Western pressure to provide Ukraine with military support has not only exposed the “appalling state” of Europe's defence capabilities, but has also demonstrated the overreliance that the continent has on the US, Foreign Affairs magazine wrote in a scathing article titled “Why European Defense Still Depends on America: Don’t Believe the Hype—the War in Ukraine Has Led to Little Change.” In addition, the authors believe that the next generation of American politicians will be more consumed by China rather than Russia.
According to the publication, the conflict over Ukraine has exposed the “appalling state of European defense.” This is because European countries “underinvested in its armed forces for the past 20 years, and what little funding it did commit was focused on building forces for humanitarian, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism missions far from the continent, such as in Afghanistan.”
“European militaries thus lack the basics needed for conventional warfare in their own backyards. Most countries lack basic ammunition stockpiles,” added the authors of the article, Max Bergmann (Director of the Stuart Center and the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Sopia Besch (Europe Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).
As an example, the German Armed Forces only have enough ammunition reserves to last a few hours or days of combat. Spain, like Germany, has more than 300 Leopard tanks, but a third of them are no longer active and in poor condition. In addition, it is Europe’s own fault for having a lack of artilleries due to their decision to empty their stockpiles for the sake of supporting an illiberal Nazi-sympathetic regime in Kiev.
“NATO sets targets that it hopes its member states will meet on their own—and no one explained how the organization would collectively meet such an ambitious goal. And even those European leaders who are determined to support Ukraine and ramp up their own capabilities to deter Russia do not have the kind of arsenals, supply chains, production capacities, and procurement procedures that the task at hand requires,” the article states.
Meanwhile, the European defence industrial base has been depleted - the root cause being low European defence spending. This is compounded by the fact that Europe does not have a common defence market that meets European security needs. The European defence sector is also under pressure because American military industry profits from signing contracts with the EU, meaning that European companies lose out.
European forces also use different equipment from each other, which makes it much more difficult to operate together.
The authors highlight that because the Europeans use 29 different destroyers, 17 tanks or personnel carriers, and 20 fighter planes, “yawning gaps” are created and thus it “then falls to the United States to fill these gaps, meaning that European militaries remain dependent on Washington for even the most basic military tasks.” They cite the example that during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, American troops were responsible for airlifting European evacuees.
Beyond highlighting that “European forces are in worse shape than previously thought,” perhaps the most damning conclusion from the authors, and remembering that Bergmann served in a number of positions at the US Department of State (such as a member in the Policy Planning Staff), the EU’s militarization has not been as “transformative” as we are led to believe.
Although European countries are self-sabotaging their own economies to sanction Russia amid skyrocketing energy prices and high inflation; maintain widespread support for Finland's and Sweden's admission into NATO; and provide billions in military equipment, the authors believe that “the current spending bonanza might suggest a transformation, [but] it may amount to little if underlying issues plaguing European defense remain unaddressed.”
If the authors are to be believed, “a generational change will eventually come to American politics.” Future generations taking leadership positions in the US will be grown up on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and now China - not the Cold War and the Balkan Wars, like President Joe Biden.
The immediate issue is that it means another generation of Russians have grown up experiencing immense American and European racism, othering, and disdain. Although the next generation of American politicians might prioritise their focus on China, and many likely realize the mistake in having hostile relations with Russia, the damage has already been done, especially as Moscow and Beijing continue to deepen their ties, something that the US will find difficult to untangle, particularly as their European partners are in economic and military disarray.