By Hai Ning
The Russia-Ukraine conflict propelled many European countries to break away from their old “taboos” and launch an intense series of measures in a new round of reform of defense policies.
Military aid to Ukraine breaks Europe’s conventions repeatedly. Germany lifted ban on sending air-defense and anti-tank “lethal weapons” to war zone for the first time. Sweden and Finland both substantially gave up their “neutral” tradition and provided Ukraine with weapons and ammunition. The EU, for the first time ever, announced to actuate more than EUR 500 million of “European Peace Facility” to purchase and deliver “lethal weapons”, fuels and protective gears for a country currently under attack, and that pretty much used up the fund’s budget for this year. Many other European countries publicly supported or allowed their citizens to fight in Ukraine as “international mercenaries”.
Military buildup and war preparedness is at full tilt. It’s worth special attention that Germany, for the first time ever after its reunification in 1990, increased its defense budget by a large margin and announced to set up a “special fund” of EUR 100 billion to strengthen the military, saying that it would increase the annual defense spending to over 2 percent of GDP from now on. This means Germany will surpass India to become the world’s third-largest military spender, and its Defense Ministry already announced its plan to buy 35 of America’s F-35 fighter jets. Poland sped up the takeover of 250 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks from the US, and its Sejm almost unanimously passed the homeland defence bill, which increased the national expenses from the current 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP starting from 2023. Several other European countries also rolled out military-strengthening plans.
North European countries change course to support multilateral defense mechanism. There is a dramatic change in the public opinions of Finland, as a poll showed more than half of its population for the first time now supports joining NATO. Sweden and Finland, two traditionally neutral countries, both expressed willingness to tighten the ties with NATO. Denmark, which upholds “Atlanticism” and “NATO supremacy”, intends to join the EU common defense mechanism and will hold a referendum on this in June this year.
The adjustment of defense policies by European countries is a reaction to the abrupt change of situation. More importantly, it is a reflection of the profound change in Europeans’ security outlook stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
In the 21st century, traditional military security has been marginalized in the minds of Europeans. At the end of 2003, the relationship between Europe and Russia reached a peak after the Cold War with their planning for four common spaces – Common Economic Space, the Common Space of Freedom, Security and Justice, the Common Space of External Security, and the Common Space on Research, Education and Culture.
The Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 dented the strategic mutual trust between Europe and Russia, but there was much room for an upturn and bilateral economic ties, trade and energy deals even increased.
EU’s latest Global Strategy issued in 2016 only labeled Russia as a “mixed war” threat on a relatively low-risk level.
But the flames of war were ignited on the European continent owing to America’s continuous push for NATO’s eastward expansion and its instigation regardless of Moscow’s security concerns. As a result, Europeans that used to oppose defense expenditure squeezing social benefits have changed their mind, and the political figures who used to fear being abandoned by voters for their more “militant” stances are all eager to step up military preparations to cater to the sudden change of prevalent sentiments.
There are extremely complex historical reasons for the evolution of the Ukraine issue. That Ukraine has been reduced into the forefront of major-country confrontation has also hurt Europe, which is having Russia, the strong neighbor that won’t move, on one side and the US, the chief that is not easy to deal with, on the other, while the countries on the continent are all making their own calculations. Against such a backdrop, creating a balanced, valid and sustainable European security architecture seems far beyond reach. In the current entanglement, how to realize “strategic independence” and “lasting peace” in the real sense is a question the Europeans should really think about.