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The Russian Military Looks Like a Joke. Why Can’t Europe Defend Europe?

NATO M1 Abrams in Poland
U.S. Army M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank variation fires at a target at Bucierz Range at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, August 11, 2020. DEFENDER-Europe 20 was designed as a deployment exercise to build strategic readiness in support of the U.S. National Defense Strategy and NATO deterrence objectives. In response to COVID-19, DEFENDER-Europe 20 was modified in size and scope. Phase I of the modified DEFENDER-Europe 20 was linked to exercise Allied Spirit, which took place at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, June 5-19 with approximately 6,000 U.S. and Polish Soldiers. In phase II of the modified DEFENDER-Europe 20, a U.S.-based combined arms battalion will conduct an emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise to Europe July 14-Aug. 22.

One of the more frustrating aspects of U.S. foreign policy is the ritual hand-holding of Europe. Since the end of World War II, through the Cold War, and continuing in the decades after the Cold War, the U.S. has been Europe’s primary defender. Such a fact should register as deeply strange – shouldn’t Europe be the primary defender of Europe? – yet it has been accepted as a routine and necessary facet of the U.S. defense posture.

Russia’s Paltry Military Budget

The U.S. has the largest defense budget in world history. Last year, the U.S. military budget was $778 billion. China registered a distant second, spending $252 billion. Meanwhile Russia spent just $61 billion on their military – less than one-tenth of U.S. expenditures. 

Russia’s defense budget should raise several questions – questions such as, how much of a threat do they really pose? Are we overspending on NATO? Does the U.S. really need to be so involved in Europe? After all, Western Europe’s three most powerful states – the UK, Germany, and France, NATO members all – spend $59 billion, $52 billion, and $52 billion on their militaries respectively. One might expect that when the defense spending of just three NATO members roughly triples the defense spending of Russia, the United States need not be so heavily invested.

Instead, the U.S. has pressured its European allies to increase their defense spending. That pressure did not start with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – it has been going on for a long time. Nor has it ever really been suggested that the U.S. draw down their spending in Europe – only that European countries match the U.S. contribution to European defense. 

Seeing the Light

U.S. presidents dating back to Eisenhower have scolded Europe for not properly contributing to the defense of Europe, and for overburdening America with the task. Donald Trump made waves during the 2016 campaign because he was so openly critical of how blatantly NATO took advantage of the U.S. Trump angered our allies when he threatened not to honor Article 5 unless the nation in need had reached a threshold military contribution relative to their GDP. Trump was wrong to propose conditioning Article 5 on a spending benchmark – but he was correct in asserting that Europe should be defending Europe. What Trump never proposed, however, what never found its way into the conversation, was that perhaps the U.S. should be spending less on European defense. 

Andrew Bacevich, an outspoken critic of U.S. overinvestment in European defense, wrote eloquently about his conversion from a U.S. Army Cold Warrior into his present, enlightened state. “My own education did not commence until I had reached middle age. I can fix its start date with precision: For me, education began in Berlin, on a winter’s evening, at the Brandenburg Gate, not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen,” Bacevich wrote. “Whatever I had expected, what I actually found was a cluster of shabby-looking young men, not German, hawing badges, medallions, hats, bits of uniform, and other artifacts of the mighty Red Army. It was all junk, cheaply made and shoddy. For a handful of deutsche marks, I bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet armored corps. Within days, it ceased to work.” Bacevich made similar insights during an Army trip into East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain.

“Although commonly depicted as the most advanced and successful component of the Soviet Empire, East Germany more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world,” Bacevich wrote in Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. “The roads – even the main highways – were narrow and visibly crumbling … the villages through which we passed were forlorn and the small farms down at the heels … we noted a significant Soviet military presence, mostly in the form of trucks passing by – to judge by their appearance, designs that dated from the 1950s.”

The ultimate point: The Soviet Union was hollowed-out and weak, hardly worth the immense U.S. military attention. The point holds today, as the Russian military struggles to overtake a fledgling, under-equipped, unsophisticated Ukrainian force. The Russian threat has been overblown. And so has U.S. spending on European defense. 

