Central and Eastern Europe want more security clout. Will increased spending be enough?

A Polish soldier walks next to the Leopard 2 tanks during a training at a military base and test range in Swietoszow, Poland, Feb. 13, 2023.
A Polish soldier walks next to the Leopard 2 tanks during a training at a military base and test range in Swietoszow, Poland, Feb. 13, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk
By David Hutt
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A coalition of eastern European countries led by Poland and Estonia is also calling for NATO members to increase the spending benchmark.

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Poland is set to push the envelope again when NATO defence ministers meet in Brussels on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said his country would be open to supplying Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets but only if other NATO members agree, something the US, UK and Germany are reportedly against.

But Warsaw may get its way, as it did with Leopard II tanks. Its constant pressure on Berlin to allow the re-export of the tanks led the government to eventually acquiesce on January 25.

But it's not the only issue Warsaw is also pushing among the alliance.

A coalition of eastern European countries led by Poland and Estonia is also calling for NATO members to increase the spending benchmark from 2 per cent of GDP — as was agreed in 2014, but of which only nine of the 30 members achieved by 2022 — to 2.5 per cent or even 3 per cent.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told German newspaper Die Welt last month that a new spending pledge will be debated at a summit in Vilnius in July.

Several countries from Central and Eastern Europe — a region known in academic circles by the initialisation “CEE” — are stealing a march.

"The war in Ukraine has made us arm ourselves even faster, which is why we will make an unprecedented effort: 4 per cent of GDP for the Polish army this year," Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said at a press conference in late January.

Not only would that make Poland NATO’s most profligate spender by percentage of GDP — the US spent 3.47 per cent last year on defence —, the country also plans to soon boast Europe’s largest army.

Higher defence speding

Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak recently laid out plans to grow the military to 250,000 professional soldiers and 50,000 territorial reservists. France, by comparison, has around 200,000 active troops.

Romania’s defence budget is expected to reach 2.5 per cent this year, while the three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — want to get to that level over the next few years. Lithuania says it will do so in 2023.

The Czech government meanwhile approved a draft law in early January to fix defence spending of at least 2 per cent annually. Petr Pavel, a former NATO commander, was elected president of the Czech Republic late last month.

If Berlin keeps its 2 per cent promise, made in early 2022, it could overtake the UK as NATO’s second-highest real-term spender, behind the US. Germany’s spending would be 2 per cent of a GDP totalling $4.2 trillion, whereas Poland would be spending 4 per cent of around $679 billion, according to government figures from 2022.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, Europe’s military powerhouses have been Atlantic-fringed and mostly non-continental: the UK and France were the biggest spenders and the least averse to using their militaries abroad; Britain in the Middle East and France in Africa.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hubris in invading Ukraine almost twelve months ago has spurred a European “revolution” in defence spending. Even frugal Ireland, which typically pledges just 0.3 per cent of GDP to defence, has made promises to radically increase military budgets.

Eastern countries and weapons for Ukraine

Yet the centre of security power in Europe is shifting eastwards. Aside from more money for militaries, new NATO battlegroups have been sent to the Baltics and the Balkans since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Sweden and Finland should be able to join the defence alliance later this year. Several countries, including Ukraine, have put in bids to join the European Union, which has a mutual-defence clause, albeit weaker than NATO’s.

Governments that were once side-eyed by their European partners for being too hawkish, like Poland and the Baltics, are now seen as the realists at the table.

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The surge in spending is partly the result of prudent fear about the Ukraine war, Calle Håkansson, an associate fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Europe Programme, told Euronews.

Because CEE states are physically closer to the action and would be most at risk if Putin makes the — highly unlikely — decision of attacking a NATO member, it’s only natural that they're more self-conscious than France or Germany, which have buffer states between themselves and Russia.

Most CEE countries have also contributed a comparatively higher share of their weapons with Ukraine, and they now need to replace these weapons systems, which demands more spending.

They also know that the United States and the United Kingdom have provided much equipment to Kyiv and are running low themselves, so now have fewer means to help, say, Latvia or Moldova if they were threatened.

In real monetary terms, non-CEE states still have the edge. However, higher defence spending has taken place amid a comparatively worse inflation crisis in Europe’s east. Whereas the cost of living has risen by an average of 10 per cent in the Eurozone, it was between 16-17 per cent in Poland and the Czech Republic, for instance, at the end of 2022.

