Europe’s precarious security could invite Putin to expand war

Dr Oliver Hartwich
26 January, 2024

Happy new years do not start like this. The first few weeks of 2024 served as a reminder that the geopolitical situation is at its most dangerous in decades. As if we needed reminding.

Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s Military Committee, warned last week that NATO must prepare for war with Russia within 20 years.

A day later, Germany’s defence minister Boris Pistorius chimed in to one-up Admiral Bauer. In a newspaper interview, Pistorius said: “Our experts expect a period of five to eight years in which this [a Russian attack] could be possible.”

Amidst this speculation on when World War III might break out, let’s not forget the current conflicts already wreaking havoc. The war between Russia and Ukraine, nearing its second anniversary, continues unabated. The Israeli operation against Hamas looks set to continue for months, with every possibility of the conflict spreading beyond the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, we wonder whether or when China will follow up on its rhetoric about Taiwan.

Atomic Scientists had plenty of reasons to set their ‘Doomsday Clock’ to 90 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been. Sadly, that does not appear to be an exaggeration.

In Europe, the security situation is the most precarious. The events of the last ten years should have woken up Europe from its delusion that war is a thing of the past and America will always save the day. 

Instead, the continent has wasted the past decade preparing for a scenario where neither of these assumptions applies.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the de facto occupation of the Donbas should have shattered any illusions Western Europe may have harboured about him. In fact, since he first became Prime Minister in 1999, Putin’s behaviour should not have led anyone to see him as a stability-oriented and rules-adhering leader. But at the very latest, his invasion of Crimea against all international law made it clear that he was posing a military threat to Europe’s post-Cold War order.

But what was Europe’s response? Not much. There were a few meaningless sanctions, Russia’s removal from the G8, and attempts to continue to talk with the Kremlin. The world had no problem participating in the Football World Cup hosted by Russia in 2018 as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, Europe would have had good reasons to consider its reliance on the US for its defence. And it did not.

After World War II, America guaranteed the security of Western Europe. In fact, Western Europe’s acceptance of liberal democracy would have been significantly harder without America and the Marshall Plan. 

To put it bluntly, Western Europe’s Post-War success owed a great deal to the United States. The US helped put Europe on the path to democracy and trade, and the US secured that path militarily through NATO.

But if that was the model for those nearly five decades after the War, the end of the first Cold War in 1989 reduced America’s interest in Europe and later led to its pivot to the Pacific. 

With that shift in attitude, more questions were asked about Europe’s contribution to its own defence. First, these questions were raised politely behind closed doors, then less politely in public. Finally, the demand for Europe to lift its defence spending became a key talking point for Donald Trump.

When Trump became President in 2017, for the first time since 1945, Western Europe found itself in a broad, open confrontation with the US – not just on defence spending but even on trade.

Again, this should have been a wake-up call for Europe. Trump’s thinly veiled threat to leave NATO - and to leave the Europeans alone – should have been taken seriously. Instead, Europe hoped that the Trump episode would be over after just one term, and that wish seemed to become true when Biden won the 2020 US election.

Europe never thought it would have to stand alone when it came to its defence. And when Putin attacked the whole of Ukraine in 2022, once again, all eyes were on Washington.

It was not just that, of course, the US became the biggest supporter of Ukraine by a mile. It was also that European countries were not even prepared to donate their military equipment to Ukraine unless the US went along. Germany, for example, still tries to minimise irritating Moscow by only delivering its military aid in tandem with the US.

But the Ukraine war also delivered a reality shock to Europe’s defence capacity. On the day of Putin’s invasion, the head of the German army famously posted on LinkedIn “The army I have the privilege of leading is more or less bare.” Indeed, German media at the time suggested that Bundeswehr ammunition stocks would last somewhere between a few hours and a few days in an all-out conflict.

Although two years is not a long time, one would have expected Germany and other European countries to try urgently to raise their military capacity to match the now evident Russian threat. In reality, not much has changed since then.

As long as NATO – effectively, the US – maintains its nuclear umbrella and its unwavering commitment to the defence of the alliance, Europe’s shortcomings in defence might be viewed as concerning but not catastrophic. 

Yet, as the Iowa primary made clear, Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican candidate for the White House. There is every indication that he will retake it from President Biden in the November election.

For Europe’s defence, this political shift would be an all-out catastrophe. Where Trump Mark 1 only threatened with words, Trump Mark 2 would follow up with action. Should he return to the presidency, NATO would likely be shattered, regardless of whether it continues to exist.

Putin would then be encouraged to continue his military expansion. In his rhetoric, he is already signalling his ambitions. 

He stated last week, for instance, that Latvia and other Baltic States were expelling ethnic Russians and that this directly affected the security of the Russian state. You do not need an interpreter to read this as a justification for a future war.

As the year 2024 begins, Europe finds itself in parlous security conditions. It has been a decade since Putin took parts of Ukraine by force, but Europe still does not fully understand the threat it faces. Meanwhile, the US will likely leave Europe on its own should Trump win later this year. In that case, Europe’s own military capacity would be inadequate to engage in an all-out war with Russia. It is only natural for Putin to see this weakness as an invitation.

No, 2024 did not get off to a good start for world peace. The irony lies in the fact that the only deterrent to a full-scale European war escalating into a third world war might be America’s reluctance to intervene.

Happy New Year. If only.

To read the article on Newsroom, click here.

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