There’s an interesting event coming up ie, a Defence Ministers meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Brussels, chaired by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. There’s also a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact group, hosted predictably by the United States.
Changes are happening already. Germany finally gave in to immense pressure and bid a tearful goodbye to one company of Leopard tanks for Ukraine. The historical overhang is inescapable. The german tanks will once again face the Russians.
The UK under Rishi Sunak has also pledged tanks while the ever-realistic French promised fighter jets ‘at some point’. Meanwhile, a huge recession is predicted for most developed countries while the UK is officially undergoing so. This is the worst time ever for a pointless war. NATO ministers won't say so publicly, but there’ll be many biting their lips.
Europe Weighs In on Ukraine
It now seems that Europe is pulling up its socks. Data from the Kiel Institute of World Economy which tracks aid to Ukraine, indicates that for the first time, the Europeans surpassed the US in the value of total committed aid to Ukraine.
EU countries and institutions totalled nearly 52 billion euros in military, financial, and humanitarian assistance until 20 November as compared to the US at just under 48 billion euros.
The main reason for the changes is an 18-billion-euro Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) package agreed upon by the EU for 2023. Germany is the largest donor country in Europe while tiny Lithuania and Latvia are among those also contributing significantly in terms of a percentage of their GDP.
None of that however means that there is unity across European populations on the Ukraine war, thereby, leading to unease among their leaders.
As Economy Takes Hit, German Concerns Magnify
Germany while being the most generous, remains reluctant to send its weaponry to fight Russia—either from its own armoury or that of its neighbours for reasons that range from history – after all the memory of World War II had hardly receded to hard national security. Bonn after all depends on the US for a nuclear umbrella if Russia decides to up the ante which is why Chancellor Scholz delayed the move to send the tanks for months, given the extreme sensitivity of the issue.
Even after the decision, Scholz warned in Parliament that despite providing arms to Ukraine, NATO must not become a party to the conflict. That warning resonates across the population. More than 40% of German residents are against supplying battle tanks to Kiev, according to a survey commissioned recently.
Support has been dropping since July 2022 though there was strong sympathy for Ukraine’s plight. As economic pain kicks in, sporadic protests have begun against Ukrainian refugees while the rise of the Far Right is apparent especially in what was Eastern Germany where suspicion and dislike of the state are exacerbated by the fact that the war is hitting household wallets already depleted by the pandemic.
The German economy has so far weathered the crisis, even growing marginally in terms of its manufacturing but it's early days yet as its industry continues to be hit by growing energy bills. In 2023, Bonn declares it will entirely stop will energy imports from Russia, but between 26 December 2022 to 1 January 2023, the largest importers of Russian fossil fuels last week were the EU, China, India, Turkey, and Japan.
In the EU the largest importers were Austria and Germany. Meanwhile, the turn to alternative suppliers means that American and British companies in the North Sea and Norwegian shelf—which now accounts for 23.3% of imports as against about 26 per cent from Russia, are seeing record profits.
France's Diplomatic Stand: A Win-Win?
The practical French are accused of being laggards in Ukraine, ranking 21 on a scale of those contributing the most to Ukraine as a percentage of GDP. France has played a well-balanced game backing Ukraine diplomatically with what President Macron calls ‘combat diplomacy ’.
That means holding conferences in Paris for support to Ukraine, even while maintaining a line of negotiation with Putin, but in a fact often forgotten at the express request of Ukraine’s President Zelensky, and later after consultation with him.
Germany’s Scholz has also been in touch with Putin though unlike France, he has made Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories, the bottom line. France is not dependent on Russian oil, has a seat at the UN Security Council, and its own deterrent all of which gives Paris more elbow room. Meanwhile, it has supplied 18 Caesar howitzers, MILAN anti-tank missiles, and TRF1 towed howitzers to Ukrainian forces in what it calls ‘defensive’ weapons in a bid to keep Moscow in play.
The Ukraine war has, however, dashed French hopes of a lead role in Europe with the US once again in full control. Paris and the others are also unhappily aware that the US focus is likely to shift to China, leaving Europe in the lurch. So a rise in defence budgets is not just about Ukraine. It’s insurance for the future.