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Michael Nunez

    August 10, 2022 at 9:48 pm

    As a US Tax Payer my whole life it is sickening that Europe shamelessly begs Americans time and time again to bail them out . History clearly shows this has been a major mistake . Europeans have caused 2 World Wars that America has had to fight . Europe is just not worth the blood or the amount of Tax Payer Money America has paid .

  2. Scottfs

    August 11, 2022 at 12:17 am

    It has been apparent for decades the Europe, especially and particularly Germany, has been a welfare state, forcing American taxpayers to cough up billions while they blithely scarf strudel and Viennese coffee down their fat throats, and laugh at the stupid Americans.

    I was greatly surprised and wonderfully gratified when President Trump told Germany if Russia invades, the fat, arrogant, lazy, welfare case Germany was on its own.

    We see its feckless behavior continue when they balk at sending anything to assist Ukraine.

    It is now time to kick Germany out of NATO, close our bases, and station not a single American in Germany.

    It would gave been interesting to see a Russo-German war. Putin would have made mincemeat out of the German military, and been in Berlin in two days.

    Get rid of this useless dead weight!

  3. Jack

    August 11, 2022 at 12:53 am

    Totally agree with your article. 200, 000 European NATO troops should go to Ukraine to immediately to push the Russians out of Ukraine. I’m confident that the European NATO troops could accomplish that easily .how do I know ?because the Europeans are very smart. how do I know that? because the Europeans tell us all the time how much smarter they are than the Americans.

  4. marcjf

    August 11, 2022 at 3:35 am

    It is pretty clear that Russia ought not to be able to present any sort of conventional threat to the European nations who are members of NATO. However years of hollowed out defence budgets and mis-spending of what was left, has created a mirage of a defence. Possibly only Poland takes defence seriously. The once mighty Bundeswehr is a joke. The British and French have re-orientated towards low intensity sandbox wars. It will take a decade or more to rebuild European militaries to present a credible conventional deterrent.

    Meanwhile only the UK and France possess nuclear weapons, but other nations might now seek to acquire them. The EU’s ambitions to be a military superpower complicate matters, given its undemocratic and unaccountable structure, headed by third rate has been failed political hacks.

  5. JonSEAZ

    August 11, 2022 at 7:49 am

    My six years of active military service focused upon Asia, not Europe. However, as a civilian in 1981, my wife, young son, and I traveled for a year, some in Asia, but mostly in Europe. We saw in our train ride into Berlin, and later during our visit into East Berlin, the same conditions as were seen by Dr. Bacevich.

    Our defense spending in general, and our NATO spending in particular, is generated by defense industry lobbying, not by any overriding need for the actual defense of American soil. While I am not by any means a fan of Eisenhower, he called it correctly when he identified to the American public the military-industrial complex.

    Today, we have allowed develop many such “complexes,” each a lobbying power unto themselves. Our national government truly has become a corporatist enterpirse, rather than a system to protect and govern the nation. Our foreign policies serve corporatist interests, not the best interests of the American people and nation.

    As an old man, I (and many others, too, I suspect) have lost trust in our most cherished institutions, including congress, the judiciary, and the executive, including our national civil service and the federal alphabet agencies. My faith also has eroded in our national press establishment, our educational institutions, and organized religions.

    As all these organizations are created and supported by mankind at large, and therefore simply mirror the society which supports them, I suppose I should say that my faith has eroded in present-day western society.

  6. johnnie

    August 11, 2022 at 8:10 am

    Because that would mean a Third German World War.

  7. Ivan Blutarsky

    August 11, 2022 at 9:27 am

    Follow the money. Hundreds of billions of tax payer dollars personally enriching corrupt politicians and their puppet masters.

  8. tired

    August 11, 2022 at 9:51 am

    Your question answers itself.

  9. T

    August 11, 2022 at 10:37 am

    Freedom is not free. Everyone knows Russia and China lie about their military budgets. Grossly understated. What does it cost to build a military base on a coral reef? The new “Axis of Evil” aligned against the USA grows stronger every day – from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea etc… Since we print our own money, what better way to spend it abroad than defensive goodies for our “allies?” The problem is not in our spending but in our appeasers and enablers – such as Kerry et Al and their policies of enabling those who wish us harm (cash for Iran, Russia, Mexico, China trade policies etc). Mixed signals and the lack of will to win are our true weakness. Sometimes a child needs to be taught by falling down…that is the lesson EUR is learning from Ukraine and Russian energy policies against them. Sad that the same can’t be taught to Canada…

  10. tedh754

    August 11, 2022 at 10:41 am

    I was part of NATO 74-76. It should have been disbanded in the 90s. Let Europe defend Europe.

