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Europe is militarising at lightening speed
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11 minutes

What came before

NATO’s relations with Ukraine date back to immediately after independence in 1991. The North Atlantic Alliance included the country in the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (1991) and the Partnership for Peace program (1994). From 1997, cooperation was deepened with the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC). In 2008, the NATO summit in Bucharest decided that Ukraine could eventually become a member of the military alliance, without, however, opening the procedure for this (Membership Action Plan, MAP). Russia responded by labeling Ukraine’s membership as a “red line.” In 2009 the Euro-Atlantic military integration of Ukraine was started through an ‘Annual National Programme’.

Ukraine has been actively contributing to NATO military operations ever since. From then on, NATO also conducts annual multinational manoeuvres in Ukraine (under the name ‘Rapid Trident’) and in the Black Sea. The latter regularly take place off the coast of Crimea, which led to a serious incident last year between a British frigate and the Russian army, during which warning shots were fired. Moscow considers such military exercises ‘provocations’. Secret British documents that were unintentionally made public show that scenarios of possible Russian reactions were calculated in advance .

Since the Warsaw summit (2016), NATO support to Ukraine has been provided through a ‘Comprehensive Assistance Package’. In 2019, Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership was constitutionally enshrined by Kiev. In 2020, Ukrainian President Zelensky approved the New National Security Strategy to further develop ties and integration with NATO into full membership.

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in the Donbass region (2014), NATO responded with troop deployments, rising military budgets and arms supplies to Ukraine. That same year, at the summit in Wales, NATO heads of government agreed that member states’ military budgets must be at least 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2024. At that time, only Greece, the United Kingdom and the US reached that standard. Between 2015 and 2021, NATO’s combined budgets grew by $155 billion.

The developments in Ukraine also have major repercussions for the Belgian military-budgetary trajectory. In 2017, the Swedish coalition decided to commit 9.2 billion euros in a program law for investments in weapons systems. The government is thus making an important concession to that other NATO standard of Wales, to set aside 20% of the military budget for military investment. In addition, the Michel government approved a defense growth path that should bring the military budget to 1.3% of GDP by 2030.

Belgium also responded to NATO by supplying around 300 soldiers to be stationed in Estonia and subsequently in Lithuania. They are part of the 4 multinational ‘battlegroups’ that the military alliance in Poland and the Baltic States developed in the context of the ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’, a decision of the NATO summit in Warsaw (2016).

In response to Russian military action in and around Ukraine, which eventually culminated in open war, NATO decided to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe. There are now 40,000 troops under NATO command with another four new multinational battlegroups in Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Belgium pledged 300 troops to reinforce NATO’s flank in Romania.

Military budgets are rising sharply

From the beginning of this year, European armaments and militarization gained momentum. Immense budget increases - until recently seen as unfeasible - are now becoming reality without significant debate.

In Belgium, at the end of January 2022, the government gave the green light to the STAR plan – ‘Security, Technology, Ambition and Resilience’ – which foresees that defense resources should increase to 1.54% of GDP by 2030. This includes a new investment plan worth more than 10 billion euros. The government approved a preliminary draft law for this at the end of February “for updating the military program law and the defense budget up to and including 2030”. Additional costs have to be added to this for increasing the number of personnel from 26,000 to 29,000 and for the implementation of the POP plan (People-Our-Priority plan), which is intended to improve working conditions and the pay of the troops. Additional expenditure is also made for investments in infrastructure and in research and development of new technologies in collaboration with Belgian industry. The STAR plan reserves 1.8 billion euros for the latter.

Ultimately, the military budget is expected to amount to 6.9 billion euros in 2030, compared to 4.4 billion today. In reality, that could be even higher. In the run-up to the NATO meeting in Brussels at the end of March, the De Croo government has decided to allocate an additional 1 billion over the next three years for arms and ammunition stocks, protective equipment, anti-tank weapons, the vehicle fleet and IT and communication systems. This means that over a five-year period, a total of more than EUR 20 billion in military investments in weapon systems has been committed.

The same pattern can be seen in almost all NATO member states.

Immediately after the invasion, the German government announced that it would invest another 100 billion euros in the army this year. A growth path had already been mapped out for the German defense budget that was budgeted at 53 billion euros in 2022, an increase of 3.2% compared to the previous year. The war in Ukraine means that not since the defeat of the ‘Third Reich’, will so much money be invested in the military apparatus in such a short time. Chancellor Scholtz said his country would immediately increase its military budget to above 2% of GDP, up from 1.53% now.

In the Dutch coalition agreement of December 2021, it was already agreed that a structural additional 3 billion euros would be added for defense, to reach 1.85% of GDP in 2024. According to recent reports, the Rutte government is working on a plan to go to 2% of GDP in order to respond to a parliamentary motion that was passed with a large majority.

On March 16, the Italian parliament voted by a large majority to increase the military budget from 1.41% to 2% of GDP, or from 29.8 billion euros to 41 billion euros.

Although the US already spends astronomically high amounts on the military apparatus - almost 40% of global military expenditure - Washington is also planning another billion-dollar injection. US President Biden proposes increasing the military budget for the next fiscal year (starting this fall) to $813 billion, which would be an increase of $31 billion in one year.

French President Macron, who is in full electoral battle, has announced that the already planned increase in the military budget should be increased, without however giving details. According to the French military programming law (2019-2025), a strong budget increase is already foreseen. In 2025, military resources must be increased to 50 billion euros, compared to 41 billion euros this year. So probably a few billion more.

