Peace Time: Trusting Russia Does Not Pay

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March 27, 2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has motivated Germany to respond to three decades of complaints that it was not fulfilling its military obligations as a NATO member. In early 2022 Germany decided to increase defense spending in each of the next five years. The 2022 defense budget will be nearly $60 billion. The 2021 defense budget was $51 billion, which was only 1.4 percent of GDP. It would have to be $72 billion to meet the NATO standard of two percent. Germany will reach that in 2023 or 2024 and keep it there at last as long as the Russian threat remains. Germany has also made some radical, for them, procurement decisions including purchasing over thirty F-35 stealth fighters to replace its remaining elderly Eurofighter Tornado jets. Germany was going to replace all the retiring Tornados with the new Typhoon but is responding to reports from other NATO members who have purchased and received F-35s and report that it is much more capable than the new Typhoon. Germany has a lot of other defense weaknesses that need tending to.

Since the 1990s Germany has ignored complaints from its allies that Germany was failing to maintain sufficient defense spending to maintain its military obligations to NATO. In 1990 Germany spent 2.7 percent of GDP on defense. That fell to 1.5 percent in 2000 and despite growing calls to increase spending fell to 1.4 percent in 2010 and 1.3 percent in 2014. Currently, it is 1.4 percent with promises to achieve two percent by 2024.

For a long time, Germany got away with this because it had no real military threats to deal with. After 2014 Russia became a real threat once more. Since then, alarmed German defense officials have leaked increasingly embarrassing data about how ineffective the German armed forces are becoming. One 2018 leak revealed that a shrinking percentage of military aircraft were capable of carrying out a mission. It was particularly alarming that less than four percent of Germany’s Typhoon fighters were capable of combat. Ironically 31 percent of the older Tornado fighters were operational. Newer equipment tended to be worse off. Only 13 percent of the NH90 transport helicopters were ready and only 16 percent of the Tiger helicopter gunships. Even more dismal was the number of these military aircraft Germany had, which was then 114 Typhoons, 93 Tornados, 40 NH90s and 43 Tigers. This discouraging data is nothing new. For years German military aircraft had the lowest readiness rates in NATO. Germany continued, as it had for over twenty years, promising the situation would be fixed but it never was, until the Russians invaded Ukraine.

The Germans agreed to supply combat ready forces for the NATO rapid reaction force in the form of an armored brigade. Germany was supposed to produce this contingent in 2019 but the German troops were nowhere near ready to perform duties Germany assured everyone they could handle. Only about 20 percent of the armored vehicles (Leopard 2 tanks and Marder infantry vehicles) were fit for service. Then it became known that the German Air Force was unlikely to provide much air support either.

When the Americans pressed Germany to meet its NATO obligations there were promises but no performance. Meanwhile, the United States spends nearly four percent of GDP on defense, accounts for 70 percent defense spending in NATO and told the Germans that they can no longer automatically expect the Americans to bail them out when Germany comes up short in meeting its NATO obligations. This got some attention in Germany, but not a lot.

This was a major shift since Germany was reunited in 1990. Before that, during the Cold War, West Germany belonged to NATO and maintained its military obligations faithfully, fearful that the dozens of Russian divisions in communist East Germany would quickly extinguish a democratic and prosperous post World War II West Germany. Communist East Germany became visibly less prosperous every decade and East Germans noticed that more than the military situation.

Russia, as the Soviet Union, was in even worse shape and by 1990 Russia agreed to withdraw from East Germany and allow Germany to be united once more. Russia received substantial payments from Germany and the U.S. to cover moving expenses. This move was prompted by Communist leaders in East Europe, where many nations still occupied by Russian troops and secret police (KGB), and found their people and many members of their security forces no longer willing to put up with communist misrule and Russian presence. Half the population of the Soviet Union, including most of the non-Slav population and Slavs in Ukraine and Belarus demanded independence. The KGB tried to stage a coup but underestimated their support in the security forces. The Soviet Union was no more and many Europeans, especially in the reunited Germany, believed 70 years of communist threats of invasion were over with the dissolution of the centuries old Russian empire.

During the 1990s the united German defense budget and armed forces personnel were cut, what with the primary threat, the dozens of Russian divisions in East Europe gone and all those East European nations embracing democracy and a free (and more productive) economy. But a decade later Russia had second thoughts about giving up its empire. Germany made promises to prepare for problems with Russia but did little.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks Germany agreed to help out in Afghanistan, as long as its troops were kept away from the hostile areas and allowed to avoid combat as much as possible. The deployment of a few troops to Afghanistan and other peacekeeping missions revealed other problems. While Germany had, on paper, well-armed and equipped troops, the government had spent very little on training and logistical support. It required a major effort to keep small numbers of German troops overseas fed and supplied. It was embarrassing and promises were made to set it right. Nothing really got done about that.

In 2019 a new American government questioned the usefulness of the United States in NATO when the Americans have always tolerated assuming a disproportionate burden of NATO responsibilities. In return for that, the U.S. regularly received more criticism than cooperation. A growing number of Americans questioned why the U.S. should remain so involved in a defensive effort that so many other NATO partners are backing away from. In response to this, the German government criticized American commitment to NATO without appreciating the irony of that attitude.

Until recently it was generally overlooked, especially by Western Europe, that the U.S. was stubbornly determined to stay out of the two World Wars because the majority of Americans came from Europe to get away from all the wars, broken promises and bad politics in general. Europeans tend to forget that the main reason the Americans eventually entered the two World Wars was Germans misunderstanding what they were up against. In World War I the Germans engaged in all sorts of covert aggression against the neutral United States that eventually came to light and got America into the war during the last year when they were needed most. In World War II it was Germany that declared war on the United States after Japan attacked the Americans. At the time U.S. public opinion was very hostile taking part in another World War.

