Recent Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the annexation of a part (Crimea) of Ukraine, has the other European nations worried. This is especially true of NATO members Poland and the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). A century ago all four of these nations were part of the Russian empire and one reason they were eager to join NATO was because that organization is basically a mutual-defense guarantee. Clause 5 of the NATO charter obliges all members to go to the aid of any member who is attacked.
But the Russians appear to be aware of the fact that most European NATO members are paper tigers militarily. While the European NATO members have about two million troops, compared to 900,000 for Russia, since the 1980s NATO nations have done little combined planning or training for large scale joint operations. If Russia, for example, grabbed the three Baltic States the NATO alliance would have a very difficult time mustering a credible conventional force to eject, much less stop, the Russians. The three nuclear powers in NATO (the U.S., Britain and France) could threaten to use their nukes, but that’s also a hollow threat as Russia has nearly as many nukes as the United States and if the use of nukes escalated the losses to everyone would be catastrophic and everyone knows it.
The problem is that the European NATO members never spent as heavily on their armed forces as did the United States and Russia, especially after 1991. Britain and France are still heavy spenders, but not enough to make up for what the rest of European NATO members are not doing. European NATO members are aware of this problem, but it has never been a high enough national priority for most NATO members to fix.
There was some hope in the decade after September 11, 2001 as the need to deal with international Islamic terrorism changed the armed forces of Europe in unexpected ways. Now the Europeans have more capable and professional forces than they have had for many decades. None of this was expected. But in the last few years these changes have begun to fade.
The current mess began in 1991 with the end of the Cold War. Europe was, for the first time in nearly a century, truly at peace. There was no military threat. There were some Islamic terrorists, but that lot didn't have an army. They were considered a public safety, not a military, threat. It was a unique situation in European history, and European generals and politicians had a hard time are trying to get their heads wrapped around it.
There were potential military threats, but nothing in the immediate future that required a large force. There was peacekeeping, and that's what the Europeans were trying to organize for. That, however, was found to cost a lot of money. The post-Cold War military budgets could not support the traditional type forces and the new peacekeeper ones as well. But the idea of disposing of ancient military traditions and organizations was, well, hard to accept. But that’s what happened.
All this post-Cold War euphoria began to unravel a few years into the 1990s, when war broke out in the Balkans (as multi-Ethnic Yugoslavia came apart). Now some European nations found themselves involved with military operations for the first time since World War II. When that happened, deficiencies become very obvious. It happened again, when forces were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, the problem reappeared when European peacekeeping forces went to Darfur and Chad. European nations found their troops were not in shape, not trained and not equipped for combat. After over a decade of these hassles, the Europeans have adapted, sort of.
For example, in 2008 the German parliament was in an uproar over a report depicting German soldiers as physically unfit for military service. It was found that 40 percent of the troops were overweight, compared to 35 percent of their civilian counterparts (of the same gender and age). The investigation also found that the troops exercised less (including participation in sports), and smoked more (70 percent of them) than their civilian counterparts. The military now encourages sports and physical fitness, and discourages smoking, but those efforts did not appear to be working.
When other Europeans looked around they found that it was not just a German problem. It was worse than that. Most European military organizations were basically make-work programs. It's long been known that many European soldiers are not really fit for action. They are mainly uniformed civil servants. One reason many are not ready for combat, or even peacekeeping, operations, is that they don't have the equipment or the training. And that's because up-to-date gear, and training, are expensive. A disproportionate amount of money is spent on payroll. That keeps the unemployment rate down more effectively than buying needed equipment, or paying for the fuel and spare parts needed to support training.
Britain is the only real exception, with armed forces capable of going into action at any time. But even that capability is under attack, as British politicians try to emulate other European nations, and save money by creating hollow forces that are there, but cannot really do much.
Britain is becoming more like other large European states, with a small force capable of going overseas, and little more. In this respect, Britain would become more like France, which has some special units (like the Foreign Legion and Paratrooper units) ready for overseas emergencies. Most nations have small special operations (commando) units. But most European troops were not capable of fighting back in the 1990s. That’s changed a lot since September 11, 2001.
European NATO troops that went to Afghanistan (where most of them went, Iraq being politically incorrect for most Europeans) quickly adapted. Money was found to properly equip the troops. Some governments went further and ordered their troops to avoid combat as much as possible. In some cases, the troops rarely left their heavily defended camps. All this was to avoid too much attention being paid to how much better U.S., British, Canadian and Australian (the “fighting nations”) were prepared for combat. Despite this, everyone quickly learned that you cannot bluff your way through military preparedness. That kind of pretending always ends badly when the shooting starts.
Faking military preparedness is a hard habit for Europeans to break. That’s because, from 1945 to 1991, the United States was available whenever Europeans needed some real military muscle. So confident were the Europeans, that they often heaped abuse and scorn on the U.S. and the American military, certain that the Americans would still show up if Europe ever faced a threat. But in the last decade the Europeans found that at least in military matters the Americans had not only become the masters, but were increasingly unhappy with European doubletalk and ingratitude. It’s been suggested that Europeans ought to pay more attention to defending themselves. That change is still sinking in, and is not being received with much enthusiasm. But European nations did scrape together enough forces to help the Libyan rebels overthrow the local dictator (although the U.S. was still needed for a lot of the logistical and technical support). It’s a start. Trying to do the same against Russian aggression may reveal that there’s not enough to stop naked aggression right next door.