The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 united NATO in ways few NATO members, many Ukrainians or the Russians, expected. There were some exceptions initially. Hungary had elected a pro-Russian president who was reluctant to get involved with what could become outright war between NATO and Russia. France and to a lesser extent Italy, urged Ukraine to negotiate a peace deal with Russia, even if it meant ceding some territory to Russia. This was unacceptable to Ukraine and most of the post-1991 East European nations that joined NATO mainly to gain more protection from another Russian attack. The Russian invasion was justified by Russian using claims that Ukraine wanted to join NATO and become part of the NATO effort to destroy Russia. This was an absurd concept to any Russian who had visited NATO countries or did business with them.
Support for Ukraine was strongest with nations that lived closest to Russia and had disastrous relationships with Russia recently. That included the nations that freed themselves from Russian domination between 1989 and 1991. The new eastern members kept reminding the older NATO members that Russia could not be trusted and would eventually go after their lost (after 1989) territories. And it came to pass even though not everyone in Western Europe appreciated the seriousness of the threat.
The most energetic proponent of Ukraine seeking peace by ceding territory was France. This despite the history of France in a similar situation after their defeat by the newly united Germany in 1871. The German Kaiser, ignoring the advice of Bismarck, the architect of German unification, Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine, which included territory on both sides of the Rhine River. As Bismarck predicted, France was obsessed with getting Alsace-Lorraine back and spent the next four decades forming a defensive military alliance with Russia and Britain. When World War I broke out in 1914 the more numerous and better trained German forces went on the defensive in Alsace-Lorraine as the French committed substantial forces to attacking there to regain the lost territory. That enabled the Germans to concentrate on taking Paris, which they nearly did but were halted short of the French capital with the help of British troops and a Russian offensive in the east which diverted more troops than the Germans had planned on. The Germans stopped the Russians but were now in a two-front war that played a major role in their defeat in World War I. France got Alsace-Lorraine back and forced onerous terms on Germany which led to World War II and the Cold War that followed. Even Bismarck couldn’t have predicted taking Alsace-Lorraine would lead to a conflict that lasted over 70 years, killed over a 100 million people and still reverberates in 2022 Ukraine.
France developed a reputation of being a troublesome ally. Although an early member of NATO, France was unhappy with the close British-American relationship which led the French to gradually withdraw from the NATO alliance without actually leaving it. France wanted to retain the ability to make a separate peace with Russia if there was a Russian invasion of Western Europe. France did not fully rejoin NATO until 2009. In the meantime, France continued to be a troublesome ally. When France refused to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and became quite critical of the effort, many Americans called them "cheese eating surrender monkeys." This was a term first hurled against the French early in World War II. French participation in Afghanistan was also halting and tentative.
France failed to see the irony in advising Ukraine to trade territory for temporary peace. There cannot be permanent peace with Russia as long as Russia’s leadership is determined to regain much of the territory it lost in 1991 when half the Soviet population voted to leave the USSR and become 14 independent countries. Russia was particularly angry at Ukraine and Belarus, two regions that were Russian speaking and according to Russia part of the Russian homeland. The Ukrainians and Belarussians still disagree with that and Ukraine is willing to fight as long as it takes to regain the territory Russia seized in 2014. Ukraine and other East European NATO allies that were once part of Russia, including parts of Poland, the Baltic States and Finland, saw themselves threatened again and feared a repeat of pre-World War II European efforts to trade land for peace with the then new aggressor, Nazi Germany. Britain had assured countries threatened by Germany that Britain would come to their aid if the Germans attacked. This failed spectacularly in late 1938 when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated peace deal with Germany in which Britain agreed not to oppose the German annexation of portion of Czechoslovakia in return for a German promise that German territorial demands were satisfied and, as Chamberlain described it, his deal had achieved “peace in our time.” He was very wrong. Germany’s seizure of Sudetenland followed its seizure of Austria in March 1938. Germany was already negotiating a secret treaty with Russia, signed in August 1939, that included a ten-year non-aggression pact and agreement to split Poland between them and Germany duly invaded Poland in September 1939, with Russia following on the 17th.
In May 1940 Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain with the promise to never surrender, and Ukrainian president Zelensky made the same promise to Ukrainians in 2022. Britain understood what this meant while France was still emulating Chamberlin.
The United States had similar problems with its NATO partners before 2014. The Americans warned its NATO allies that unless they organized their armed forces to be more effective, the future of the alliance was threatened. This was a growing problem for the United States. For a long time, the European nations have taken for granted that the United States would always show up to supply key military capabilities. During the Cold War (1947-91) the U.S. accepted this. Since the 1990s the U.S. has increasingly resented this burden and has been uncharacteristically undiplomatic over the last few years in discussing logistical and equipment shortcomings of its NATO allies. The Americans were also aware that European nations initially considered NATO a way to “keep the Americans in (Europe), the Germans down (as a threat) and the Russians out.”
