When It Comes to Building Its Own Defense, Europe Has Blinked

BRUSSELS — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the greatest challenge to European security since the end of the Cold War, but the Europeans have missed the opportunity to step up their own defense, diplomats and experts say. Instead, the war has reinforced Europe’s military dependence on the United States.

Washington, they note, has led the response to the war, marshaled allies, organized military aid to Ukraine and contributed by far the largest amount of military equipment and intelligence to Ukraine. It has decided at each step what kind of weapons Kyiv will receive and what it will not.

Its indispensable role was manifest in the recent decision to provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine and allow others to do so — a step Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany refused to take, despite strong pressure from Poland and Britain, unless the United States provided some of its own modern tanks.

American leadership “has almost been too successful for its own good, leaving Europeans with no incentive to develop leadership on their own,” said Liana Fix, a German analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“The perception is that there is no real leader in the European Union and the U.S. is doing helicopter parenting with Brussels,” she said. “This is a problem that can come back to haunt the U.S.”

And the Europeans, too.

President Biden announcing his plan to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine last month in Washington.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

European Union leaders visited the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on Friday, but offered President Volodymyr Zelensky little more than promises that his embattled country might join the bloc someday.

In the meantime, the European Union has responded to the invasion with economic sanctions against Russia, significant financial aid and a fund — now at 3.6 billion euros, or about $3.9 billion — to repay member states for their military contributions to Ukraine. Total military contributions to Ukraine from member states is estimated at €12 billion, and overall assistance at nearly €50 billion.

But the goal of President Emmanuel Macron of France for “strategic autonomy” — for the European Union to become a military power that could act independently of the United States, if complementary to it — has proved hollow.

In large part, diplomats and experts say, that is because European nations disagree sharply among themselves about how the war should end and even about their relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, both now and in the future.

The State of the War

  • A New Assault: Ukrainian officials have been bracing for weeks for a new Russian offensive. Now, they are warning that the campaign is underway, with the Kremlin seeking to reshape the battlefield and seize the momentum.
  • Russia’s Soaring Death Toll: The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000. American and other Western officials say that the figure is a stark symbol of just how badly invasion has gone for the Kremlin.
  • In the East: Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters to break Ukraine’s resistance in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.
  • Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks alone won’t help turn the tide, and Kyiv has started to press Western officials on advanced weapons like long-range missiles and fighter jets.

It is impossible to have a real European defense without a coherent European foreign policy, suggested Charles A. Kupchan, a former Obama administration official and a professor of international studies at Georgetown University. The Ukraine war cuts both ways, he said, prompting a new unity among Europeans, but also new cracks.

“There is very little appetite for autonomy if that means distance from the United States,” he said, “because the war has underscored the importance of the American military presence in Europe and the guarantee it extended to European allies since World War II.”

Central and Eastern Europeans, along with the Baltic nations and Britain, have always mistrusted promises of an autonomous European defense and have worked to keep the United States engaged in European security and in the NATO alliance.

For them, the American nuclear umbrella is considered indispensable to deter a Russia they saw as more of a threat than did other allies like Germany, France, Spain and Italy, especially since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Empty containers for shoulder-fired, American-made Javelin antitank missiles near the town of Horenka, Ukraine, last year.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Whether Washington laments it or not, given its desire to pivot toward China, Mr. Kupchan said, “this war extends the shelf-life of the American military presence in Europe for a long time to come.”

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general who has proposed a plan to bolster Ukraine’s security against Russia, said that Mr. Macron “has undermined his own idea of European autonomy” by “his statements and behavior when it comes to Putin,” arguing that a new European security order must include Russia and that Mr. Putin must not be humiliated.

That “created suspicion in Eastern Europe and made it more or less impossible for Macron to create momentum behind his idea of European autonomy,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

So long as Europe’s major powers “cannot agree on a common approach to Russia, then the rest of the crowd will look across the Atlantic and look for security guarantees from the United States,” he added.

