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Europe needs to step up to deter Russia in Ukraine

The Ukraine crisis should be a wake-up call for European nations to boost defense spending and finally take seriously France’s calls for European strategic autonomy. And yes, Americans should cheer them on.

Presently, Europe is heavily dependent on decisions made in Washington regarding whether or how to counter the Russian threat, largely because they lack the collective military heft to deal with Russia on their own. Washington, however, has good reason to dither; few have any appetite for a war with Russia, or for “dying for Kyiv.”

Europeans may feel the same way, but it should be up to them, and not President Biden and Congress. They have more at stake either way: They are more at risk in case of war, just as they are more likely to suffer the consequences of a policy of appeasing Moscow.

Why is Europe so dependent? It boils down to lacking the military wherewithal to take on Russia without significant U.S. assistance. Europe’s militaries are excellent but small. As a RAND study I co-authored argued about Western Europe’s most capable force, France’s, it could manage a full division, but France would have to send it into battle with nothing to spare in terms of replacement men, vehicles, ammunition and parts. The same is largely true of its air and naval forces: They are top tier, to be sure, but scarce. There would be nothing in reserve to absorb any sort of attrition or sustain the fight for very long.

The situation with Europe’s other top militaries – the British, the Germans, the Italians and the Spanish – is worse. It’s all a question of spending, with most NATO countries spending well below the notional 2 percent goal, and a question of coordinating what they do spend. The whole of a bunch of small militaries can be worth much less than the sum of the parts. NATO exists in part to fix that and ensure that collectively the Alliance makes the most of what it has. But here the point is operating outside NATO, or at least without the Americans: What if Washington prefers to sit it out?

No sane person would argue for a war with Russia, but deterring such a war requires being able to respond proportionately to each threat, and also to avoid the worst-case scenario, wherein for lack of an appropriate conventional arm Europe has to decide between capitulation or nuclear weapons. Europe in fact needs to be able to do two things to avoid that horrible dilemma. One is mastering the kind of sub-threshold indirect and hybrid warfare at which the Russians currently have an edge. The other is being able to measure out conventional capabilities. Europe needs both, for both would give it options. It has neither. 

Americans should welcome a European awakening. First, unless we really are up for “dying for Kyiv,” Kyiv’s fate, and Europe’s, should not be up to us. Second, a strong Europe would make it easier for all of us to deter Russia. We would not have to commit as much of our own force, and Moscow would know it has to contend with more than one major power.

Michael Shurkin is a former RAND senior political scientist who now is the president and founder of Shurbros Global Strategies as well as director of Global Programs at 14 North Strategies. 

Tags Joe Biden Kyiv NATO Russia Ukraine Ukraine-Russia border

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