The room in Oslo on 16 September was not exactly packed, only a handful of journalists attended a press conference of Admiral Rob Bauer, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee (CMC)[i]. Pity, as CMC was reporting on the Chiefs of Defence meeting that just discussed something rather important: the executability of collective defence plans. The military in all 31 Allied nations (and Sweden) are right now implementing the unprecedented tasks (set to them by the July Vilnius summit) which go to the core of NATO’s raison d’etre: keeping Allied territory safe and secure during the time of the biggest aggression in Europe since 1945. And it is not an exaggeration to say that Russia is not just trying to wipe Ukraine off the map but is de facto engaged in a global confrontation (abetted in one way or another by such states Belarus, China, Iran, North Korea) with the democratic Western community.
NATO making progress on collective defence posture
CMC was reporting some good news, emphasizing substantial work in the NATO framework. It involves efforts to achieve higher level of readiness by more Allied troops, building up capabilities, adaptation of the Allied command and control arrangements, improving enablement elements, as well as doing more exercises and training. Steadfast Defender 2024 is a case in point – it will be the largest collective defence exercise since the end of the Cold war. Next year it will bring together more than forty thousand troops from majority of Alliance members focusing on one thing: testing the ability of Allies to fight a major war started against NATO. The time for tiptoeing round the threat of such a conflict is gone.
But Admiral Bauer had other messages to share too – and those fall in the category of hard truths. In view of such a clear an imminent threat the whole-of-society defence approach, he argued, must apply also to preventing war through resilience and deterrence. In this context, he openly shared serious concerns of the top Allied military: defence and security sector is not switched on yet to the emergency mode required by the situation. Production capacity has still not caught up after years of neglect and complacency, delivery times for military equipment and ammunition are getting longer, while prices are going steadily up.
Depleted stocks will not replenish themselves
During the questions and answers part of the press conference CMC was even more direct. To move from the current availability of 40k high-readiness Allied troops to the needed target of 300k a lot of changes have to happen now. [ii]One of the more essential required transformations is a shift in mentality of funding defence industry investments. Companies (like the societies they are part of) cannot take peace for granted and war (as shown graphically in the case of Ukraine) can destroy in a matter of days the industrial production base. If our countries want to continue helping Ukraine winning the war against Russia (which is what they claim loudly in public) and increase our own military readiness, they must replenish the ammunition stocks quickly and step-up defence production now (and not in 5 or 10 years from today). Investors (which for example often include pension funds), argued CMC further, must break with a false hesitation to invest in defence for allegedly ethical reasons. Defence is not only a rational decision, but a moral imperative.
The link between assisting Ukraine – a country fighting for its life – and investing in own defence is crystal clear. Donor countries (especially frontier states in Central Eastern Europe) cannot be giving away weapons to Ukraine under a constant fear that their own level of military readiness will suffer. This was acknowledged by NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, during his visit to Kyiv on 29 September. He praised Ukrainian heroism while observing: “But courage alone does not stop drones, heroism alone cannot intercept missiles. Ukraine needs capabilities, high quality, high quantity, and quickly,” Mr Stoltenberg said, adding that “there is no defence without industry.”[iii]
He admitted that at the beginning of the war many Allies have depleted their stocks and hence there was an urgent need to come up with new initiatives. This is the reason for adopting the so-called NATO’s Defence Production Action Plan to aggregate demand and increase interoperability. The initiative has matured sufficiently to allow for announcing “framework contracts for €2.4 billion worth of key ammunition, including €1 billion of firm orders to cover capabilities such as 155-millimetre artillery, anti-tank guided missiles, and main battle tank ammunition.”
Allies must show readiness to fight a potential war
These are welcome steps – but the path towards recreating overall ability of NATO to fight a big fight, if needed, has only begun. As international experts gathered by Pulaski Foundation argue in the report prepared especially for upcoming the Warsaw Security Forum, to walk such a path successfully there has to be a “a paradigm shift in defence posture of the Western community” to alleviate “the deficiencies and weaknesses of the European and Western defence capabilities” which Russia’s aggression has exposed. The goal “should be to recreate the will and capability of the Western community to prepare for the eventuality of fighting a high-intensity war on the European continent”[iv]
How to achieve it without sufficiently significant defence expenditure increases in many G7 Allied countries (think Canada, Germany, or Italy for example)? What needs to happen to force decision-makers to persuade the general public that war against Ukraine and any future wars are not just a job for the military, but are also about industrial capacity and a form of economic mobilization which is indispensable to fill-in currently hollowed-out armed forces? And that even the crucial decision to award long-term and substantial contracts may not be enough when “most of the raw materials necessary for the production of military products are not mined or are minimally mined in EU countries today,’ and that for some items in short supply ‘prices are astronomical’”?[v] These are not academic questions, but problems of fundamental importance for security policy that need to be tackled urgently.
