Visegrád countries have committed to massively increased defence spending
Speaking at a military aviation plant on Monday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki presented his nation with “a simple choice.” “We can either fall victim to Russian domination and captivity,” he warned, “or we can build up our defence potential quickly, together with our closest allies such as the U.S.A., Great Britain and other NATO countries.”
Morawiecki framed Poland’s extraordinarily ambitious military expansion plans as a “duty”, which would see it increase defence spending from the current 2.4% of GDP to a final target of 5%, already going up to 3% next year. This would involve doubled troop numbers and massive investments in armaments.
These are hardly propitious economic circumstances for such plans. Indeed, Morawiecki implied that the EU would be partly to blame if Poland fails to live up to its new defence programme, with Brussels continuing to withhold funds for Poland.
But it isn’t just Poland where defence spending has taken on a new sense of urgency. Across the border in the Czech Republic, there’s an impetus to reverse years of neglect, with Prague trying to balance a drive to reach NATO’s 2% spending goal with the need to get finances back under control in the wake of the pandemic.
As major suppliers of arms for Ukraine, both countries recognise a short-term imperative for increased spending. With weapons stockpiles running low, many European countries have little materiel left to send to Kyiv, highlighting the continent’s continued reliance on American might. The Czech Republic has by now sent as much as 30-40% of all its weapons systems to Ukraine, according to one analysis; the shortfall in new supplies has led Czech and Ukrainian arms industry leaders to sign a wide-ranging agreement for the rapid production of more equipment for the Ukrainian army.
But former Czech Army Chief of Staff Petr Pavel, who was the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 2015 to 2018 and who will run in Czech presidential elections this January, told me that the kind of support which the country can provide has changed since the early days of the war. “The supply we had that could be offered to Ukraine was always limited. From the start, our support focused on equipment that Ukrainians were able to use from the very first day,” he said.
Most recently, this has included Communist-era tanks with upgrades paid for by the Pentagon. But according to Pavel, the depletion of supplies means “what we can provide now is financial support and technological support for the production of equipment.”
As elsewhere in Europe, this shortfall is partly attributable to a long-standing disregard for defence. According to Pavel, the current government “wants to stick to the 2% GDP NATO commitment,” but the public remains sceptical because “we tend to feel quite secure in our basin surrounded by the mountains all around, as well as by our friends and allies.” Higher military spending gets a much better reception in Poland, because “you don’t have to convince Poles that Russia is a threat.”
Yet there are signs elsewhere — most notably in Germany — that old Central European aversions to defence investments have faded since the war began. And while overhauling Europe’s military capabilities will involve significant difficulties, no one could now dismiss criticisms — made most famously by the Trump administration prior to Europe’s new era of war — about the continent’s past complacency.