Chris Bambery surveys the break-neck rearmament of Nato and Europe, and what it means for our future.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means the USA has secured two long sought-after goals in Europe.
The first is that it has finally secured increased military spending from European members of Nato, a constant US demand of recent years. Many European states, particularly Germany, have long resisted. In the wake of World War 2, Germany benefited enormously from spending relatively little on the military. By contrast to Britain’s military spending harmed economic investment.
Under Angela Merkel Germany fobbed off American demands. On Sunday (6 March) Merkel’s successor, the Social Democrat chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz, announced that a fund of €100bn (£85bn) will be set up immediately to boost the strength of the country’s armed forces, as he also announced a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years.
Scholz told an emergency session of the Bundestag this was a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “It is clear that we must invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and democracy.”
On the evening before the government had made the surprise announcement that it would be sending weapons and other supplies to Ukraine, including 1,000 anti-tank weapons, 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles and thousands of gallons of petrol.
Scholz’s coalition partners, the Greens, gave enthusiastic support to both moves.
On the following Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to increase France’s military spending and called for a more sovereign and independent Europe to counter what he said is a new era signalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Macron also announced that France will hold a meeting with other European leaders in Versailles near Paris on March 10 and 11. “Our European defence must take a new step forward,” he said.
Germany and France are not alone. The Netherlands has increased its military spending by €10 billion euros. To thunderous applause before the Italian senate, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, said:
“Today’s threat from Russia is an incentive to invest more in defence than we have ever done before. We can choose whether to do this at a national or European level. My hope is that all countries will increasingly choose to adopt a common approach.”
The centre left Democratic Party, part of Draghi’s coalition government, indicated it would increase military spending to two percent of GDP, as demanded by Washington.
Talk of European defence co-operation from Macron is likely to remain a dead letter because of Washington’s second success since Putin’s invasion. Throughout Europe governments and parties from across the political spectrum have embraced Nato with a zeal, claiming it is the only way to stop Russian aggression. Any criticism that Nato enlargement into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics might be a tad aggressive was simply dropped.
Since the invasion of Ukraine about 22,000 additional NATO member troops have been moved into eastern Europe, bringing military equipment with them, while at least 20 countries – mostly Nato members – are supplying arms to Ukraine.
For the first time, Nato has activated its rapid-reaction response force (NRF), comprising 40,000 troops, including from non-alliance countries such as Finland and Sweden; if they are to join NATO, as is being touted, that would increase Russian fears about NATO encirclement.
The Irish Times gave this overview of European NATO states’ activity and deployments across Eastern Europe:
“Romania: 300 Belgian troops, 150 Dutch troops and a French NRF army battalion, as well as 12 Italian and six German Eurofighter jets.
“Poland: Unspecified number of French Rafale fighter jets and German Tornado reconnaissance planes patrolling Polish air space; 32 US attack helicopters to the Baltic States/Poland;15,000 US troops deployed mostly in the Baltic/Poland region, supplementing 5,500 Europe-based US troops moved eastward to Poland.
“Slovakia: Additional 250 German soldiers join 1,200 alliance troops; German “Patriot” air-defence system, manned by German soldiers, along with Dutch, Czech, Polish, Slovenian and US soldiers.
“Bulgaria: Two Dutch F-35s deployed, four Spanish Eurofighter jets
“Baltic: 150 Spanish soldiers for Latvia as well as 30 Canadian soldiers, artillery & electronic warfare units; 100 extra Dutch soldiers, 60 Norwegians for Lithuania; 350 extra German soldiers deployed to Lithuania battlegroup, bringing the Bundeswehr presence to 1,200; four French Mirage fighter jets and 200 soldiers for Estonia, along with 1,000 UK troops and Challenger tanks. German P3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and a minehunter in the Baltic Sea
“On standby: 3,400 Italian troops; 3,400 Canadian troops; four Dutch F-16 and four F-35s on NATO duty; 1,000 UK soldiers for humanitarian purposes; four Eurofighters to Cyprus; HMS Trent and HMS Diamond deployed to eastern Mediterranean; Canadian frigate and reconnaissance aircraft; Danish ground forces, domestic ships, extra jets stationed on the island of Bornholm.”
Not surprisingly, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen noted last Tuesday (1 March) that “European security and defence has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades”.
Meanwhile NATO member states in Europe are pouring arms into Ukraine. Belgium and the Netherlands will provide weapons and protective equipment, with the Belgian government promising 2,000 machine guns, 3,800 tons of fuel, 3,000 additional automatic rifles and 200 anti-tank weapons. As well as protective equipment, the Netherlands will also provide 200 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles as soon as possible.
