WASHINGTON — Western nations are beginning to channel the shock over Russia’s military assault on Ukraine into a wholesale remake of their defense policies, deepening alliances and swelling budgets.
The dynamics of the conflict have shifted in recent days as Moscow’s forces gain the upper hand in some areas by their sheer overmatch in firepower, according to analysts. The humanitarian catastrophe caused by the destruction has left Ukrainian leaders pleading for more military help, a request NATO officials have said they can accommodate only indirectly and, increasingly, discreetly.
With no end game in sight for the conflict, governments on both sides of the Atlantic are beginning to settle in for the long haul.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in a March 2 address, seemed to be preparing the country for a lengthy period of tension, and the likelihood that Ukrainian forces may not hold out for much longer against Russia’s conventional military might.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has unleashed violence and chaos,” Biden said. “But while he may make gains on the battlefield, he will pay a continuing high price over the long run.”
Some European nations are now waking up to the fact that Russia is willing to use military force to redraw borders in their neighborhood, an idea still pooh-poohed in Western European circles even after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The continent’s defense scenario is shifting daily, said Alessandro Marrone, a defense analyst at the Rome-based think tank IAI.
“A number of historical thresholds have been passed in recent weeks. The war in Ukraine will not be short, Germany’s budget hike will have a huge impact on German and Europe’s industry. And the [European Union’s] €500 million [(U.S. $547 million)] spending on weapons for the war is a watershed in the relations with Russia,” Marrone said.
‘A significant moment’
Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said nations should quickly move past the realization the world’s security order has irreversibly shifted.
“Now we lean in with our allies and partners to make sure there’s no rollback, to make sure they implement and they execute that,” the think tank’s leader said. “It’s such a significant moment, but we can’t bask in that moment; we have to lean in and get greater purpose and focus.”
Discussions have already begun in Germany about the practical implications of a defense budget that Chancellor Olaf Scholz said would rise beyond 2% of gross domestic product, propped up by a $113 billion special fund to be disbursed over several years. NATO has set a target for its members to spend 2% of their respective GDP on defense.
Analysis by the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations found the extra money would yield “no champagne,” but only fill “empty water glasses.” The think tank said the backlog of underfunding Germany’s military amounts to €90 billion over the past 30 years, according to slides posted on Twitter by analyst Christian Mölling.
Once lawmakers approve the spending uptick, it remains to be seen if the German defense bureaucracy and its associated industries can actually convert the money into better readiness and modernized equipment.
In the United States, the discussion is similarly moving toward the question of how big future defense increases will be — not whether there will be one at all.
The next U.S. defense budget will now “have to be bigger than we thought,” according to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and is typically a skeptic of enlarged Defense Department budgets. He said Capitol Hill is gripped by a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation to tackle the crisis.
“Just the Russian invasion in Ukraine fundamentally altered what our national security posture, what our defense posture needs to be,” Smith said at an American Enterprise Institute event March 3. “It made it more complicated, and it made it more expensive. … The decision to invade Ukraine by Russia changes it, and it’s going to go up. There’s no doubt about it.”
While some leading Republicans are calling on Biden to pursue a defense budget increase for fiscal 2023 that exceeds inflation by 5%, Congress is meanwhile considering Biden’s request for an immediate $10 billion in Ukraine-focused defense and humanitarian spending. That’s likely to be tacked onto a still-missing budget deal for FY22.
A hint to where new dollars could flow: Smith’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, has encouraged Romania and the U.S. to cut a deal for American troops to be permanently stationed in the European country, and Pentagon officials acknowledge they must now revisit four-month-old force posture plans to consider the possibility of new permanent or rotational troop deployments to NATO nations in Eastern Europe.
“Posture-wise, yes, we’re going to need to do more in Eastern Europe,” Smith said. “I don’t think we can forget about Asia because the presence does matter. So I think we’re going to need to balance those two things.”
Analysts and politicians have said Putin’s war on Ukraine has galvanized the West like no event before. Germany’s dramatic policy change on Russia is only the tip of the iceberg, as other nations previously hesitant about confronting Moscow realize the Kremlin cannot be acquiesced.
Italy and France
After years of lukewarm support for Russian sanctions, partly inspired by strong business ties with Moscow, Italy has done an about-face under the guidance of Prime Minister Mario Draghi and thrown its weight behind moves to punish Putin for his invasion of Ukraine.
Rome has joined other European nations in sending Stinger missiles and other weaponry to Kyiv, a move backed by politicians who previously voiced admiration for Russia.
The change in viewpoint on Russia means Italy’s political class is catching up with the country’s military chiefs, who have been preparing for a high-end conflict in recent years.
“Ukraine has had a huge impact on the political level, which will give a political impetus to implement capability development, which is already being largely planned,” said Marrone, the Italian defense analyst.
“New submarines, corvettes and the [short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing] F-35 will help ensure maritime security, which will be strained in the Mediterranean,” he said. “Italy is also investing in new wheeled armored vehicles, although it has to decide on a next-generation main battle tank, also depending whether the French-German development will open to third parties.”
Marrone does not expect a new iron curtain to descend on Europe, separating east from west. “Ukraine may remain in a kind of limbo, a place where conflict could flare up at any time,” he said.
In France, where presidential elections are up next month, the nation’s foreign policy agenda and its approach to Russia are more relevant than ever before. All nine declared candidates have joined Macron in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although they differ in assigning responsibility, analysts Mathilde Ciulla and Amandine Drouet noted in a March 1 report for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Macron, who has long supported robust French defense spending and advocated for European strategic autonomy, formally announced his decision to run for reelection on Thursday. He is currently leading the polls to win a second term.
Geopolitical issues remain low on the list of French citizens’ concerns, but the presidential campaign debate will allow the candidates to transform a foreign policy debate into a domestic one by presenting their views on different regimes, democracy and rule of law, Ciulla and Drouet wrote in an email to Defense News.
“The invasion has forced candidates to clarify their position on Russia, and to give elements of what their diplomacy towards this neighbor would be, should they be elected president,” they said.
France has sent helmets, bulletproof vests, demining equipment and first aid kits to Ukraine, per Armed Forces Ministry spokesman Herve Grandjean.
More defensive equipment is on the way, but the French government will not comment on what it is, citing security reasons, Grandjean told reporters Thursday. He also would not say whether the European Union’s plan to provide €500 million worth of lethal and nonlethal aid to Ukraine would include French-made weapons.
Sebastian Sprenger and Joe Gould reported from Washington. Vivienne Machi reported from Stuttgart, Germany. Tom Kington reported from Rome.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.