Russia is weakened but regime wants to continue the confrontation
Russia under Putin is corrupt and inept in many departments, including in military efficiency. Sanctions are biting, they restrict the regime’s ability to finance the war, depriving it of easy access to modern technologies. But other authoritarian regimes (and a number of more democratic states, out of pure economic short-term profit motive) are helping Moscow to evade sanctions. And the Kremlin is stopping at nothing in its quest to mobilize the Russian society for confrontation, lying on a massive scale to convince ordinary Russians that it is the West that is waging the war against Russia, not the other way round. Its propagandists are busy every day building fantasy intellectual realities, in which Russia (a country responsible for war crimes and genocidal policies) is allegedly engaged in a mortal and just combat against perfidious hegemonistic powers. [vi]
And, as the regime does not care at all for its own people, it is willing to wager the country’s future in pursuit of predatory war of barbarism and attrition. Hence nobody should be surprised that the Russian authorities have decided to head in the direction that its predecessor, the Soviet Union took in 1980s. Thus, defence spending is climbing steadily from 2,7% of GDP in 2022, through 3,9% in 2023 to projected 6% in 2024.[vii] [vii] Taken together with an extensive militarisation of the Russian economy it means that, according to various estimates, even a hampered Russian production system will be able to deliver 1m-2m shells next year, on top of the existing stock of 5m new and refurbished shells.[viii]
In short: there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Moscow wants to end its conflict against Ukraine and the West anytime soon. It is trying to do the exact opposite, counting that our collective capacities will only reach significant proportions by the end of next year, or 2025. It was good to hear President Zelensky on 30 September announcing creation of the Defence Industries Alliance which would invest in production capacity in Ukraine [ix] – but it is obvious that such plans would involve significant risks (location of production in a de facto war zone). They would also take time to materialise and would not resolve the overall problems of Allied nations.
These are serious challenges, without a doubt. To complicate matters further the elections in various Allied countries may result in outcomes that could hamper a determination to take tough decisions essential for collective defence (vide the case of Slovakia). One could also not discount the possibility of suddenly emerging crises. After all, Allied territories (vide Russian drones entering Romanian territory or threats of a blockade of Bulgarian economic zone in the Black Sea) are already directly endangered by Moscow’s brinkmanship.
No time to lose
Time is thus of essence. The sooner our self-declared adversary will be confronted with tangible evidence of our enhanced capabilities, the more reluctant will it be to test our resolve. There should not be any doubts that the collective West has all it takes – resources, organisation, technological acumen and most importantly, the motivation – to get the upper hand in an unwanted confrontation with the predator that Russia has become. But it must generate the will to use its potential quickly.
Author: Robert Pszczel, Resident Fellow Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] NATO – Opinion: Joint press conference by Chair of the Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer and the Norwegian Chief of Defence, General Eirik Kristoffersen following the meeting of the Military Committee in Chiefs of Defence Session, Oslo, Norway, 16-Sep.-2023
[ii] Press conference at the NATO Military Committee Conference, 16 September 2023, Oslo, Norway – YouTube
[iii] NATO – News: NATO Secretary General addresses first International Defence Industry Forum in Kyiv: there is no defence without industry, 29-Sep.-2023
[iv] 2023WSF Report – Warsaw Security Forum
[v] Quote in The Guns of Europe: Defence- industrial Challenges in a Time of War (iiss.org)
[vi] See Dmitry Trenin Не «против», а «за» — Россия в глобальной политике (globalaffairs.ru)
[vii] Russia plans 26% rise in budget spending in 2024 election year | Reuters
[viii] Figures cited by The Economist, 23 September 2023, p.19
[ix] Zelensky announces creation of Defense Industries Alliance (ukrinform.net)