Monday, June 24, 2024
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Home » Europe Moves to Fill Weapons Gap Amid Doubts About U.S. Commitment to Ukraine

Europe Moves to Fill Weapons Gap Amid Doubts About U.S. Commitment to Ukraine

by Freddy Evans
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Faced with growing American reluctance to send more military aid to Ukraine, European leaders are moving to fill the gap, vowing new support for Ukraine as it battles Russia in a war in Europe’s backyard.

Several countries — including Germany, Britain and Norway — are increasing production of weapons, especially the artillery ammunition that Ukraine so badly needs. Germany, once a laggard in providing aid to Ukraine, announced a week ago that it planned to double its support to $8.5 billion in 2024 and would deliver more crucial air defense systems by the end of this year. And European Union states are gearing up to train an additional 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers, bringing the total so far to 40,000.

“We really have to step up our game here,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said at a forum this month at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank funded by the Dutch government.

But that may be little comfort to Ukraine, where a counteroffensive against invading Russian forces has stalled as winter approaches, and officials say more support is needed now, even as many countries turn their attention to the Israel-Hamas war.

In a worrying sign, the EU appears likely to fail an early test of its ability to sustain backing for Ukraine. A much-touted pledge to donate 1 million rounds of 155 mm-caliber shells within one year to Ukraine is now widely expected to fall short.

“The million will not be reached. We must assume it,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said this past week, acknowledging the bloc will miss the March 2024 deadline.

European officials have long worried that rising Republican opposition to the military support that the United States is sending to Ukraine — $45 billion in weapons and other equipment so far — would diminish America’s leading role in funding the war should President Joe Biden lose reelection.

Those concerns were made all the more acute this month when House Republicans shelved Biden’s $105 billion plan for emergency aid for several world crises, including about $61.4 billion for Ukraine.

Unless, or until, the budget standoff is resolved, officials in the U.S. and Ukraine are left to weigh how best to spend the remaining $4.9 billion in previously approved security assistance for Ukraine if that is the last available source of U.S. funding for the foreseeable future.

“We Europeans, who have the necessary means to do so, have to be willing politically and materially to help Ukraine and to continue to do so, even to take over from the United States if, as is perhaps likely, its support diminishes,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said recently.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 jolted European leaders, who realized their militaries and defense industries were ill-prepared for the war in their backyard. It was a “rude awakening,” Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson said at the Clingendael forum, but one that united most of Europe behind Ukraine — considered by many to be something of a buffer zone between Russia and NATO.

“If the West stops supporting Ukraine, there will be no more Ukraine and no more European security architecture,” Yonatan Vseviyov, a top Estonian diplomat, said in an interview published Friday on the Ukrainian news agency RBC.

Some European countries are already responding.

Although there is not unanimous support for Ukraine — Slovakia has said it will stop military aid to Ukraine, and Hungary is trying to stall new EU funding for the war — on Friday alone, the Netherlands, Finland and Lithuania all announced new defense assistance. The largest amount came from the Dutch government, which pledged to send more than $2.1 billion next year.

The Belgian government has also announced that it would give Ukraine nearly $1.85 billion next year from taxing the proceeds from frozen Russian assets that are currently being held by financial institutions headquartered in Belgium.

And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine praised Berlin’s plans to double its military support to the war, saying Wednesday that “the relationship between Ukraine and Germany will become one of the most reliable pillars of all of Europe.”

Germany is now the second-largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine, according to data released by the Kiel Institute from July, the most recent available. (On Friday, Germany’s government temporarily paused discussions over its 2024 budget to deal with an unrelated court ruling, but experts said the aid to Ukraine was not expected to be affected.)

Europe is also newly poised to supply Ukraine with one of the weapons it needs most: 155 mm-caliber shells that are fired from the howitzers and that are the backbone of Ukraine’s military.

Despite the assumed failure of the campaign by EU member states and Norway to donate 1 million of the rounds, officials and experts said just making the promise to provide the ammunition has helped revitalize Europe’s defense industry.

Building capacity to produce ammunition in Europe has improved so significantly that “there might be parity” with the U.S.’ output by the end of next year if projections hold steady, said Camille Grand, who was NATO’s assistant secretary-general for defense investment early in the war.

How that might happen depends on somewhat murky production estimates that European executives and U.S. officials have released.

In Europe, where there is no overarching defense coordinator, weapons manufacturers are generally reluctant to reveal their annual production numbers. A major exception is the German firm Rheinmetall, one of the West’s largest ammunition manufacturers. It predicts it will be able to produce at least 600,000 155 mm rounds annually by the end of 2024, up from 450,000 earlier this year.

BAE Systems, the giant British military contractor, aims to increase production of 155 mm shells by eight times its prewar levels by 2025, although the company will not provide an estimate of how many rounds that could be. Other European ammunition manufacturers, including Norway-based Nammo and Nexter in France, are boosting their output by tens of thousands of shells.

Taken together, Grand said, Europe could produce in the high hundreds of thousands of 155 mm ammunition rounds by the end of 2024 — up from about 230,000 rounds annually before the war began.

New U.S. Army projections show that U.S. manufacturers aim to produce 720,000 rounds of the shells annually by the end of 2024.

Further production increases largely depend on whether Congress approves $3.1 billion that is included in the Biden administration’s overall $105 billion emergency aid proposal, said Douglas Bush, an assistant secretary of the U.S. Army and the service’s acquisition chief.

In a Nov. 7 briefing in Washington, Bush said the additional money would boost U.S. production of 155 mm ammunition to as many as 80,000 rounds each month in the first half of 2025, or 960,000 annually.

Only some of the ammunition that is ultimately produced, both in the United States and Europe, would be sent to Ukraine as allies rebuild their own stockpiles. But increasing production is a necessary first step to supplying Ukraine and bolstering European security.

Grand, now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the possibility that an aid-cutting Republican presidential candidate would defeat Biden was a main driver of the continuing European scramble — particularly as some recent polls have shown former President Donald Trump drawing strong support in a theoretical rematch with Biden. As president, Trump had a dim view of NATO and had planned to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Europe before Biden was elected in 2020 and halted the move.

“We need to be in that mindset of capability,” Grand said. “And those decisions need to be taken now — not when Trump is reelected.”

Source : Yahoo

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