The European dream was always to have two major collective pillars, one fiscal and one defense, said Guntram Wolff, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. Germany would anchor the first and France the second.

“But the Ukraine war was a big game-changer for European security,” he said, “and Central and Eastern Europeans immediately understood that they need the U.S. for their security, and Germany quickly decided the same.”

Despite a promise by Mr. Scholz, the German chancellor, for a “Zeitenwende,” or a turning point in German security policy, details were lacking.

Now it turns out the €100 billion set aside to rebuild the paltry post-Cold War German military will be spread out over the life of the Parliament. Bureaucracy has made it difficult to start spending the money, and the government failed to get the German defense industry moving.

From left: Mario Draghi, then the prime minister of Italy, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany traveling to Ukraine last year. Diplomats and experts say that the idea of “strategic autonomy” for Europe is failing in part because of disagreements between European leaders.Credit…Getty Images, via Bundesregierung

Rheinmetall, a German arms manufacturer, makes the Leopard tank and has about 200 in storage, and it says it needs up to a year to refurbish them for Ukraine. But Germany could have easily paid the company to get the tanks ready 12 months ago, even for its own military.

“Germany already wasted a year,” Mr. Wolff said.

European countries have tried to catch up with needed defense investment, but in a national and fragmented way, not coordinated by Brussels. That inevitably meant buying off-the-shelf, which mostly meant American weaponry, not European.

Germany annoyed France by immediately buying American F-35 fighter planes, rather than buying European or even waiting for a long-delayed Franco-German-Spanish jet project, the Future Combat Air System, itself in competition with a proposed British-Italian-Japanese one. But neither project expects to have a working fighter until 2035 or 2040.

Similarly, worried about its vulnerability to Russian nuclear-capable, medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad, Berlin shocked Paris by proposing a “European Sky Shield Initiative,” an air and missile defense system, in cooperation with 13 NATO allies and Finland, and later Sweden, too, that would primarily use existing American and Israeli technology, not a European design.

France was not one of the countries involved, and as a sign of displeasure, it postponed an annual Franco-German government meeting.

“In the long run, decisions like these increase European dependence on the United States,” said Ms. Fix, the analyst. “People are placing their bets now on NATO and the U.S., and on equipment that’s already there.”

The fact that Mr. Scholz relented on providing tanks to Ukraine only with the Americans stung in Europe. “It shows that Europeans in the end don’t trust one another, and for Central and Eastern Europeans, trust and credibility is gone,” she said.

American-made Abrams tanks last year at a training ground in Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland. Mr. Scholz had refused to supply Ukraine with German-made tanks unless Washington provided some of its own.Credit…Marcin Bielecki/EPA, via Shutterstock

At the same time, Ms. Fix said, both Germany and France think the Central and Eastern Europeans underestimate the risk of Russian escalation and need Washington to restrain them. “So everyone is looking to Washington as the main arbiter,” she said, “and not to one another.”

Mr. Macron and Mr. Scholz, whose relations are said to be frosty, have failed to provide necessary leadership, separately or together, analysts said.

France missed an opportunity to “show what strategic autonomy is or could be,” said Bart Szewczyk, a former Obama administration official now with the German Marshall Fund. “Under the surface of the slogan,” he said, “there was not much there in terms of resources or deployment or even in intellectual leadership.”

When it came to reducing dependence on Russian energy imports, Europeans took a big economic hit, quickly built liquefied natural gas terminals, overrode regulations, imposed sanctions and agreed on a price cap for Russian oil. Defense was a different story.

“On security and defense, it has lost credibility,” Ms. Fix said. “France could have used this war an opportunity to invest big into Ukraine and Central Europe and say, ‘You can really rely on us,’ but that didn’t happen.”

Instead, both Paris and Berlin hesitated, hoping for a short war, which this one is shaping up not to be.

For some time to come, then, “strategic autonomy is dead,” Ms. Fix said, “and the French don’t like this at all.”

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