As more milestones come and go – the NATO summit, the 500th day of war – it is worth reflecting on the remarkable expansion and growing strength of the largest and most successful military alliance in history.
The excellent news from Vilnius of Sweden’s imminent accession will take NATO’s membership to 32 countries with a combined estimated annual military spending of over $1.27tn in 2023 (including Stockholm’s $8.7bn budget). Even without the US, Nato’s European members plus Canada spend over $412bn together per year. In contrast, Russia went into the war with a real budget of around $63bn, which is expected to reach up to $90bn in 2023 – less than a fourth of what Europe alone spends.
And most NATO countries, especially in Europe, have only just launched their new rearmament programmes in response to Russia’s invasion; these will bear heavy fruit in the coming years. France, for example, is legislating for significant hikes in military spending, over €3bn annually, on top of spending on aid to Ukraine. By 2030 the French budget should hit €60bn (it was about half only six years ago). This is taking France’s defence equipment investment plan to €413bn for the 2024-2030 period, a 40 per cent increase compared to the previous cycle 2019-2025.
Germany too has pledged €100bn in addition to its pre-planned defence procurement, although doubts remain over the pace and substance of Berlin’s rearmament. Even so, according to NATO’s figures, Germany is already set to overtake Britain as Europe’s largest military spender this year ($68bn vs UK’s $65bn).
In the spring Britain also increased its projected defence spending by $14bn over the next five years, on top of its substantial aid for Ukraine; more announcements are expected when the new UK defence review paper is published later this month.
Romania too is now set to purchase new top-end kit like F-35 jets, Abrams tanks or K9 artillery systems. But of course it is Poland which, more than any other European country, is doubling- and tripling-down on its defence investments, with vast acquisitions and a budget set to reach 4 per cent of GDP.
All of this defence build-up across NATO is happening while also arming Ukraine which, in turn, is chipping away at Russia’s own military power. Moscow is ramping up its defence production and expanding its armed forces, but this is done merely to try to hold off and – Putin hopes – overmatch Ukraine’s field forces. Taking on NATO today, let alone in a few years, appears to be completely beyond Russia’s capacity by any reasonable measure and expected feats of mobilisation.
And to questions of material capacity and financial/industrial resources we can add the worsening military-strategic picture for Russia, especially in the northern theatre where the entirety of Scandinavia is now a NATO bastion, the Baltic is a NATO lake, and St Petersburg is now within NATO battlefield missile range from two sides since Finland joined the Alliance. In addition, NATO is switching from a deterrence to a defence posture across the whole of the eastern flank, moving from having “tripwire” US and West European forces in the Baltics and Romania to battle-ready formations that can withstand an initial attack on their own – including a brigade’s worth of the US 101st Airborne deployed by the Black Sea at the mouth of the Danube.
Two important points arise from this indisputable picture of Nato’s ever-growing strength. The first is that there is more than enough capacity across the alliance to spare and send to Ukraine right now.
The case has been made in certain British quarters, for example, for simply transferring the bulk of the British Army’s heavy and medium equipment to Ukraine, since they’re actively engaged in reducing the main threat for which that equipment exists in the first place.
This may be a somewhat outlandish position, but the principle is valid and can be applied across NATO: there is much more that can be safely transferred to Ukraine now, than politicians would admit. Furthermore, anything that is taken out of European stocks today can be rebuilt tomorrow, way before Russia can ever recover enough to even attempt an invasion of NATO territory (a mad proposition even before the Ukraine war, but curiously taken seriously by a great many analysts nonetheless).
The second consequence of NATO strength, that is very important to acknowledge and discuss, is that, however harsh it sounds, the outcome of the war in Ukraine is relatively marginal to NATO’s ability to defend itself. This is really the crux of the political dynamics around how far should support for Ukraine go in a worst case scenario.
Read the rest at Brussels Signal.
Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.