West Europe was again misjudging the Americans, who are quite capable of leaving NATO and telling Europe to take care of itself. As history demonstrates time and again it’s the things that you refuse to recognize and later say you “didn’t see coming” that cause the most damage. Over the last few years a growing number of Germans, especially defense experts and politicians, recognized that they had a problem. Yet the attitude in Germany remained hostile to actually spending the money needed to repair the damage over a decade of neglect did to their defense capabilities. German elected officials agreed and have promised to come up with more than $12 billion to deal with the worsening readiness problems. The same politicians agreed that the annual defense budget should be increased. But when the parliament goes to work on the government budget defense always comes up short. Until early 2022 That did not appear to be changing, despite everyone agreeing that change was needed.

The continued German defense budget crisis was made worse by a 2015 NATO decision to do something to help new NATO members in East Europe fulfill the mutual defense pledge in the face of Russian threats. NATO agreed to speed up efforts to create a rapid reaction force to help with the defense of new NATO members bordering Russia and very much in the way of the growing Russian threat. These new NATO members had suffered decades of Russian occupation after World War II and many of their citizens spoke or understood Russian and felt that the “west NATO” members underestimated the seriousness of the renewed Russian aggressiveness and misunderstood what the Russians were up to.

It was pretty clear what NATO was up to, at least in theory. The overall rapid reaction operation was called NRF (NATO Response Force) and it was to have NATO members contribute 30,000 troops. A third of NRF would be available within 48 hours for an emergency. This Spearhead Force was officially called the VJTF (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force). Germany was scheduled to assume command of the VJTF in 2019 and that meant a German armored brigade would be the core unit of the VJTF. That German brigade was not ready and unless Germany made some drastic changes it wouldn’t be ready. Until recently, most of the tanks in the entire German army were not functional. The German air force was even worse. The German navy, which is mainly responsible for dealing with Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea, was aging more rapidly than the ground and air forces and efforts to build replacements for Cold War era warships were inadequate and the ships that are built turn out to be less effective (or not even able to go to sea) than expected.

By 2021 the NRF itself had grown to 40,000 personnel, including air, naval and special operations contingents backing three Spearhead Force brigades. Each of these brigades has about 5,000 troops and one (the VJTF) must have units ready to move within 48 hours with the rest of the brigade moving within a week. At that point portions of the other two brigades would be on the move. The major contributors to the NRF, and especially the VJTF will be the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Britain. Nearly all the ground troops will be from European NATO members while the U.S. provides a lot of specialized electronic and naval forces the U.S. has. Note that all these other NATO members are in better shape to fulfill their NRF obligations. Germany was in a class of its own when it comes to un-readiness.

Weeks before the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine NATO began moving NRF units to eastern Europe, where the new NATO members had taken a keen interest in what the Russians were doing and Ukrainian intel officers had already analyzed the deployment of Russian troops and described the initial attack as it probably would, and actually did, begin.

The VJTF could be used to slow down and disrupt Russian aggression with ground and air forces (and naval ones if needed) until more forces can be mobilized. NATO members revived Cold War era defense plans because Russia had again become a threat. It’s a different threat this time because during the Cold War NATO was looking at an initial Russian invasion force of over 30 divisions followed by two or three times that number once these reserve units were mobilized and deployed. These days Russia can’t even muster that many brigades. In the past, there were few NATO members (like Norway and Turkey) that even bordered the old Soviet Union. Now there are many more, including the major Russian Cold War “allies” in East Europe (the former “Warsaw Pact”) who are now members of NATO. The Baltic States are particularly vulnerable and the VJTF was created in large part to reassure these neighbors of Russia that NATO membership can deliver the promised security.

Not only were the “East NATO” members not reassured by VJTF but they are afraid that history will repeat itself in more ways than one. East NATO members remember that in the 1930s there was a similar situation with Western nations promising assistance if there was aggression from Russia and Nazi Germany. The worst happened in 1939 when World War II officially got started with Germany and Russia both attacking and partitioning Poland as part of a secret agreement. Two years later Germany double crossed its new ally and invaded Russia. That ended disastrously for Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe, especially when the West again abandoned East Europe to Russian domination after the war. That period of Russian domination collapsed in 1991 but now East Europe sees the 1930s pattern of earnest promises that won’t be kept and an aggressive Russia moving in.

Germany had downplayed the Russian threat and responded by trying to fix their problems. By the end of February Germany had announced major increases in defense spending and weapons purchases (like the F-35s) that were intended to discourage, or possibly stop further Russian aggression. Germany cut most economic ties with Russia, including canceling a new gas pipeline direct from Russia to Germany via the bed of the Baltic Sea. Germany announced plans to abandon the use of Russia gas and oil quickly, but this would take two years or more. Meanwhile Russia had demanded payment for their natural gas in rubles (the Russian currency). Russian banks would sell rubles to Western nations at exchange rates fixed by Russia.

Germany faces the prospect of an economic recession from increased energy costs. The sanctions on Russia have resulted in the world oil price rising to over $100 a barrel. It will also be expensive to revive nuclear power and adapt to other sources for natural gas. That, plus the higher defense spending, is an economic disaster Germany believed, for over two decades, was unlikely. Russia would not be that foolish. The East Europeans proved to be right. Russia has not changed and once more Germany is paying a high price for believing otherwise.

 


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