The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Driver of Change in European Defense


by Pierre Tran

Paris – It looks like Kremlin’s bloody advance through Ukraine has boosted Europe’s resolve to forge its own operational defense and security identity.

The European Union added Feb. 24 a redrafted forward to its Strategic Compass policy paper on defense and security to refer to the Russian assault, which has transformed four million Ukrainian citizens into refugees, fleeing a European nation devastated and partly occupied by troops from just across the border.

While there is clear intent from some European political leaders, there is also skepticism whether that willingness will convert intention into reality.

It remains to be seen whether there will be political leadership in that quest for European capability, and where that direction will come from.

Paris is keen to promote a European military capability – separate but working with Nato, while Berlin has pledged an unprecedented €100 billion ($111 billion) budget to upgrade German military, breaking with a deep and sustained pacifism after the second world war.

Berlin’s budget boost begs the question where leadership in Europe will come from, as Germany will outstrip France in arms spending, a French parliamentarian said.

Rise In Risk

“The war against Ukraine proves that Europe is even more in danger than we thought just a few months ago, when the first draft of this Strategic Compass was presented,” Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a revised forward for the white paper published Feb. 21.

“This crisis has made it even clearer that we live in a world shaped by raw power politics, where everything is weaponized and where we face a fierce battle of narratives,” he said. “All these trends were already happening before the Ukraine war; now they are accelerating.”

Defense for Europe was one of the priorities of Emmanuel Macron, French head of state, when he took up in January the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, the policy-setting institution. “Europe must rise to the major economic, educational, migration and military challenges,” he said Dec. 9 2021, ahead of taking up the European Council post.

The European Council of the 27 member states adopted the Strategic Compass, which includes plans to form a 5,000-strong European military force, dubbed rapid deployment capacity. The policy paper also calls for “more and better” spending on defense, greater cooperation, and innovation to cut dependency. That EU plan sets a 10-year road map, seeking European sovereignty.

Macron has promoted in his five-year national mandate the concept of European sovereignty, to reduce a reliance on Nato, seen as dominated by the incumbent at the White House.

A chaotic U.S. evacuation from Kabul and lack of cooperation with allies heightened a perceived need among European partners to strengthen their ties.

There is a European perception of the need to develop the national arms industry, maintaining domestic jobs, rather than buying U.S. kit. The Strategic Compass reflects a view of some in France that Nato is an extension of the U.S. market, helping to boost the bottom line of American companies, while pursuing interoperability of equipment.

France Trims Arms Spending – Just For Now

The armed forces ministry had to scramble to explain why there was a quiet unscheduled €346 million cut in the 2022 defense budget of €41 billion, having to reassure the funds would be restored in July.

Some €202 million of the cut related to arms procurement, with the reduction arising from a switch in spending due to the Ukraine crisis, which pushed up energy prices and called for funds for receiving Ukrainian refugees.

Parliamentarian François Cornut-Gentille said in a March 29 op ed in afternoon daily Le Monde there was need for a “real debate” on defense spending, with the major presidential candidates saying they would increase the military budget.

France goes to the polls April 10 and 24 in a two-step election, with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen narrowing Macron’s lead in opinion polls. Le Pen has gained ground as she attacks Macron on the rising cost of living, a switch from the anti-immigration message of the National Rally party.

The chances Macron would keep his promise of a defense budget of €50 billion in 2025 are “extremely weak,” Cornut-Gentille said, due to economic problems arising from Covid. Even if funding were available, the services would still be unable to deter an aggressor, he said.

There is also need to rethink the “relevance” of big ticket programs, such as an aircraft carrier, medium-altitude, long-endurance drone, and future combat air system, he said. Space systems and hypersonic weapons were today’s equivalent of the tanks and aircraft which transformed combat in the 1930s. There should be a policy review on whether France had the right platform for nuclear weapons, with the parliamentarian saying there was no doubt France should hold on to the nuclear warhead.

Parliamentarians recently put the defense ministry on the back foot, pointing up a perceived lack of ammunition stock, with the forces running out within a couple of weeks in high intensity warfare. The ministry spokesman sought to calm fears, pointing up an extra €110 million for building 100 mm, 120 mm and 76 mm shells, with attention to improving production of heavy caliber shells due to problems in the export market.