France, for its part, has committed military equipment and fuel support. The Czech Republic is sending 30,000 pistols, 7,000 assault rifles, 3,000 machine guns and several dozen sniper rifles as well as one million rounds of ammunition. Romania is providing fuel, body armour, helmets, ammunition and other military equipment.
Portugal’s Defence Minister João Gomes Cravinho announced last Monday (28 February) that his country’s contribution to the European arms package to supply weapons to the Ukrainian army will be around “€8-10 million,” while Croatia announced it will send weapons worth €16.5 million to Ukraine.
The British government has closely aligned its policy in regards to Ukraine with that of the USA, providing non-lethal military assistance from 2015 including logistical supplies and specialised training. The British government has since mirrored the US’ ‘lethal aid’ policy and provided the Ukrainian Army with 2,000 next-generation light anti-tank (NLAW) laser-guided missiles.
Despite being formally neutral, Sweden has announced that it will deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv.
Of course, the United States is pouring in even more with Washington announcing a new €350 million military aid package to Ukraine in what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said was an “unprecedented move”, bringing the total military aid from Washington to Ukraine over the past year to a total of nearly €1 billion.
The Ukrainians have in particular asked for Javelin anti-tank missiles, which will be included in the package, US president Joe Biden said. The New York Times has reported that the US has deployed 17,000 anti-tank missiles in just six days into the warzone.
“Vladimir Putin’s actions have enabled NATO to strengthen its ties and relaunch itself,” Jenny Rafik, researcher and specialist in the history of NATO at the University of Nantes, told France 24. “With the Russian invasion, NATO has returned to its original purpose, which also causes the least conflict between member countries.”
France 24 also quoted Samantha de Bendern, a researcher with the Chatham House think tank, who said: “Doubts over the loyalty of some members have also been put to bed. US President Joe Biden said on February 24 that he would defend ‘every inch’ of NATO territory against Russia. ‘For some years Europe has been concerned that the US would not fulfil its duties in NATO,’ said de Bendern. Smaller countries in particular have doubted that the US would respond with force if they were attacked.”
So the USA has achieved a long term goal of getting European states to increase their military commitment to NATO and rebranding that organisation as being a “defensive” alliance, erasing memories of NATO military intervention in Serbia and the NATO led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the Nato bombing of Libya.
But is this Washington fighting the wrong war? Putin’s Russia is not strong enough to pose any real threat to US global hegemony. It can wreak havoc in Ukraine but it does not have a global reach – its ability to intervene in Syria was a military and diplomatic legacy left to it from the old Soviet Union.
During the Cold War Europe was the key concern for the US because it believed Russia might strike for European domination. Today that is not on the cards. Europe is the past compared with China.
Under Obama the US made its much heralded “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific, recognising that China is the one challenger to the US hegemon. Washington has built an alliance with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, plus launching the AUKUS security alliance with Australia and the UK.
The naval and air build up in the South China Sea has created a highly dangerous standoff with China.
But its regional allies are worried about the US’ commitment to stand by them if China were to attack. They worry that Washington’s attention has drifted away to Putin and the Ukraine, as it did to the ISIS threat. They saw how Biden cut and ran from Afghanistan.
The build up of US and NATO forces in Eastern Europe and the flow of their weaponry to Ukraine comes at a time when the worry of US allies is that even though it is the single greatest military power it might be spreading that power too far, too thin, because the US still has a significant presence in the Middle East and in West Africa.
Yet for now Biden can take joy in having got the European states to increase military spending and to rally behind NATO. He can also enjoy the fact that in less than a fortnight many left liberals – some of whom would have opposed US policies in past decades – have collapsed into being NATO cheerleaders.
But there must be others in Washington who are wondering if picking a fight with Putin’s Russia isn’t the wrong fight and that the US must concentrate on the one potential global challenger, China. It is hard to know what the outcome of the war in Ukraine would be, but it may involve an even greater involvement from the US (such as in the possibility of a lengthy insurgency backed by EU and Nato arms). Also, new layers of the population in Europe are likely to become sceptical of the Nato buid-up, with spiralling prices and a greater share of state expenditures going to arms.
For now, the US and Nato are taking great leaps in Europe. This reality should put an end to the idea that we are witnessing any simple re-birth of ‘multi-polarity’ in the world system. The US remains out in front. But it is facing new strategic questions.