14.12.23 Review

The Weakness of the Strong: Europe has proven to be unprepared for the dual challenge of Russia's prolonged investment in the war and a potential reduction in US involvement in ensuring European security

Despite the fact that the economies of European countries are roughly 12 times larger than that of Russia, the Kremlin’s investment in the war has already surpassed Europe's investment in countering Russian aggression. Unlike President Putin, Europeans continue to perceive the conflict with Russia as fleeting and follow the inertia of 'pre-war' perceptions. This has created a strategic impasse as even negotiations with Moscow are impossible because Ukraine and the West are now in a decidedly weaker position, and procrastination only makes matters worse. European politicians and the public are unprepared for the challenges ahead, first and foremost the dual challenge of Russia's growing aggression and the American refusal to fully participate in ensuring European security. European countries must decisively reconsider their approaches to the economy and defence industry. According to experts, in order to overcome the emerging strategic deadlock, Europe should not separate but unite the issues of its own rearmament and assistance to Ukraine, creating a common infrastructure for the defence industry.

'Europe Must Urgently Prepare to Deter Russia Without Large-Scale US Support’ is the title of a new report by the UK's Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies (RUSI). The likelihood of Trump returning to the White House is increasing, but Republicans have already demonstrated a willingness and ability to block aid to Kyiv, which has become a bargaining chip in the US presidential race. Despite the fact that, as Re:Russia has previously described, the European aid package to Ukraine has increased significantly over the past year, the sequestration of the American part of it will be a powerful blow to European security. What will Europe do in such a situation?

As it stands, European NATO members are critically unprepared to deal with Russian aggression, according to military analyst Justin Bronk who authored the RUSI report. Despite the fact that the European economy (the EU plus the UK, Norway and Switzerland) is about 12 times the size of Russia's, European countries, despite their high level of sympathy for Ukraine, have demonstrated a complete lack of willingness to rebuild their economies to meet the Kremlin's military challenge. Most EU and European NATO countries have failed to make the necessary investments to increase industrial production and defence spending — only Poland has significantly revised its defence policy and economic priorities. 

For example, the EU's informal leader, Germany, although pledging to spend 2% of GDP on defence by 2024, had spent only €1.5 billion of the planned €100 billion by mid-2023. The same is true for the UK: after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, its government updated its military equipment plan for 2023-2033, but the British Ministry of Defence has admitted that this is unsustainable, with planned spending exceeding the current budget by £16.9 billion. So far, Britain has spent a significant amount on its submarine fleet and much less on buying munitions for itself and Ukraine.While the European Defense Agency's program, which unites EU countries for the procurement of artillery systems looks impressive, but is being implemented extremely slowly and does not meet the needs created by current events on the Ukrainian front.

To all this, Bronk writes, we should add the growing list of domestic political tensions in many European countries: the costs of the war are rising, and there is no decisive progress on the front. Putin's economically and organisationally weaker regime is ahead of the Europeans precisely because of its readiness for a protracted war, while European politicians are still hoping for the end of hostilities soon and the opportunity to play out the political scenario envisaged for early 2022. All of this together provides a strategic advantage for the Kremlin and creates a strategic deadlock for Europe: in a situation of such disparity, Ukraine and Europe find themselves in a losing position even if negotiations for a ceasefire or end to hostilities were to take place.

Meanwhile, in reality, even without taking the United States into account, Europe has sufficient resources to demonstrate to Russia that its prospects for military success will deteriorate over time. This requires a genuine preparedness for a protracted war, and thus substantial and rapid investment in defence industry production and the reorganisation of the EU’s armed forces. This is the only way to stop Putin's aggression, Bronk insists. Only then will the Kremlin have an incentive to negotiate on terms that are somewhat acceptable to Ukraine and Europe.

This scenario requires the rearmament of Ukraine with the support of Europe, which will be part of the future transformation of the European defence sphere. In conditions where Ukraine's admission to NATO is practically impossible, the only way out is to plan for its 'integration outside NATO', the possibility of which was declared by Western countries at the alliance's summit in Vilnius. Such a plan implies gradual de facto integration of Ukraine's military capabilities and individual countries of the alliance without the assumption of any legal obligations to protect Ukraine, and should include, among other things, programmes for cooperation and consolidation of the defence industry. 

Justin Bronk writes that some of the things that should be implemented as part of this scenario can be initiated now, with existing budgets and plans. This includes expanding the production of artillery ammunition, missiles and air defence systems, training aircrews, developing new tools for suppressing and destroying enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD).

Carnegie Endowment expert and former advisor to the Ministries of Defence and Finance of Ukraine, Katerina Bondar writes that the restructuring of Ukraine's defence-industrial policy is under way, but its progress is slow and difficult. She believes that the creation of joint ventures involving Ukraine and European countries could be a key instrument in addressing this challenge. This would protect the rights of investors, allow Ukraine to benefit from American and European innovations and supply chains, and NATO countries, in turn, would be able to incorporate the lessons learned from military operations in Ukraine to modernise their own defence capabilities.

To make this possible, Bondar writes, Ukraine itself will also have to make significant internal changes, some of which are already underway. In 2023, the fragmented state defence industry adopted the characteristics of a centralised corporation with appropriate governance and anti-corruption institutions. The Ukrainian state is encouraging private initiatives in defence production, such as the 'Drone Army,' a project to provide the army with 200,000 drones through the cooperation of private initiatives coordinated by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence and the General Staff and supported by the government, which has allocated about $1.2 billion for this purpose.

At the same time, although joint ventures with European countries based on Ukrainian production facilities (for example, Ukrainian projects with the German arms giant Rheinmetall) already exist, expanding this practice is impossible due to the extreme vulnerability of production facilities in Ukraine to Russian artillery, missiles, and aviation. The solution may be the creation of joint ventures in European countries, which would serve as an additional guarantee of collective security, a tool for restructuring the Ukrainian military-industrial complex, and an element of reforming Europe’s defence complex, Bondar writes. For this, a special fund under the auspices of NATO is needed, which would finance defence production projects in European countries with the participation of Ukraine, provided that their products go to arm the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Thus, the fund's investments will not seem like gratuitous spending to support Ukraine, but will become part of creating a unified European defence infrastructure, which would also serve the Ukrainian army.