The U.S. pointed out that French intervention in Mali and Syria took for granted American assistance. The French-led liberation of northern Mali in 2013 was greatly assisted by French warplanes using smart bombs to attack known terrorist bases. This was devastating and led to the rapid collapse of resistance to the French ground forces. But most of the air support would not have been possible without American aerial tankers. There was a similar shortage of aerial reconnaissance aircraft, especially those that could do electronic monitoring (to monitor terrorist communications on the ground). After that NATO was under growing pressure to support the Syrian rebels with air support, as they did for the Libyans in 2011, which was not be possible without American assistance.
Libya in 2011 was supposed to be solely a European operation. NATO was persuaded to take charge of the bombing campaign to fulfill a UN order to stop the Libyan dictator from murdering his own people. NATO agreed to do this but found once more that they didn’t have sufficient military capability to do so with European resources alone. The U.S. still had to supply most of the refueling and intelligence aircraft, as well as send more smart bombs because most NATO nations don’t have very large stocks of these weapons.
This was not a new problem. During the Cold War the U.S. constantly, and usually quietly, complained of how unprepared most NATO members were for actual combat. These nations were quite relieved when the Cold War ended in 1991. But then came the need for peacekeeping in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The U.S. was implored to pitch in because the European NATO nations couldn’t handle this themselves. Then came September 11, 2001. NATO members offered to help in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. This was more promises than performance.
European reluctance to send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan was more than just the result of political differences. While Europe has about twice as many troops as the United States, they had far fewer fit enough to ship to a combat zone. This was a problem first noted in the 1990s, when there was a big demand for peacekeepers in the Balkans. The Europeans couldn't fob this one off on the Americans and had to come up with combat ready troops. The Europeans had a tough time finding soldiers ready and able to go.
European armed forces were full of people in uniform who had a civil service mentality. That is, they think and act like civilians, not soldiers. Belgium discovered, for example, that 14 percent of its troops were obese, compared to 12 percent of the general population, and unfit for many of their duties. Much noise is always being made about getting all the troops in good physical shape. While that is possible, it is less likely that the mentality of the troops will be changed.
During the Cold War, Europe got most of its troops via conscription. Young men came in for two or three years and then left. Anywhere from a third to half the troops were long term professionals, serving twenty or more years. But even before the Cold War ended, many of the European military professionals were losing their combat edge. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, there was no longer any compelling reason for a European soldier to think and act like one. It was just a job. A government job that was not, or should not, be terribly demanding.
Europeans spend a much higher proportion of their defense dollars on payroll, leaving little money for training, new equipment, and maintenance. It also meant an older, on average, bunch of troops. Going to war is a young man's game, but Europeans have instead turned their armed forces into another job creation program. There are some exceptions, like Britain and France, demanding that the troops remain fit and maintaining high training standards. Most European nations maintain a few elite infantry units, but these don't add up to much in terms of numbers. Only Britain and France have large "rapid reaction" forces that can be sent overseas on short notice. The United States has the largest such force, and many European nations began trying to expand theirs.
America also has a leadership advantage on the ground. The U.S. has long maintained an "up or out" promotion policy, which forces people out of the service if they are not promoted within a certain amount of time. The U.S. also maintains high standards for new recruits, making it possible to maintain more combat capable units. The U.S. is able to field more combat troops, and far more combat power, than over twice as many European soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
The Europeans continued producing more excuses than solutions, and that was not expected to change, no matter how much the Americans complained. In fact, it was getting worse until the 2022 reality check. European nations continued rapidly downsizing their air forces. Not just in numbers of aircraft but in money spent on training. For over sixty years the U.S. could depend on European pilots to be well trained and competent. But after 1991 Europeans were cutting flying hours and the U.S. had to adapt to Europeans showing up in modern aircraft with poorly trained pilots.
Most Americans wanted to stay out of the World Wars because many had ancestors who came to America to get away from the constant wars in Europe. Britain saw their major chore in both wars was to find a way to get the United States involved. That worked in 1917 to get the Americans into World War I but it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other American possessions in late 1941 to get the Americans into World War II. At first the U.S. was only at war with Japan but then the Germans, who underestimated American military capabilities, declared war on the United States in support of their Japanese allies. Many Americans still oppose involvement in foreign wars and Britain once more had to convince the United States to support Ukraine in its fight to keep the Russians out.