Putin's unwitting gift to Nato

The Ukraine war has upended European security policy

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announces his country's new defence policy last month. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

If any good is to emerge from the tragedy of the Ukraine conflict, it is that it breathes new life into Nato as it comes to terms with the biggest crisis it has faced in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

For far too long, far too many Nato member states have taken the US-led western security alliance for granted in the naive belief that, in the 21st century, the prospect of a major conflict erupting in the heart of Europe was almost unthinkable. Key members such as Germany, therefore, made little or no effort to pay their fair share towards the cost of maintaining a credible defence.

A key condition for joining Nato is that all member states contribute a minimum of 2 per cent of their national gross domestic product towards the cost of running the alliance. But until Russia sent troops into Ukraine last week, the majority of member states failed to meet even this basic requirement, a failing that became the source of long-running tensions with Washington.

The US has, historically, been happy to assume the leadership role in the alliance, providing much of the firepower as well as paying the lion's share of the running costs. But successive administrations became increasingly frustrated at the failure of so many European states to contribute more.

Scholz's announcement won't go unnoticed in London or Moscow

The issue came to a head in 2017 when then US president Donald Trump confronted then German chancellor Angela Merkel over the matter. Mrs Merkel, who believed she had a strong personal bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin, showed little inclination to increase Germany's defence spending of about 1.5 per cent of its GDP on the basis that Europe faced no tangible threat.

The Ukraine war has now forced several European countries to review their individual defence policies. And nowhere is this more evident than in Germany, whose government had until last week clung to the belief that war could be averted. Berlin relies heavily on Russian gas for its energy needs, and so it believed it could still maintain close ties with Moscow.

No longer. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz used an address to the Bundestag, the German parliament, last week to announce a radical reversal of policy towards Russia, with a dramatic increase in defence spending topping the agenda.

Mr Scholz had previously attracted criticism at home and in Washington for his determination to defuse the Ukraine crisis diplomatically. There were accusations that he was prepared to compromise Ukraine's sovereignty in return for securing Mr Putin's commitment to not proceed with his "military operation". True or not, his shot at diplomacy came to nought.

Russia involvement in Europe's biggest conflict in more than 75 years, moreover, shattered the long-standing belief among the continent's liberal elites that the era of inter-state wars on the continent was over. They, instead, find themselves staring at the wreckage of a sanctions policy that was supposed to deter Moscow from such acts of aggression, but which failed to achieve its goals. Mr Putin's blunt reminder that Russia, which possesses the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, was increasing the readiness of its arsenal at a stroke removed any doubt about the scale of the threat Europe faced.

European leaders are now engaged in a desperate bid to bolster Nato's defences, especially in the Baltic region as well as Eastern and Central Europe.

In what amounts to one of the most seismic policy changes Europe has witnessed since the collapse of the Iron Curtain more than three decades ago, Mr Scholz has confirmed that Germany will meet its 2 per cent requirement on defence spending by 2024, amounting to an extra €100 billion ($111bn).

This policy shift has overwhelming public support. A Forsa survey shows 78 per cent of Germans favour exporting lethal weapons to Ukraine and increasing funds to the German armed forces; this was unthinkable during Mrs Merkel's 16-year chancellorship. Germany has, meanwhile, cancelled its involvement in the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking it to Russia, a move that might damage Germany's short-term energy needs but in the long-term will scale down its over-reliance on Russian supplies.

Berlin's decision comes against a backdrop of otherwise rising defence spending throughout Europe since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

A report published last month by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that it was "clear" European countries had "turned a corner in terms of their defence spending". Britain emerged as the continent's biggest spender with an annual budget of $71.6bn, making it the world's third-largest after the US ($754bn) and China ($207.3bn). For this reason, Mr Scholz's announcement won't go unnoticed in London. If it wants to maintain its position as Europe's largest defence spender, Britain will now need to dedicate an extra 0.4 per cent of GDP to defence – or about $12bn.

Neither will the announcement go unnoticed in Moscow, where Mr Putin believes the Ukraine war will strengthen Russia in the long term. Whether that happens or not, what is beyond question is that the Russian leader has unwittingly helped Nato bolster its military – an outcome that was as necessary as it was long overdue.

Published: March 03, 2022, 2:41 PM