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Can Europe Meet Ukraine’s Military Needs?

Europe’s delivery of military assistance to Ukraine is uncoordinated, too slow, and insufficient. This also reflects a lack of political will to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defeat Russia.

If Western countries really want to support Ukraine militarily in the long haul, they must meet at least three important criteria.

First, they must agree on an overarching strategy toward Moscow and start discussing their potential roles under different scenarios once military activities come to a halt. Thus far, neither EU partners nor NATO allies have begun crafting a robust containment strategy with regard to Russia.

Second, Ukraine’s supporters should put in place an effective process to coordinate their long-term military aid to Kyiv. What we have now is a dysfunctional patchwork of various multilateral and bilateral structures, including the EU’s European Peace Facility, NATO’s Comprehensive Assistance Package, the U.S.-led Security Assistance Group in Wiesbaden, Germany, the Ukraine Defence Contact Group as well as various ad-hoc coalition groups focused on specific military capabilities like the F-16 coalition.

These and other forums do not coordinate their efforts, they produce duplications, and they lack transparency as well as a systematic representation of defense industries. The current system does not only pose a big challenge for Ukraine’s ability to absorb external military aid; it is also a recipe for political failure.

And finally, without an exceptional level of political resolve in European capitals to counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, any long-term military pledges are bound to seep away.

Yes, it can.

With over €30 billion ($33 billion) in annualized military aid, Europe roughly matches the United States in comparable outlays—though Washington provides more in intelligence support. This figure corresponds to about 10 percent of the continent’s 2022 military budget. European economies could afford to burn through their stocks at an even higher rate if it weren’t for supply and production bottlenecks.

Look at it another way: Can Europe afford to let Ukraine fail in its existential struggle? The future cost of maintaining the continent at peace would surely rise dramatically should Ukraine fall. In this narrow sense, it is Europe’s war as much as it is Ukraine’s. This means that higher military outlays, regardless of how much of them are disbursed to Ukraine, are a strategic imperative.

There is also the overlooked disparity in terms of where the aid comes from. Of the top eight countries providing military assistance to Ukraine, all but the UK lie relatively close to Ukraine. Conspicuously absent from this group are Italy, Spain, and France. Their feeble contributions resemble the indifference that Poland or the Balts felt toward the travails of Greece or Italy when it came to the refugee inflows.

This again confirms Europe’s major weakness: It is a collection of countries rather than a strategic whole. Local needs always take priority over those of the whole when a strategic consideration is at stake.

There’s no doubt Europe can meet Ukraine’s military needs. The question is instead whether it will ever decide to do so—or whether the current policy of pretending the threat to Europe isn’t there continues for so long that not only the future of Ukraine but of EU and NATO members, too, is in jeopardy.

Ukraine is now suffering the entirely predictable consequences of decisions by its Western backers to slow-roll and drip-feed essential military support. The tacit policy of the United States and Germany of providing Ukraine just enough to survive but not enough to threaten Russia with defeat has had a direct cost in Ukrainian lives, as delay and timidity gave Russia months to establish and fortify its defensive lines.

But Europe has also abdicated responsibility for its own defense. As stocks of munitions run low across the continent but Russia continues to gear up for the long war, Europe west of Warsaw has failed overall to recognize and react to reality. The failure to overcome process and petty interest in order to safeguard the continent is breathtaking, and the consequences will be far greater future costs as Russia remains undefeated and undeterred.

It can—if it manages to get away from thinking in institutional categories and from debating about whether NATO or the EU is the more relevant organization.

Forget the idea of a European Defence Union or of a “sovereign” EU—something hardly anyone takes seriously anymore, arguably except Paris. Instead, perceive Europe, together with North America and the democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, as the bulwark against Russian revanchism or Chinese attempts of aggressively challenging the current international order.

