European leaders left the Madrid NATO Summit on June 30th with much to celebrate. The West has responded to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with a degree of unity and resolve far beyond what Putin expected. Perhaps also far beyond what Western leaders themselves realised they were capable of.
The concrete results of the summit are necessary steps to maintaining security and preventing more war: agreement on long-term support for Ukraine; increasing NATO’s high-readiness force from 40,000 to 300,000; accepting Finland and Sweden into the alliance; and more forward-deployed troops and equipment on NATO’s eastern border. Along with renewed commitment from its members—especially the United States—the summit represents a historic revitalisation of the alliance.
Most important, perhaps, is the recognition that there is enormous potential for things to deteriorate significantly—and that this needs to be actively mitigated. As Jens Stoltenberg noted, “if this becomes a full-scale war between Russia and NATO, then we'll see suffering, damage, death, destruction at a scale which is much, much worse than what we see in Ukraine today.” NATO’s leaders agreed that, along with unwavering support for Ukraine, robust and credible deterrence was needed to prevent that from happening. If it is absolutely clear to Putin—or his successor—that war with NATO would end in disaster for Russia, such a war is very unlikely to happen.
European leaders may now be tempted to consider the threat solved and go back to worrying about pensions, labour unions, and the like. And not without reason. Not only does NATO now appear stronger than we thought it was, but Russia’s military performance in Ukraine also suggests it is far weaker than many feared. Despite some successes in the south-eastern corner of Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has mostly failed to achieve its aims of territorial conquest.
Although the competence of Ukraine’s leaders, the determination of its defenders, and the support received from the West were critical factors, much of the failure was of Russia’s own making. Shoddy planning, terrible logistics, low motivation, and poorly trained soldiers have contributed to an unexpectedly brittle invasion. Given their failure to defeat Ukraine, one might be forgiven for not seeing a serious conventional military threat to the rest of Europe—especially given NATO’s increasing vigilance. So far, Putin appears to be far more successful at emulating the ambitions of his role model Peter the Great than at matching his military achievements.
However, a dismissal of the Russian threat may well be a catastrophically naive assessment. While Russia is unlikely to pose a threat to the rest of Europe while fully preoccupied with Ukraine, there are good reasons to be prudently pessimistic over the longer term. Both in terms of the threat posed by Russia, and our own lack of preparedness. And, while the future might appear predictable over the next 12 to 18 months, it is anything but predictable over the next decade or two.
First, we may not have seen the full potential of Russia's military. Their planning and execution of the invasion may have been far below what they are capable of because they did not expect significant resistance. Rather than regular army soldiers, many units in the initial invasion force comprised riot police, suggesting an expectation of the need to quell civilian protests rather than fight a determined resistance from the Ukrainian military. Some units brought parade uniforms rather than extra ammunition—hardly the best preparation for going into battle.
Beyond the profound intelligence failure at the top, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted serious problems within the Russian military: pervasive corruption; overestimation of force preparedness; deep-seated problems with logistics and equipment maintenance; dysfunctional command and control. Such factors should be taken into account when assessing how dangerous Russian forces really are.
However, it would be extremely naive to assume that Russia will not make significant efforts to address these problems in the years to come. The war in Ukraine will provide Russia with a far more experienced officer corps, and Russia will learn from its mistakes and failures. Russia’s next invasion will almost certainly be executed far more competently than this one.
We should also bear in mind also that Russia has not even conducted a partial mobilization and still refuses to take the decisive political step of calling its invasion a “war” rather than just a “special military operation.” This is significant. On paper at least, Russia has huge reserves of both manpower and equipment that haven't been activated—potentially 10 to 15 times the number of troops currently deployed in Ukraine. In the case of a war with NATO, every possible reserve would be mobilised and additional troops drafted.
Although Russia’s military currently appears severely limited by logistics and other support capabilities, that, too, could change. If the political will is present, five to 10 years is more than enough to solve such challenges. The big question regarding Russia's ability to rebuild and upgrade its military capabilities is whether it will have the economic and technological means to do so
The sanctions applied to Russia will limit both its economic power and access to technology. The Russian defence sector has long depended on importing many key inputs from the West, such as precision machinery and digital hardware.
However, it's not a given that Western countries will remain united around sanctions indefinitely, especially if inflation and their economic growth keep getting worse. Putin is actively betting on Western resolve weakening with election cycles. Europe has not yet been able to wean itself off Russian gas, and Russian oil export revenues are higher than before the war due to rising prices. Although that could change, especially as Europe speeds up investment in renewable energy, sanctions so far seem to have been more disruptive than crippling.
