EU looks to increase its defense, Ukraine support against Russia

A man moves flags of European Union countries as he prepares for an upcoming EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on March 20, 2024. [AP Photo]

European Union leaders meet Thursday in Brussels amid growing calls for Europe to drastically ramp up its defense spending and industry, as Russia gains ground in Ukraine and fears grow that Moscow will not stop there if it wins the war.

The two-day summit will also address other contentious issues, including the war in Gaza, future EU members, and immigration. But Ukraine and boosting the bloc’s defense readiness top the agenda.

Backdropping the meeting is a grim assessment from European Council President Charles Michel, urging EU member states to shift to a “war economy” mode, along with a growing sense that Europe must go it alone, at least for now, as billions of dollars in U.S. aid for Ukraine remains blocked in Congress.

“If we do not get the EU’s response right, and do not give Ukraine enough support to stop Russia, we are next,” Michel warned in an opinion piece published in European media Monday. “If we want peace, we must prepare for war,” he added.

“I think we are finally seeing that the EU is getting serious about defense,” Kristi Raik, deputy director for Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security policy center, told BBC’s Newshour, reacting to Michel’s comments.

“There is a real risk that Ukraine might be defeated in this war,” she added. “And we all agree in Europe that this means that the threat of war coming to us is actually something real — and we need to prepare for that and prevent that from happening.”

The wake-up call is being met with a flurry of proposals. At the summit, EU leaders will consider Michel’s suggestion to use billions of dollars in profits from frozen Russian assets to purchase more weapons for Ukraine. The measure, endorsed by many foreign ministers this week, will require unanimous consent to pass.

More than a dozen EU members also signed a letter calling on the European Investment Bank to change its policy on defense investment, to allow items like munitions and weapons. Earlier this week, Brussels approved an additional $5.4 billion to support Ukraine’s military. And more than a dozen European countries have signed up to a Czech initiative to buy artillery shells for Ukraine outside the bloc, as a stopgap to the bloc’s lagging production.

“Europe is waking up,” analyst Raik said.

Can’t be weak

Calls for sharply ramping up Europe’s defense preparedness have long sounded from Raik’s Estonia and other EU member states with proximity to Russia — and bitter memories of the Soviet empire. Now, they are increasingly being echoed by Western ones as well.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron — who once warned against humiliating Russian President Vladimir Putin — sparked surprise and pushback by suggesting the EU might send Western forces to Ukraine. He stood by that suggestion last week, while noting it was not currently on the table.

Russia’s war on Ukraine was “existential for our Europe and France,” Macron told French TV, warning a victory by Moscow would mean “we have no security.” To have peace in Ukraine, he added, “we must not be weak.”

Respected French analyst Francois Heisbourg said the shift in Macron’s stance began months earlier, shaped by several factors. Among them: British and French cruise missiles, reportedly supplied to Kyiv, which helped to break Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — Kyiv’s only big victory last year, he believes.

Heisbourg also supports Macron’s ambivalence in not ruling out European boots on Ukraine's soil.

“We have to stop telling the Russians we’re not going to do this, and we’re not going to do that,” he said of the Europeans. “That is strategically unwise. You never give something for nothing in strategy.”

While Germany has adopted a more cautious stance, it is still Ukraine’s second biggest military aid supplier, after the United States. On Tuesday, Berlin announced another $542 million in support for Ukraine, including shells, armored transport and vehicles — although it still balks at delivering long-demanded Taurus missiles.

The two European heavyweights, along with many other EU NATO members, have also pledged to meet the alliance’s 2 percent GDP spending target this year, some for the first time.

Europe must beef up its collective spending to 3 percent of GDP by 2030, Heisbourg believes, to prepare for a potential Russian invasion of an EU member state — and for a more "transactional” relationship with Washington, regardless of who becomes the next American president. U.S. presidential elections are set for November 5.

After three decades of “moving back from the Cold War,” Europe now faces “a world of great power military confrontation” including in Asia and the Middle East, Heisbourg said. “And we are simply not prepared for that kind of war.”

 

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