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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

When it comes to building its own defense, Europe has blinked

Ukrainian soldiers with an American-made M777 howitzer in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, May 22, 2022.


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.

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

In the meantime, the EU has responded to the invasion with economic sanctions against Russia, significant financial aid and a fund — now at 3.6 billion euros (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 euros, and overall assistance at nearly 50 billion euros.

But the goal of President Emmanuel Macron of France for “strategic autonomy” — for the EU 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 Putin, both now and in the future.

It is impossible to have a real European defense without a coherent European foreign policy, suggested Charles 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.

Whether Washington laments it or not, given its desire to pivot toward China, 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 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 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,” 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 Scholz for a “Zeitenwende,” or a turning point in German security policy, details were lacking.

Now it turns out the 100 billion euros 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.

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,” 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.

The fact that 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,” Fix said.

At the same time, 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.”

Macron and 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,” 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, France and Germany 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,” Fix said, “and the French don’t like this at all.”

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