Spain, Denmark, Poland and Romania are also announcing major budget increases. Poland even wants to go to 3% of GDP next year (compared to 2.2% this year).

NATO member states together accounted for $1,049 billion in military expenditure in 2021. With the announced budget increases, many tens of billions will be added.

Russia’s military budget is about $62 billion, which is 17 times less than NATO’s military resources. Russia is unlikely to follow in the new arms race, as Moscow already spent 4.3% of GDP on military spending last year. With the sanctions on top, it looks like there’s little margin left for further increases. This suggests that the military imbalance of power with NATO will become much greater. The question therefore arises as to why all these extra military resources are needed in the NATO member states? It seems that NATO is preparing for a possible new superpower confrontation. NATO defines not only Russia, but also China as a ‘systemic rival’.

European ‘Peace Facility’ for Ukraine

A few days after the Russian invasion, the Council of the European Union decided to allow EUR 450 million worth of arms supplies to the Ukrainian army through the so-called ‘peace facility’ that came into effect at the end of March 2021. On March 23, 2022, the Council doubled the amount, so that eventually 900 million euros in arms can be supplied.

The Peace Facility was created to finance military missions and support to third countries under the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). The EUR 5 billion planned for the period 2021-2027 will be realized outside the EU budget. After all, according to the EU Treaty, expenditure in support of military operations must be financed with separate contributions from the Member States.

EU Member States have the right to supply weapons under the ‘right of self-defence’ provided for in Article 51 of the UN Charter. The ‘Common Position’, which regulates arms exports from the EU, also allows this in the context of self-defence. In contrast, both the Peace Facility and the Common Position impose restrictions. For example, arms transfers must not prolong or aggravate the conflict (Common Position criterion 3), which is difficult to assess in this existing war. Arms deliveries could greatly enhance the Ukrainian army’s strike capability to bring a swift end to the war. Conversely, arms deliveries can effectively prolong and aggravate the conflict.

Criterion 7 states that the weapons must not fall into the hands of ‘undesirable’ end users. That could be Russian troops in the event that they overpower Ukrainian troops, weapons that are distributed to civilians, or weapons that end up with ‘undesirable’ militias when the fighting becomes ‘unconventional’. In the event of Russian forces being expelled, such militias could target the Russian minority in the country or could be used to further fight the conflict with the insurgent republics (Luhansk and Donetsk).

Finally, criterion 2 states that the weapons may not be delivered if there is a risk that they will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law. In addition to the reporting of Russian war crimes, there have already been reports of members of the Ukrainian army committing war crimes.

Similar provisions are also included in the Q&A of the European External Action Service which regulates arms transfers under the peace facility. However, the Council has not taken a public position on all these possible consequences of arms transfers. A concept note has been leaked that lists the above-mentioned risks, including restrictive measures, such as the provision that the weapons may not end up with entities other than the Ukrainian army. However, President Zelensky has stated at the start of the Russian aggression that Kiev will provide weapons to any civilian willing to fight.

Billions of arms deliveries to Ukraine

A large flow of weapons has been making its way to Ukraine since 2014, with the US as the main supplier. Between 2014 and 2021, the US provided at least $2.5 billion in weapons and military aid. More than $1 billion has been added since the Russian war. The Czech Republic, Poland, France, Turkey and the United Kingdom have also been supplying arms to the Ukrainian armed forces for several years, and it cannot be ruled out that they have been deployed against the insurgent rebel republics in the Donbass region.

Since the Russian invasion, arms deliveries have increased in intensity and volume. Most NATO member states (and some EU member states) have announced the delivery of defensive as well as offensive weapon systems. Belgium has stated that it will deliver 5,000 machine guns and 200 anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian army.

The United Kingdom is one of the most active arms suppliers in this war, ranging from anti-tank and other missile systems, armored vehicles and artillery to associated ammunition. London is also committed to the delivery of eight naval vessels and a £1.7 billion frigate.

If you go over the list, you will arrive at hundreds of millions of euros in weapons and other military support.

Arms industry

Rising military budgets and massive military aid to Ukraine provide billions in revenue for the military industry. In January, a month before the outbreak of hostilities across Ukraine, US arms giants Raytheon and Lockheed Martin openly stated to their investors that the tensions “will make more business” for the arms companies. Raytheon supplies Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and together with Lockheed Martin the Javelin anti-tank missiles. Both companies are among the top five arms giants to have pumped $60 million into influencing US politics by 2020. In Washington, the arms industry employs 700 lobbyists, which is more than the number of Congressmen. At least 19 of those Congressmen have bought shares of both arms giants, some of them after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Even before the outbreak of large-scale hostilities, the global military industry was predicted to grow by 7% in 2022 (from $453 billion to $483 billion). Western Europe would become the fastest growing market according to these forecasts. The military bidding with rising budgets means that the predicted increase in turnover will turn out to be a serious underestimate. Two weeks after the invasion, arms companies’ shares rose sharply. Shares of Raytheon rose by 8%, General Dynamics by 12%, Lockheed Martin by 18% and Northrop Grumman even by 22%. British BAE Systems saw its shares rise by 14% in the first week after the Russian invasion.

Rising military budgets and arms supplies are a boon to the arms industry, but are having negative repercussions on negotiations and diplomacy. If one side believes in military victory thanks to these deliveries, it could lead to a very bloody prolongation of the war in eastern Ukraine.

This article has been translated by and published in END info


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