Sounds pathetic? Maybe, but most Europeans, be it in NATO or the EU, got the message and progressed significantly since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Defense budgets are going up and the long-neglected armed forces are being gradually reinforced almost everywhere in Europe. Even Germany underwent a remarkable evolution from the embarrassing promise of 5,000 helmets to Ukraine to becoming the country’s second largest supporter. At the same time, Russia is becoming weaker due to military attrition and a dense net of economic sanctions.

As long as Europe remains firm in its support for Ukraine, it could give Russia a hard time. Not to forget: Russia stands for less than 3 percent of the global GDP, the Europeans supporting Ukraine for more than 17 percent. This leaves room for further helping Kyiv in a significant manner—though preferably together with Washington.

Europe cannot satisfy Ukraine’s military needs in the short run even if it wants to. The mutual recriminations about who is to blame for the failure to deliver promised volumes of ammunition over the past year put a spotlight on the political and practical constraints facing the EU.

Over the medium and long term, Europe can still become the vital military partner Ukraine needs. For that to happen, however, Europe must build up its defense industry, modernize its procurement procedures, and help Ukraine develop its own formidable domestic capacities, including through joint ventures with Western counterparts.

Defense pledges need to be sustained far into the future. They will only matter if they are expeditiously converted into long-term contracts, incentivizing industries to scale up production capacities and invest in research and development.

Alongside the NATO-wide realization that procurement needs to be results- rather than process-oriented, the EU is pondering whether it can imitate U.S. Foreign Military Sales schemes with the aim of simplifying procurement across the complex and heterogenous European defense market. Such reforms could enable the EU to procure equipment faster and use its significant combined market size to facilitate joint purchases of military equipment (as it does with natural gas), all to the benefit of domestic industry.

Individual European companies are already exploring joint ventures with Ukraine. The EU, meanwhile, is drafting initiatives on supporting and scaling up this process. It should move quicker in enhancing the self-sufficiency of Ukraine’s military. Doing so will relieve Kyiv from always having to turn to its partners for vital supplies.

These are all promising ideas—if only Europe can implement them.

Although Europe has stepped up its support, it is clear that it cannot meet Ukraine’s military needs without the United States. What is worse, Europe is unable to live up to its own commitments. The landmark decision taken by the EU in March 2023 to provide Ukraine with 1 million shells during one year through joint procurement is not likely to be met.

The failure to sufficiently increase ammunition production is emblematic of broader sluggishness. European states’ defense spending is increasing, but most EU member states will not reach the level of 2 percent of GDP in 2023. Defense industries complain about lack of long-term commitments of governments to increase production.

Furthermore, it is hard to reconcile the urgent need to assist Ukraine and fill one’s own stocks with the long-term need to enhance cooperation and reduce fragmentation of European capabilities.

The fundamental source of Europe’s weakness is a lack of political will and strategic vision. Europe would be able—in terms of industrial potential and economic resources—to do much more for Ukraine and for its own defense. However, this requires difficult political choices. Faced with the prospect of a long war in Ukraine and possibly a reduced contribution of the United States, Europe cannot afford inaction.

To have a sober answer, we need to ask not “can” but “will” Europe meet Ukraine’s military needs, because this question has both technical and political consequences.

As we can see, after twenty months of the war, many European countries are not ready to address the urgency and ensure the sustainability of supply. Promises made publicly and widely highlighted in media were fulfilled after many months and often with delays. Companies have not been ready to increase production, and de facto lost two years, continuing to work as if in peacetime. And here, we speak not about jets or sophisticated missiles but simple ammunition.  

So even if we set aside the political aspect, such as the position of the new government in Slovakia or of Hungary’s leadership, the questions remain about others—first and foremost the producers of weapons.

European stockpiles are exhausting while Russia has increased production because the sanctions have still not been implemented to a sufficient level, and many loopholes and gray imports exist. The main issue is production capacity, investments, and understanding that Ukraine needs weapons now—not in four years as some producers or politicians propose. Moreover, it is a question of priorities: Will weapons be sent to Ukraine to win this war, or just sold around the globe to regular customers?