And despite its challenges, Russia still possesses a formidable arms industry that accounts for 20 percent of its total manufacturing production and employs two to three million people. It is the second-largest arms exporter in the world, producing about 50 percent more arms and equipment than are procured by its own armed forces. And while Russia currently spends four to five percent of its GDP on its military— high in comparison to most Western countries—this is historically low for Russia. In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union spent upwards of 15 percent of its GDP on the military—more than twice as much as the United States spent relative to its GDP during the same period.
Russia also has other alternatives to rapprochement with the West to bolster its economic and industrial capacity. In particular, a closer relationship with China has been developing for years. As long as Russia and China both retain a strongly revanchist outlook towards the West, their interests will overlap more than they conflict. They both lay claim to the territories of key Western allies and are deeply opposed to the West’s promotion of human rights and democracy.
Importantly, if China decides to try to invade Taiwan, or Russia a NATO member, it would be enormously advantageous for them to do so at the same time. In such a scenario, to honour its alliances, the US would be forced to fight China and Russia simultaneously. And key European allies such as Britain and France would likely be unable to provide significant support in the defence of Taiwan.
Another critical indicator of the true Russian military capability is that they are still fighting despite sustaining enormous casualties. In just four months, somewhere between 16,000 (according to US estimates) and 35,000 (according to Ukrainian estimates) Russian troops have been killed. By comparison, “only” about 8,000 American and other Western troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years.
Assuming two to three are seriously wounded for each soldier killed, the total Russian casualties are somewhere in the region of 50,000 to 100,000 soldiers. The high end of that estimate is roughly equivalent to the entire British army being wiped out, reserves included, or about a quarter of the combined strength of French, German, British, and American ground forces in Europe. To keep going in the face of such losses shows a remarkable degree of resilience.
That resilience is not just operational. Putin’s political ability to keep the war machine going despite very high casualties and limited progress should worry us. How would French, American, or British voters react to losing 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers per month defending Eastern Europe? Such losses could lead to a greater determination to persevere and win no matter the cost. On the other hand, under the wrong leadership, it could cause individual NATO members to desperately sue for peace—even if it meant abandoning their allies. We now know, however, that Putin’s army can and will keep going in the face of such losses. A regime willing to sacrifice so many of its youth in a war of aggression is an extremely dangerous neighbour.
Aside from the risk of underestimating Russia, we also run a serious risk of overestimating our own capabilities. On paper, NATO is far stronger militarily than Russia, even without additional investment. But—just as Russia discovered in Ukraine—numerical strength often hides serious weaknesses.
It is tempting to explain Russian military dysfunction with broader corruption, authoritarianism, and essentialist ideas of Russia as uniquely incompetent. Remember their disastrous war with Japan in 1905? Their failed invasion of Poland in 1920? The catastrophe of the Finnish Winter War? Their abysmal performance in Afghanistan in the 1980s?
The problem with such explanations is that we don’t know what military dysfunction we might discover in our own forces if they were put to the test in a large-scale conventional war—because they haven’t been tested in such a conflict in three generations. But it’s a near-certainty that many things would go wrong because that’s what happens in war. The question is whether our forces would be robust and adaptable enough to win despite painful, embarrassing, and deadly setbacks.
There are serious problems to worry about in such a scenario, the first of which is that all of NATO currently produces far too few munitions. This problem is especially dire in Europe. In a major simulation exercise about a year ago, the UK ran out of ”every bit of important ammunition” in just eight days. During the European-led air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan forces in 2011, France, Britain, and other European countries quickly ran short of precision-guided bombs. The supplies needed for a limited intervention against a collapsing third-world regime are vastly lower than those needed for a full-scale conventional war. The irony is that, despite the West’s enormous wealth, if push comes to shove we might find ourselves short of the tools we need to effectively wage a major war.
More broadly, years of underinvestment have resulted in European militaries being cut down to the bone. In its entire history, Europe as a whole has very likely never spent less on defence as a percentage of GDP than in the last two decades. Few European countries have met the two percent of GDP spending target agreed by all NATO members. And that target—set in 2006 at the height of post cold-war expectations of permanent peace—is already far too low for the far more dangerous reality we face today.
