Europe bickers: ‘We must confront Russia!.. But, how?’

9:50 24.03.2024 •

NATO chief Stoltenberg: “Yes, we want. But, could we?”

Nothing could have delighted Kremlin more than a recent series of unforced errors by top European leaders, exposed rifts in the Western coalition backing Ukraine and culminated with French President Emmanuel Macron warning his allies “not to be cowards” in confronting Moscow, ‘The Washington Post’ writes sarcastically.

In the resulting fallout, German, French and British officials took turns skewering each other for ill-considered comments. The trouble is that in dwelling on minor gaffes, the recriminations missed Europe’s far deeper strategic problems, including frail fighting forces and anemic military production, as it faces the most dangerous threat since the Cold War.

That chilling scenario, coupled with Washington’s growing preoccupation with China, should provide a bracing moment for European unity. Instead, it seems to be prompting squabbles — a sneak preview, perhaps, of what to expect if the United States scales back its principal role in NATO after seven decades as the bloc’s undisputed leader.

In Europe’s most militarily formidable countries, the gaps are enormous between the peril they perceive and the preparations they are making.

In Brussels, European Union leaders have proposed subsidizing a major shift to joint weapons procurement that would prioritize purchases from homegrown arms-makers. The goal would be spending half of E.U. defense budgets within the bloc by 2030, and 60 percent by 2035.

But the E.U. cannot defend Europe on its own. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out last month, 80 percent of the alliance’s military expenditures come from non-E.U. allies, meaning the United States and a handful of others.

A major weak point is Germany. Scholz responded to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by establishing a $108 billion special fund to rebuild Germany’s depleted armed forces, along with major arms shipments to Kyiv. But there is no plan or realistic prospect to sustain the new spending once it runs out in 2028.

The reason is the German constitution’s draconian limit on borrowing, which means a long-term military buildup could be financed only through a major tax increase or massive cuts in health, welfare and climate programs.

Neither is politically feasible. Yet there is no serious debate about scrapping the debt limit despite years of infrastructure underinvestment that has sapped the German economy.

France poses a different problem, which is that Macron has allowed the perfect strategy — as he sees it — to be the enemy of a good one.

He has insisted that Europe beef up its homegrown defense industries, not least French ones, a sensible goal given the swelling tide of isolationism among U.S. Republicans. Yet under the banner of what he terms Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” he has spurned a Czech-led plan for Europe to buy 800,000 artillery shells for Kyiv from sources outside the E.U., even as Ukraine runs short on ammunition.

The sniping among European leaders is a sideshow that obscures the bigger challenge, one that the continent is rising too slowly to face. Putin will be sure to notice.


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