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Estonia, Latvia and Poland have provided the most government support to Ukraine as a percentage of the donor country’s GDP, according to the Ukraine Support Tracker compiled by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a think tank.

Lithuania comes in fifth, while Slovakia and the Czech Republic are just behind the seventh-placed US. France lags behind Slovenia.

'More than pawns'

And most CEE countries also lack the mammoth defence companies of France and Germany. Much of the money to pay for Berlin’s surge in defence spending will go to German companies.

Poland and other eastern Europeans will be dependent on foreign suppliers for their military build-up, although they are also looking to spur domestic production.

Warsaw agreed a €5.2 billion deal to buy tanks and self-propelled howitzers from South Korea, now a leading military supplier to the world.

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This has its advantages. As Soviet-made systems are sent from Eastern European countries to Ukraine, new, state-of-the-art machinery is purchased to replace them. As such, it’s not just spending but modernisation for those states.

The question is: does this give Central and Eastern European states more clout? Håkansson told Euronews that we can expect them to gain “a stronger voice on defence matters in both NATO and the EU” because of their higher defence spending.

Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, a think tank, wrote recently that one takeaway from the Ukraine war is that “Eastern European countries and nations have agency and are more than pawns in the power struggles of larger players.”

Before the war, NATO presence in the eastern flank was four battalion-sized battlegroups in Poland and the three Baltic states. After Russia’s invasion, NATO decided to deploy forces also to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, and to increase these eight battlegroups to brigade-size.

“These moves signify a shift away from a ‘tripwire’ approach, and towards a focus on ‘forward defence’,” according to a report published last month by the Center for Security Analyses and Prevention (CBAP), a Czech security think tank. Put simply, eastern Europe is now longer merely a buffer.

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'Reflexive hysteria'?

Although the EU and NATO’s obligations are tilting eastwards, this could swing several ways.

Higher spending by NATO’s Eastern flank “shouldn’t provide Western and Southern Europeans with an excuse to only modestly increase their own defence investments,” Daniel Fiott, a professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Real Instituto Elcano, told Euronews.

There are signs of a wobble in Berlin, not just over the Leopard 2 tank affair. January marked the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, which established a fruitful partnership between Germany and France, but relations are now at an ebb.

“When it comes to defence, the war in Ukraine has underscored the urgent need for both countries to revise their security strategies…But instead of working together, the countries are again at odds,” Jean Pisani-Ferry, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, wrote last week in Project Syndicate.

There are also concerns about how CEE states will spend their enlarged defence budgets.

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“Many of the newly announced investment schemes reflect a lack of imagination, coupled with a degree of reflexive hysteria. Nowhere is this more visible than in the fixation on cost-ineffective ‘wonder weapons’, such as the F-35,” the CBAP report stated.

Poland, for instance, is in discussions to acquire these state-of-the-art fighter jets from America.

Another concern is that European security concerns become purely continental. France has its interests in Africa; Britain in the Middle and Far East.

Germany, like the two former colonial powers, has some sort of security ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, a region of primary economic importance in the 21st century and, also, security concerns, given fears that China might someday invade Taiwan, a conflict that would be far more impactful on global markets than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

'We need more American troops'

But CEE states remain primarily focused on countering threats from Russia. 

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On the one hand, analysts reckon that greater input from eastern Europeans could free up Western governments to focus on issues further afield. On the other hand, they might compel the likes of Berlin or Paris to focus primarily on the Russian threat.

Yet CEE governments are more accepting of the need for US power, and their publics are less “anti-American” than their more westwards neighbours. Some 91 per cent of Poles have favourable opinions of the US, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Centre, a think tank. Only 63 per cent of Germans think the same, and just 57 per cent of French.

“Europe is too weak and fragile for only one geographical region to emerge as the security guarantor of the rest. This is why the US has traditionally played the role of guarantor; it is militarily capable but also politically adept at suppressing divergences between European states,” Fiott told Euronews.

There is no single or small group of states in Europe that can become Europe’s main security guarantor; “no amount of military spending will change this situation,” he added.

In many ways, Poland is again leading the charge on this front.

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“We have been trying for months to convince our American partners that we need a permanent presence on Polish soil,” Marek Magierowski, the Polish ambassador to the US, told American media last week.

“We need more American troops.”

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