  11. David Jones

    August 11, 2022 at 10:52 am

    Europe doesn’t want to defend Europe because that would require major dinars to build a military that could go on the offensive. That means a lot more air, sea, and land weapons, not to mention that manpower to complete the offense minded military. All those ‘freebies’ would be cut to build bombers, fighters, air transport, choppers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, tanks, etc, etc.

    If the US decided to pull out of NATO, Europeans would HAVE to spend money on their military or learn to speak Russian/Chinese in a hurry.

  12. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 11, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    The US should leave NATO, they don’t need us, and defending the Islamic Dictatorship of Turkey is strategically counter productive. This wouldn’t prevent America from helping where it’s wanted, it would just force Europe to provide for their own defense.
    The resources being used for the defense of Europe could then be reallocated to arming the 1st island chain around the China Sea, in preparation for imposing a Strategic Blockade on Communist China.

  13. Mario

    August 11, 2022 at 2:44 pm

    “The Russian Military Looks Like A Joke”.
    Exactly: looks like! How many wars have won recently the US? None?
    San lucas 6:37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged”

  14. Pa l

    August 11, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    Russia has no intention of “conquering” Ukraine and occupying it. Their focus is on destroying the Ukraine military while keeping their casualties as low as possible. Thus Ukraine’s is nuetered. And it’s working.

  15. Neviss

    August 11, 2022 at 6:03 pm

    US politicians learned long ago that it’s cheaper to buy friends than conduct a war — and risk the political fallout. It’s the reason we give billions in foreign “aid” to several countries that, frankly, hate us. Plus, like welfare bums, they soon become dependent on our cash and are more easily manipulated.

  16. wizwor

    August 11, 2022 at 6:32 pm

    Afghanistan? Since the end of WWII when has a ‘super power’ won a war? Paper tigers.

  17. Von Hemmingen

    August 11, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    The secret that no one remembers anymore is the purpose of NATO is to control Germany. The bureaucrats in Brussels are what stands in the way of German dominance of Europe itself.

  18. BareFoot

    August 11, 2022 at 7:58 pm

    this spending is Rothschilds oriented. the City of London bankers run Chia through Shanghai (ex; HSBC) and once again they are on both sides of the next war positioned to profit

  19. Paul Tysinger

    August 11, 2022 at 9:46 pm

    Germany admits to having no functioning military yet we are expected to sacrifice American lives and enormous amounts of money to protect them.The smug Europeans spend their idle time criticizing the U.S. but bury their heads when trouble begins.We have been in Korea for 70 years, to what purpose ? Our military is scattered all over the world at enormous cost.And now we are supposed to die for Sweden and Finland.Europe and Scandinavia have the resources to defend themselves.They are just lacking the spine.

  20. truthalwayswinsout

    August 12, 2022 at 2:57 am

    The only solution is they must pay what they agreed to pay. And they must also make up for all the prior years when they did not.

    Same goes for the likes of Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines and anyone else who expects us to come running when the shtf.

    If they all paid it would be easy to impose serious sanctions on the likes of Russia and Communist China and simply end constant military expansion.

    With a real boycott against Communist China the Communists would be out of power in 60 days.

  21. RefJoe

    August 12, 2022 at 8:40 am

    The stated mission of NATO was to stop the spread of Soviet communism.

    Mission accomplished.

    Time to disband NATO. Let Europeans defend Europe.

  22. Simon

    August 13, 2022 at 5:30 am

    The US military industrial complex would never be where it is now without NATO and Europe. There have been talks for decades to form an integrated European military structure, but the US never supported that idea since a strong military in Europe would decay their influence on the old continent. It would also reinforce the European military industrial complex and make it more independent from US military equipment. If the US calls on NATO allies to spend more on their military without supporting a European integrated military, it is simply for the profit of its own military industry.

  23. Lindsay

    September 24, 2022 at 10:48 pm

    I agree with everything said here. I’m sick of these ungrateful European leeches who have been hanging on Uncle Sam’s nuts for defense for the past EIGHT decades!

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