The short answer is no. It is beyond any doubt that Ukraine still exists today because the United States has shown leadership. The United States is still the “indispensable nation,” as Madelaine Albright said in 1998—at least for Europe.

There has been a lot of talk about European defense since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 laid out some principles for such a policy. But not much has really happened, primarily due to a lack of political will. The European defense budgets also suffered in the meantime. The headline was “the peace dividend.”

Europe’s contributions to Ukraine have improved. But its military aid still lags behind that of the United States and is very unevenly distributed. Some European states are far behind.

Think about it: The Russians now talk about Russia being at war with NATO. Russia has drawn the conclusion. Russia’s economy is on a war footing. Europeans don’t talk in such terms and their economy is not on a war footing.

Do the Europeans suffer from wishful thinking? Is Europe ready for a “black swan”? The key question is: How bad does it have to get before Europe adjusts its policy?

The short answer is no; the medium-term answer is probably not. The EU is not a military superpower with big reserves of equipment and munitions, and even the United States is stretched in helping meet Ukraine’s ammunition needs.

The EU’s recent admission that it won’t be able to supply a promised one million rounds of ammunition by March 2024 shows the size of the gap between ambition and reality. Part of the problem is that the biggest member states—Germany, France, and Italy—won’t let go of control of arms procurement and are wary of EU encroachment. Other arms producers like Sweden and Poland also don’t want Brussels at the helm.

To be sure, EU member states may be able to aggregate their national efforts to support Ukraine with some military kit, perhaps working with the UK, but this won’t be enough to fill the gap if the United States stops sending military assistance to Kyiv. In addition, after the EU’s failure to collectively procure ammo, France will relent and agree to purchasing munitions from non-EU countries.

However, unless and until EU countries agree to do more joint procurement to provide their arms manufacturers with a predictable stream of orders, European efforts will remain patchy, inefficient, and not enough to help Ukraine prevail against Russia’s aggression.

Since February 24, 2022, all peace-loving nations stood with Ukraine and many supported its fight against the criminal Russian invasion with armaments donations. Its scale is unprecedented and ranges from body armor to main battle tanks, with Poland providing over 300 such vehicles. Supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” became a policy principle, which, however, implies continued transfers of defense material.

But the capacity of Europe to meet Ukrainian military needs is now exhausted. Beyond the absolute minimum, munition stocks are virtually empty and there are no capabilities in inventories of armed forces, which could be easily transferred to Ukraine and make a real difference.

Furthermore, General Valerii Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has called for advanced systems like reconnaissance and target acquisition platforms or longer-range missiles, which are almost non-existent in Europe. Here, the United States could help but is unlikely to risk decreasing its operational readiness for the fear of further destabilization in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific.

Hence, to live up to the promise made to Ukraine, Europe will simply need to produce lots of defense material, and rather quickly. Some defense technologies will have to be developed from scratch. This will require money, time, and focus on the part of political leaders. While the latter may not fully grasp the magnitude of the challenge, rearming Europe is a matter of both the long-term survival of Ukraine and of assuring lasting peace in the transatlantic space.

It can, but it chooses not to. The political and economic support given to Ukraine has been strong, comparatively consistent, and critical to Ukraine’s prosecution of its own defense and the security of its people. The European Union, however, has over-promised and under-delivered in terms of Ukraine’s military needs.

From the ludicrous heights of commissioners promising jet fighters to the facile depths of member states squabbling over the delivery of used tanks and APCs, the Union has woefully underperformed. At root, this is a function of the union’s own incapacity and limitations—but there is a political/diplomatic element which makes this immeasurably worse.

There appear to be some capitals where a fear of Ukrainian victory persists—the “Russia-explainers” advise against provocation, against Ukrainian strikes into Russian territory, against breaching Russian red lines, against “destabilization” of the theatre. Tying Ukrainian hands in this way will not facilitate conflict resolution. On the contrary, it only promises permanent war—to Putin’s delight and Russia’s advantage.

Source : Carnegie

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