The UK's Aid & Military Contribution
Last year alone, the UK provided military aid worth a total of nearly USD 2.8 billion and means to sustain this in 2023. The UK also has no Russian dependency, importing between 4-9 per cent of its gas and oil from Russia. Since then, British and other oil companies have made a killing, paying out a record USD 110 billion in dividends and share repurchases to investors in 2022, leading to demands that the government impose windfall taxes to help consumers with surging energy costs.
Tax benefits made by earlier governments has made the UK the most profitable spot for energy companies. Meanwhile, climate targets have gone to the wall. The UK is the second largest provider of aid, (but sixth in terms of GDP) with its weapons supplies including a range of anti-air and anti-tank weapons as well as electronic warfare and jamming equipment, all of which has been profitable for an industry that employs some 200,000 people, and where trade unions now wholly support the war.
Unions had called upon Rishi Sunak for a huge increase in defence spending, which he did raising it by a billion pounds in December. Even as the UK formally announced a recession and inflation climbs, industry demands another increase.
The UK, however, is still in the game, announcing fighter training for Ukrainian forces, and supply of tanks, the first overtly offensive platform. It seems industry may just get that increase in a defence budget.
Italy and East Europe in Terms of Arms Supply & Defence Expenses
Italy’s right-wing government headed by Giorgia Meloni has walked back from being a staunch supporter of Putin, but recent polls show that just 30% of Italians backed sending weapons to Kyiv against 63% in Britain, 52% in France and 48% in Germany.
Italy has also been slow in increasing its defence expenditure to promised levels of 2 per cent of GDP. Arming Ukraine has been a contentious topic within the ruling coalition which includes Meloni's Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini's League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia parties. Her allies Salvini and Berlusconi have argued against sanctions which hurt Italy. Both have historical ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile a report notes that only nine of 30 NATO countries have met the defence target of 2 per cent of GDP. That includes the US. Notably, those who are nearing the target are in East Europe. That could arise from their location right next to their former masters, and also the fact that the region is pushing its defence industry which once churned out Soviet weapons. For instance, the Czech Republic has supplied nearly 50 billion crowns (USD 2.1 billion) to Ukraine. Czech arms exports this year will be the highest since 1989, with resultant employment increase and capacity.
Poland is on the same road with its defence consortium planning to invest up to eight billion zlotys (USD1.8 billion)over the next decade, more than double its pre-war target.
East Europe has a formidable history of arms production, and the Ukraine war has given it opportunity to again emerge as a major exporter. That’s the fun part. The downside is that any escalation of the war will first hit these countries which is why Latvia, Poland and others have all stepped up assistance to Ukraine.
How Is Ukraine Bracing Up?
Meanwhile, Kyiv itself is ramping up defence production in the hope of eventual export. Recently, it invoked wartime laws to seize control of top engine-maker Motor Sich, two oil producers Ukrnafta and Ukrtatnafta, truck producer AvtoKrAZ, and Zaporizhtransformator which makes transformers. Its own oligarchs are going to be far from happy. So are the heads of those 11 political 'pro-Russian' political parties who’s activities have been suspended; and the heads of those TV stations who have all been ‘consolidated’ into one state television.
It's strange that the harder Ukraine tries to join the European bloc, the more it begins to look like the Russians. And the irony. Even as Russia bombs and strafes the country, it is slowly becoming a part of NATO, using the same weapons as its neighbours, and with its forces guarding the bloc’s easternmost border.
What has all this done for Europe? So far it's all negative. Europe is more Americanised than ever before and that’s no good for its famed ‘European identity’. That’s over and done with as is the dependence on Russian pipelines and trade that acted as a lubricant for this independence.
The US has achieved what it failed to do from the 1960s and hived Europe away from its old competitor. But the outcome is what UN secretary General Antonio Gutteres warned of recently when he said, “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open”.
As NATO Defence ministers meet over wine and cheese at Brussels, they need to take heed. Old patterns are remerging and it seems Europe will once again become the nucleus for chaos and war. But alas, this time the US will hardly be there to lead the way out. It's rather lost itself. Dangerous indeed, for everyone, everywhere.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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