Europe has lost the next world war before it has even begun

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2024. © Richard Kemp

Even in the face of Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, European governments failed to take seriously the possibility that, one day, war on the continent might affect them directly. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have blithely redistributed the so-called peace dividend to other areas of spending while slashing their armed forces. The wake-up call came two years ago this weekend when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, but it doesn’t seem like the alarm was loud enough. Has Europe lost the next world war before it has even begun?

Despite Ukraine’s First and Second World War-style battlefields, which remind us of the continuing need for ground forces on a large scale, the British Government has continued to reduce the size of our army. Not long after the war began, Germany said that it would increase defence spending to achieve the Nato minimum 2 per cent of GDP, but that still hasn’t been achieved and the ambition is, in any case, pathetic compared to the scale of the threat. Similar stories abound throughout Europe, with one of the few exceptions being Poland, which is increasing defence spending to 4 per cent of GDP.

Then there is Europe’s atrophied armaments industry. The EU promised a year ago to supply a million artillery shells to Ukraine by next month. It has delivered less than half that number so far. European manufacturers barely have the production capacity to prevent Ukrainian forces from collapsing entirely, let alone permit their own militaries to fight a war. Meanwhile, Russia has massively increased its long range missile and artillery shell output, is churning out 100 tanks a month, and is rapidly increasing defence spending. It has supplemented its own armaments production with an estimated 1 million artillery shells from North Korea and thousands of attack drones from Iran.

Even now, some Europeans seem to believe that this does not matter very much, that their complacency will have no practical cost because America will ride to their rescue. Well, that may no longer be such a safe bet. Successive presidents have complained about American taxpayers having to subsidise European under-spending, and none more so than Donald Trump. European leaders need to start making real plans to fight for themselves should Putin decide to flex his muscles in the direction of Nato.

But there is perhaps an even greater threat to European defence dependency than a disgruntled US president. That is China. If President Xi Jinping launches an invasion, or even a blockade, against Taiwan, the US military would likely become heavily committed in supporting its ally. There is every reason to believe that would be the moment for Putin to make a move against an Eastern European Nato member state, calculating that America would be overstretched and unable to deploy rapid reinforcements even if it wanted to.

Then add Iran into the equation. Tehran is on the cusp of gaining nuclear capability and has an extensive network of terrorist proxies around the Middle East that have been threatening the US and its allies for years. We have already seen how Iran is able to coordinate its proxies to tie down American forces. A single day of attacks on Israel by Iran’s proxy Hamas, together with rocket firing from Lebanon by Hezbollah, another proxy, was enough for the US to deploy two carrier strike groups to the region as a deterrent. A third Iranian proxy group, the Houthis in Yemen, then began a campaign of attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea. This aggression has tied up immense US naval and air assets.

China, Russia and Iran form a deadly axis that, if acting in concert, could present the US and its allies with a terrible dilemma. Should that happen during the coming few years, European countries may have no choice but to stand on their own feet or go under.

But would Western European countries send their young men and women to fight and die to defend an Eastern European Nato member, even if they managed to build the combat power to do so? When Joe Biden decided to pull US forces out of Afghanistan in 2021, the then British defence secretary Ben Wallace said that he tried to create a coalition from the other Nato members deployed there to remain in place. There were no takers. And despite immense damage to European and global trade from the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, only one European nation, Britain, has been willing to join the US in offensive action to stop it.

Over many years, European countries have become too accustomed to a comfortable life. Values like pride in the nation have been allowed to wither, and I fear that a great many people would no longer be willing to make any sacrifices whatsoever in order to protect our freedom and way of life. Our societies also lack endurance: witness how quickly some European countries wanted to find an ‘off-ramp’ for Putin, rather than throwing themselves wholeheartedly into supporting Ukraine.

Most of them would like nothing better now than for the war to end, even knowing that this would mean a defeat not just for Ukraine but also for Nato. And after Hamas’s massacre last October, it didn’t take long for European governments to start demanding a ceasefire from Israel before it eliminates the threat to its citizens.

Compromise and vacillation is the only language Europe seems to understand. History shows us that serves only to provoke opponents like Russia, China and Iran who have no compunction about exploiting such weaknesses.