Meanwhile, the French navy has put to sea three of its four-strong fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines, regional daily Le Télégramme reported. Usually, just the one nuclear missile boat would be at sea. In response to the war in Ukraine, France has deployed the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the eastern Mediterranean, dispatched troops to Nato ally Romania, and sent Rafale fighter jets at fellow Nato ally Estonia, with defense minister Florence Parly visiting April 3 French air force personnel posted to the Amari air base in Estonia.

Macron has pledged to increase French military spending to two percent of gross domestic product by 2025, a target for Nato members.

Defense is second in national expenditure after the education budget.

German Budget Boost

A German commitment of hitting the two percent target of GDP will lead to €70 billion of annual arms spending, Cornut-Gentille said, bringing a “new context” for European leadership, as Berlin overtakes the Paris pledge of €50 billion.

Berlin spends some 1.3 percent of GDP on the services, which say they are poorly equipped.

Germany’s spending €100 billion on military modernization is part of the commitment to meet — and exceed — the two percent target, think tank Stockholm Peace Research Institute said March 25. That amount compares to €46.9 billion spent last year and will place Germany third in world arms spending, after the U.S. and China, and up from seventh in 2020.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement of the hefty budget boost surprised the three parties in the government coalition, but they backed the policy shift, and opinion polls showed 69 percent support, up from 39 percent in 2018.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked Germany, and the coalition partners — center-left Social Democrats, market-friendly Free Democrats, and the environmentalist Green party — rallied round Scholz, who dropped a postwar policy of working closely with Russia through Ostpolitik, and maintaining a minimalist military posture.
Tens of thousands of Germans took to the streets in anti-Putin protests, bearing Stop the War banners, and show support for Ukraine.

Putin’s invasion sparked talk of reviving German conscription and a parliamentary visit to Israel to consider ordering Arrow 3, a long-range, anti-missile system, as shield against a Russian attack. Such an arms order would be on top of German plans to buy the F-35 fighter jet to replace the Tornado, to carry U.S.-built atomic bombs for Nato.

Skepticism on the EU Plan

While the war in Ukraine has sharpened an EU search for military capability, such a quest merely repeats the past and lacks credibility where it matters – the commanders, an analyst said. Nato rules the reality game, not the EU.

“What really dooms the operational side of the (Strategic) Compass’s agenda is, of course, the same thing that has crimped the EU’s military aspirations from the beginning – the reluctance of top brass across Europe to take the enterprise seriously,” Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at think tank European Council for Foreign Relations, said March 31 in a research note.

“NATO has always been where ‘serious’ military business is done, where they rub shoulders with (and are told what to do by) the mighty United States,” he said in the note titled, “The EU’s Strategic Compass: Brand new, already obsolete.”

The EU plan lacked credibility as there had been a post-Kosovo plan for a 60,000 intervention force, followed by talk of 1,500-strong battle groups, he said. Neither came to fruition, casting doubt on the EU plan for a 5,000-strong force.

There is a “rejuvenated” Nato, backed by the U.S., but Washington will soon look to the “Europeans to provide their own defense,” with little more than American supply of intelligence and nuclear deterrence, he said. A genuine “member state-owned” drive for defense integration was needed. While there has been discussion, there is little to show for it.

It remained to be seen where that leadership might come from, he said, perhaps a partnership from Scholz and Macron.

More likely, Europeans would wait to see what the U.S. would tell them what to do, while switching focus to the Pacific, he said.

Europe Counts

Another view lies in a larger European role in Nato, and the need for the U.K. to find a place alongside Europe while being outside the E.U.

There is much uncertainty on the future of Nato, and whether the U.S. can be relied upon to back the alliance, a March 29 op ed in London daily The Times said. There is the prospect of Trump’s return to power, the right oscillating between “sneaking admiration” for Putin and Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and insisting America should not be pushed around, the op ed said. Meanwhile, the left is uncertain on militarily supporting liberal democracy, and hesitant on close ties to a European past steeped in “white imperialism.”

“What all this means is that Europe cannot rely on the leadership and support of the U.S. in future as it has done in the past. That leadership and support might be forthcoming. But it also might not,” the op ed said.

There is a call for Europeans to stand up for Europe. “It is perfectly obvious now that we face security challenges in Europe that we must tackle as Europeans,” the op ed said. But it was difficult “to forge a European defense identity” and for the U.K. to find its place after having left the E.U.

There is a call for London to work through Nato “to build common European defence aims” that the U.K. previously rejected, as that was seen as reducing Britain’s independence. “If we do not engage, then these policies will be decided without us.”