EU’s defensive dilemma: the most vulnerable geopolitical force
With a violent past, European nations aimed to prevent further large scale wars after World War 2, by creating a new international framework. Previous attempts, such as the Concert of Europe, which came to fruition after the Napoleonic Wars, or the Treaty of Versailles, following the Great War, only led to an increase in the ferocity of the next conflagration. The key for the puzzle materialised with the Helsinki accords, brokered by the then Finnish President Urho Kekkonen in 1975. Besides championing human rights, those treaties also represented the foundation on which peace during the Cold War and beyond was build upon, in establishing a geopolitical paradigm whose core objective was to prevent another escalation.
A new security reality
On February 24th 2022, this framework, based on the explicitly conveyed terms that all European nations, regardless of their ideological standings, would respect the territorial integrity of one another, was unilaterally shattered. Having launched the invasion of Ukraine, restarting hostilities began almost 8 years prior, Russia made the EU face the fait accompli of renewed large scale warfare. European policymakers now had to accept the definitive burial of the previous status quo, and turn towards addressing the lack of readiness of their nations in the case of a full scale conflict beyond the Ukrainian borders.
Despite the increasing signs of outright aggression, many politicians chose to cling on to the belief that such a move would be economically catastrophic for the Kremlin, and that diplomacy would, in turn, deter Putin from launching an invasion. Yet, after nearly 2 years of uninterrupted war with no end in sight, the EU leaders find their countries unprepared still for the prolonged confrontation, albeit still indirect.
Following the end of the Cold War, and the ideological triumph of liberal democracies, most European nations found little use to continue investment in the military. Combined with an over reliance on its transatlantic partner for security guarantees, the EU sleepwalked into a dangerous position, acting on the assumption of no looming threats for the foreseeable future. After the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, for which the majority of American and European aid was allocated, a domino effect was triggered in the command centres across the EU, with warnings of a shorter window of preparations as previously expected. Ranging from low ranking officers to high profile commanders and nation representatives, the threat of a swift Russian military recovery applies more pressure to a still subpar proportional response from the EU.
Different approaches converging: Poland and Germany
Since there is no unitary approach in terms of military capabilities across the EU, stark contrasts in the performance of states stem from their historical background and domestic policies. One of the more familiar ones can be observed between the EU's powerhouse, Germany, and its eastern neighbour Poland.
The difference in current military potential of those nations is significant. Poland’s army currently consists of over 150,000 personnel, with the intent to double this number by 2035. Furthermore, such a force would require adequate material, for which the Polish authorities turned to the American and South Korean markets. The equipment purchases include a staggering 468 HIMARS launchers from the United States, and over 1000 K2 tanks from South Korea, alongside additional artillery pieces and armoured vehicles.
Germany’s goals, on the other hand, are far more modest, focusing on fielding 30,000 soldiers by 2025, with an emphasis on the pristine quality of those forces. Whilst a tall feat to achieve in a limited timeframe, it is further coupled with plans for a brigade to be stationed in Lithuania by 2027, which would entail the first permanent deployment of the German military away in a foreign nation since the Second World War.
History played a crucial role in the post-1990 governments of the aforementioned countries in dictating the defence policy. Stability was perceived as the unbreakable status quo, which prompted a drastic German demilitarisation, from both the former Democratic Republic and West Germany alike. Although given its track record of irredentist neighbours, strong support for a capable military remained constant in Poland, leading to the disparity faced by the current policymakers.
The prospects behind the converging tangents of rearmament are intrinsically positive for these EU states involved. An increase in spending should attract with itself a boost in GDP, production and employment, given the new services created and the manpower needed to fill them. However, taking into account the bureaucratic quagmire a country may face in achieving these targets, as is the case with Bundeswehr’s spending, success is not guaranteed, and further efforts in streamlining the procurement of equipment and ease of hiring personnel are necessary.
2024 and beyond: the impact of elections on domestic and international affairs
A paper published by Royal United Services Institute went in depth on the likelihood of the case in which Europe would have to defend itself, highlighting the areas where improvements are imperious. Those included a more optimised acquisition process of equipment, a change in the strategies adopted following the lessons learned on the battlefield in Ukraine, and the degree of cooperation between allies. But perhaps the most ominous detail, in any hypothetical scenarios run by European based NATO members or think-thanks, is a diminished, or outright missing American role and intervention.
As demonstrated by the most recent months of war, the EU economies failed to cope with the demands for self sufficiency, in regards to weapons manufacturing. One of the more pertinent examples was the pledging of artillery shells to Ukraine, an order which included over 1 million projectiles. The delivery so far in 2023 consisted of barely a third of the initial number, due to the inability of production to scale up in time. Thus, in order to handle both the current aid given to Ukraine, and an appropriate resupply of their own militaries, the EU requires significant revamps in its manufacturing sector. Otherwise, a US-less NATO runs the risk of becoming vulnerable against a Russia already running on a war economy.
However, preparations in that regard are underway. With the looming possibility of a Trump re-election, the prevention of a unilateral withdrawal of the United States from NATO by its president was formalised and adopted by the US Congress, shielding NATO from a sudden weakening that could destabilise the internal politics of the member states. On the homefront, the EU is amping up its cooperation programmes, with the more recent one involving the EU Rapid Deployment Force, a conjoined initiative of multiple member states, undergoing a test at the Rota naval base, with plans of becoming fully operational by 2025. In spite of all these efforts, the EU is a long way from becoming self-sufficient in ensuring the safety of its internationally recognised borders, and efficiently defending the sovereignty of the member states.