manpower. Economic sanctions were also unable to deter military aggression and prolonged confrontation. Experts believe that it will take 6 to 10 years to replenish Russia's forces, which means that the military build-up of NATO and Europe needs to be faster in order to have a preventive psychological effect. The upper limit of this timeframe seems possible for Europe, while the lower limit would be extremely tight. This underscores the significance for Europe of the continued support for Ukraine, which binds Moscow's forces and is of great geostrategic importance for European security in the foreseeable future.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has prompted politicians and experts to contemplate what, until recently, seemed unthinkable — the potential military confrontation between Russia and NATO. Thinking rationally, such a war seems extremely unlikely as it stands today, but a major war in Ukraine also seemed somewhat improbable only a short time ago. This possibility and the measures needed to prevent a potential conflict have been analysed in a report published last week by the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) under the title 'Preventing the Next War: Germany and NATO Are in a Race Against Time’.

Today, Russia's military forces are significantly depleted, and generally speaking, the invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated their low level of combat capability and effectiveness, both in terms of logistics and management, as well as the quality of their weapons. At the same time, within a year Russia has managed to establish the supply of rather low-quality and inexpensive weaponsthat, in substantial quantities and with military personnel, can withstand modern weaponry, especially when supported by cost-effective innovative solutions such as drone armies. Russia is capable of training about 280,000 recruits annually, according to the DGAP experts. Thus, about 1.7 million people could undergo military training in Russia in six years, and by the end of ten years this figure could rise to 2.8 million. In addition, training in units currently engaged in the conflict in Ukraine may provide recruits with additional advantages.

Twenty months of war in Ukraine have shown that the economic tools and sanctions at the disposal of the West are no longer a deterrent to the decision to go to war, nor a means of blocking the recovery of such a ‘streamlined’ military potential. Despite the sanctions, Russia has managed to strengthen its military-industrial complex, increase output in certain segments, and retain skilled workers in manufacturing. Economically, the state is able to continue to finance the war. Thus, in the foreseeable future, Russia has all the capabilities to restore its armed forces.

Today, both sides are demonstrating considerable caution and a desire to avoid a direct conflict between Russia and NATO. This is evident in both the restraint in supplying weapons to Ukraine and in reverse restraint: for example, the Russian side has refrained from directly attacking NATO humanitarian and other aid convoys. However, according to a recent report published by RAND Corporation, war may not necessarily begin as an attempt to implement a strategic plan to seize territory (as was the case in Ukraine), but rather may begin as a ‘spillover’. This scenario envisions a series of unintended or intentional incidents amid a high degree of hostility, to which countries are compelled to react, gradually escalating into a spiral of escalation. It is precisely such a scenario, which is reminiscent of the ‘domino effect’, that led to the outbreak of the First World War.

In addition, the most important factor increasing the likelihood of the next war has been the unpreparedness for such a war demonstrated by the European military machine over the past year and a half. European countries are failing to deliver the promised weapons to Ukraine because they simply do not have them or are unable to produce them in such a short time. The Russian military machine, on the other hand, has reorganised itself more quickly.

The window for a possible conflict will open as soon as the Kremlin feels it has regained the military potential it has squandered during the war in Ukraine. The DGAP experts estimate that after the end of active hostilities in Ukraine, Moscow will need between six and ten years to achieve this. Does this mean that NATO has about six years? The experts say that to prevent a possible war, the window of opportunity for Moscow should not open at all. Russia must perceive a conflict with NATO as hopeless and doomed from the start, and to do so, the Alliance should build up its military capabilities faster. NATO needs to complete an impressive reinforcement of its armed forces at least a year before Russia feels confident in its own capabilities. Accordingly, the window of opportunity for NATO ranges between five and nine years, according to experts. The question, then, is not whether war will break out, but rather how it can be prevented by creating a clear understanding of the prospect of defeat for the adversary. And, it is this understanding that, despite Russia's setbacks in the first year of the war in Ukraine, could be shaken in the long term by the West's failure to help Kyiv push back Russian forces.

A scenario in which Russia takes ten years to rebuild does not look catastrophic in terms of political-economic costs: the burden of increased Western military budgets would be spread across several governments.However, a six-year timeframe is much worse: Europe needs at least two years to establish new production lines for missiles and tanks and to consolidate military units. In light of this, experts make four recommendations. First,it is necessary to delay Russia’s recovery. To this end, support for Ukraine should be increased to the point where Ukrainian forces have a chance of defeating Russia on Ukrainian territory. Second, Europe should immediately embark on long-term integration of Ukraine into the Western defence and weapons system. Assuming there will be no change in the Moscow regime, Ukraine's geographical location means that it will have geostrategic importance for Europe's security in the foreseeable future. Third, it is essential to continue to hinder Russia's military-industrial complex through sanctions. Fourth, Europeans should enhance their own military power independent of the United States.

The last point points to another element of strategic uncertainty. For the first time in the 80 years of its existence, confidence in the reliability of NATO as a collective shield of the West has been shaken — the unity of the United States and Europe does not seem unconditional. In this context, a significant portion of the DGAP report is dedicated to the issues of strengthening the Bundeswehr. Here, it is once again revealed that, despite the stated goal of transforming the Bundeswehr into the most formidable army in Europe, the inertia created by the logic of the 'peace dividend' period persists, and the reconstruction of German military power is progressing extremely slowly.

In 2016, after the shock of Russia's first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Bundeswehr developed a programme to strengthen its combat capabilities over a 15 years period. Half of that period has passed without any significant achievements. The first of three divisions, created to strengthen NATO's deterrent capabilities, will not be ready for deployment by the planned year 2025. The second division, scheduled for deployment in 2027, faces a similar fate. 

However, the timing of the next potential war has changed dramatically — this is the main point of the DGAP report. In addition to the deployment of capabilities for the production and reproduction of weapons, the experts highlight another emerging challenge. So far, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that, no matter what, numerical superiority when it comes to manpower remains a significant factor. Thus, in the long term, the biggest challenge for the Bundeswehr is recruiting enough personnel.