When the Baltic states and Poland recently wanted to show Russia that their countries are under the full protection of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S. sent them about 600 troops for exercises. The gesture was small, but telling: American boots were needed to convince Russia—not to mention Latvians and Poles—of NATO’s commitment. Europe has so hollowed out its collective military and is so divided over how to answer open aggression that it struggles to offer a credible deterrent of its own.
No matter how the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, Europeans need to rethink their defenses. They can no longer afford to rely so heavily on the U.S. Nor can they go on regarding Russia as a benign long-term partner.
When the Cold War ended, European countries cut their defense budgets as the U.S. drew down its forces on the Continent, sure in the delusion that European wars were a thing of the past. So sure, indeed, that France contracted to sell Russia two sophisticated Mistral class helicopter carriers, even after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Over the past five years, defense spending has rocketed in emerging powers such as China and Russia while it has declined in Europe. Germany now spends just 1.4 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The European Union average is 1.6 percent, compared with 3.8 percent in the U.S. and 4.1 percent in Russia.
Europe has plenty of troops to fend off Russia’s conventional forces, which, though improving, are much diminished since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet this isn’t just about personnel, it’s about combat readiness. In 2011 the U.S. and the EU had roughly the same number of men and women under arms, but the U.S. spent more than four times as much equipping them to fight—about €102,000 ($142,000) per soldier, compared with €24,000 in the EU.
It isn’t as if Europe needs to engage in an arms race with Russia, but its long slide in defense spending must end. Russia has proved itself unpredictable and expansionist at a time when the U.S. is increasingly stretched to meet defense commitments in Asia. Sweden (not a member of NATO) showed the way on April 22, when it pledged to boost defense spending by $833 million a year and buy additional aircraft and submarines to protect its interests in the Baltic Sea. After finding itself with no jets to intercept a Russian incursion last year, Sweden has made it a priority to be able to respond to threats quickly. These are the kinds of concrete commitments that NATO members should prepare ahead of their next summit in September.
Vladimir Putin has made it clear that in the 21st century, Europe’s borders can be changed by force. The next time he considers an invasion, as in Ukraine today, he will stand down only if he calculates that military and economic costs are too high. Europe must be capable of making them so, with or without U.S. help.