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Europe is trying to fill a US-shaped hole in funding for Ukraine

Europe is trying to fill a US-shaped hole in funding for Ukraine

Can Europe fill the gap left by the United States in Ukraine?

That has been on the minds of European officials for a long time, as they gaze across the Atlantic and see funds being blocked and the potential return of Donald Trump.

It’s a question the European Union is attempting to answer. At a European Council summit this week, the bloc agreed to explore new ways to raise funds for Ukraine - including by raising debt on financial markets and, controversially, using profits from frozen Russian assets.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that there was “openness, at least on our side” to new ways of funding, and pointedly added that Europe cannot “wait for the US to make up our minds.”

However, leaders stopped short of agreeing any new money for weapons. That could be a problem.

The urgency of Ukraine’s need for weapons is increasingly acute. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly told his Western allies that the biggest challenge the country faces right now is a weapons deficit that has allowed Russia to take advantage.

It would be unfair to accuse the EU of not pulling its weight on Ukraine. Despite public disagreements between the 27 member states on things like sending tanks and whether money should come directly from the EU budget, the bloc as a whole has sent more money to Kyiv than the US, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker.

However, the same tracker also shows that only $5.6bn of the EU’s total $85bn has been specifically allocated for military aid, compared to $2.2bn on humanitarian aid and $77.1bn on financial aid.

Ukraine's forces are increasingly finding themselves outgunned on the front line. - Serhii Nuzhnenko/Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Reuters
Ukraine's forces are increasingly finding themselves outgunned on the front line. - Serhii Nuzhnenko/Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Reuters

And with $60bn of US military aid to Ukraine stuck in Congress for the foreseeable future, it’s not immediately clear who could feasibly plug that funding gap.

This is where the core question, can Europe really stand in for the US, gets complicated.

Some European officials like to frame this as a purely economic question. The World Bank’s most recent data puts Russia’s GDP at $2.24 trillion, compared to the EU’s $16.75 trillion.

On paper, this means that Europe can hypothetically outlast Russia if the war becomes one of economic attrition. Or more crudely: yes, Europe does have the money to plug the American gap.

The difficulty is in how this works politically. The EU is made up of 27 sovereign states who all have an independent foreign policy. Some are members of NATO, some are not and are officially neutral. Some are comfortable with buying US weapons and sending them to Ukraine for the specific purpose of killing Russian soldiers, others are not. Some are geographically close to Russia and worry about war spilling over to their borders, others are protected by miles of land between them and Moscow and have enjoyed decades of good economic relations with Russia.

Over the course of the war, European thinking has evolved. Diplomats and officials say that earlier in the conflict, Brussels’ role had been understood as providing financial aid for things like keeping basic functions of state running and hosting refugees, while the US would sort the weapons.

It is undeniable that the EU is taking defense more seriously. It recently unveiled a plan to finally build up a European defense industry that could rival that of the US in the future. But even this long-term plan, still a long way from becoming reality, asks uncomfortable questions of member states. Should EU money be spent outside the bloc? Where should factories be built? What kind of relationship should procurement plans have with initiatives NATO already has?

That’s all for the long-term: In the short-term, Ukraine needs weapons urgently. CNN reported last week that Russia is producing three times more artillery shells than the US and Europe combined for use in Ukraine.

Officials survey the damage to an apartment block in a Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 22, 2024. - Reuters
Officials survey the damage to an apartment block in a Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 22, 2024. - Reuters

An initiative led by the Czech Republic - supported by a further 17 EU member states - has been put together outside of the EU’s structures to buy ammunition on the international markets that will be sent to Ukraine.

The virtue of not being an official EU plan means that they can move much faster and don’t have to worry about their fellow member states – chiefly Hungary, which has a closer relationship with Russia than the rest of the EU – vetoing or watering down plans.

The Czech initiative has already purchased 300,000 artillery rounds and it is expected they will arrive in Ukraine in June. The Ukrainians, of course, are delighted at the initiative, but also acknowledge that it won’t plug the US-shaped hole.

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister said: “The Czech initiative is great but it’s far from sufficient… If, besides the Czech initiative, two more initiatives are implemented this year… the Russian troops in Ukraine will face more significant problems on the front line.” This was seen by some as a reference to the blocked US package.

So, can Europe fill the funding void in Ukraine left by Washington DC?

The answer is yes, Europe has the means. Whether it has the will is the bigger unknown.

Officials from Eastern European countries stress the importance of convincing their counterparts that Ukrainian security is the same thing as European security. While former Soviet states are often painted as hawks in Western Europe, they make the somewhat reasonable point that if Russia were to invade NATO territory, bombs would most likely fall on them, not in Athens or Rome, for example.

But it would affect all European countries, especially those in NATO. And those countries who share borders with Russia almost universally share the view that the only way to ensure Russia doesn’t expand its aggression is by making NATO so strong an attack would be unthinkable, even to President Vladimir Putin.

Making this case for dramatic increases in defense spending is hard enough even while there is a war on European borders. NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, welcomed the news last month that 18 of the allies would spend 2% of GDP on defense. It was a dramatic improvement from a decade ago, when only three NATO countries met the minimum threshold. But it still means that even during a crisis like the one in Ukraine, more than a third are not meeting this target.

The longer the war drags on, the more likely fatigue is to set in. The more pressures on domestic budgets for things like public services and pensions, the harder it becomes to justify giving another country money to fight a war.

And that is exactly the point at which European thinking can go one of two ways: ensure Ukraine defeats Russia for the sake of the wider continent, or ask, what does it have to do with us?

Yes, Europe can fill the gap left by the US - and in some respects is trying to do just that. But it all depends on whether Ukraine’s biggest allies in Europe can keep winning the argument.

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