The notion that we can ill afford to spend far more is nonsense. Despite being less wealthy than today, during the mid-1980s, most European countries spent above three percent of their GDP on defence; some spent far more. The UK defence budget regularly consumed more than five percent of its GDP. As the Cold War ended, it made sense to de-prioritise defence spending and take a “peace dividend.” But if we are unable to turn a fraction of our unparalleled wealth today into military strength again, we risk losing far, far more
The geopolitical implication of irresponsibly low European defense spending is that European security now depends more on decisions taken in Washington DC than on decisions taken in London, Paris, or Berlin. And it depends more on taxpayers in Ohio and California than on taxpayers in Oslo or Cologne. Even if one assumes that the US military commitment to NATO and Europe is ironclad and eternal—an assumption that could easily be tested by another populist president– this degree of reliance on the United States is both irresponsible and unethical.
Even if the US remains fully committed to NATO, its resources are not unlimited— especially if war breaks out between the US and a major non-European power, for example China. More importantly, it is morally reprehensible for Europeans to expect anyone but themselves to be carrying the heaviest burden in the defense of Europe. Whatever the right level of defense investment might be to maintain European security, it should be higher for Europe than for the United States—both in money and manpower.
It goes without saying that Europe should still continue to do everything it can to maintain a robust and healthy NATO with the US at the helm. And we should work from the assumption that America’s commitment will remain firm. But that does not preclude Europeans from the responsibility of taking the lead on European defense and security. More significantly, the more we depend on the United States without pulling our own weight, the more we should expect America’s patience to wear thin.
Far greater European defense investment is fully in line with the direction outlined by the NATO alliance at its Madrid summit. But bold commitments often become watered down when confronted with domestic policy priorities, and the temptation to perpetually put off expensive defence investments until after the next election cycle. But the consequences of such dithering will be far greater in the decades to come than they have been so far.
Should NATO not receive the necessary upkeep—whether through the US stepping back or European countries failing to re-build their militaries in the near future—a number of unfortunate scenarios become more likely. First and foremost, Russian aggression beyond Ukraine is entirely dependent on Putin or his successor believing they might be successful. This is a situation which only becomes possible if Europe fails to adequately rebuild its militaries.
Other threats might also emerge. If NATO ceases to be a powerful alliance, Erdoğan, for example, might gravitate away from it and towards Russia and China instead. This is especially worrisome as Turkey has revanchist claims on territory in Greece, a fellow member of NATO. Orbán, too, has prevaricated about whether Hungary’s place is with the EU and NATO or Putin’s Russia. If a realignment was accompanied by Russia finally succeeding in Ukraine—a scenario which becomes far more likely if Western support begins to fall away—NATO-members Bulgaria and Romania could quite literally be “boxed in” by Russia, Turkey, and Hungary.
In an extreme worst-case scenario, one might imagine a de-facto alliance between Russia, China, Turkey, and other minor powers; and a NATO weakened by a lack of European defence investment and American prevarication over their commitment to the alliance. In such a situation, war breaking out simultaneously over Russian claims in the Baltics, Turkish claims in the Aegean, and Chinese claims to Taiwan become a real possibility—precisely because it would be far from obvious that the West would prevail.
More importantly, even if Europe were to win such a war and nuclear apocalypse were to be avoided, it would still be a catastrophic event. In the least-worst case, hundreds of thousands of people would die, vast sums of wealth and prosperity would be destroyed, and the lives of millions of survivors would be scarred by the experiences of war.
The way to make war less likely is very simple: we need to spend a lot more on defence. If European armies are strong enough that any attack from Russia will be obviously futile, such an attack will never come. Such deterrence needs to be strong enough that it stands on its own feet with or without American support. European countries ought to build strong enough militaries to successfully deter Russia and others on its own. That is far from a tall order. Europe’s population is three-and-a-half times that of Russia’s and its GDP is 14 times greater.
Nevertheless, a shift to responsible defence policy will come with serious costs for European leaders—both political and economic ones. It will mean spending hundreds of billions more euros, pounds, and kroner than we do today on arms and equipment—every single year. It means investing in large-scale surge capacity in our defence industry, in terms of both capital investment and training. It means keeping millions—not hundreds of thousands—of reservists in a permanent state of readiness. All in order to prevent the soldiers, matériel, and surge capacity from ever having to be used.
But by doing so, we make sure that even the most delusional Russian leader—whether or not supported by China and potentially others—would have no doubt that an attempt to beat Europe into submission militarily would be doomed to failure.
In planning for such investments, the consequences of spending too little or too much are hugely asymmetric. If we end up spending too much, defence industry executives and shareholders might become richer than they ought to, and taxes will remain a couple of percent higher than they should. But if we spend too little, we risk losing everything we hold dear: our sovereignty, our freedom, our lives, and the lives of those we love.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Russia’s failed invasion of Poland occurred in 1922. We apologize for the error.