Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has galvanized a global wave of support for Kyiv. Now, the temptation is great to antagonize Europe over its level of assistance, especially as Washington needs to focus on China, bringing back the old charge that the European Union shies away from true heavy lifting. Yet, allies should be wary about letting military hardware deliveries alone set the tone.
The habit has already kicked in of branding graphs and numbers ranking each Western country in terms of the financial amount of weaponry delivered so far to Ukraine. While this tactic is not without benefits to put the pressure on European governments to increase their deliveries to Ukraine, this narrow, quantitative approach is both insufficient to capture the reality of the support and risky for its pernicious effects: It may downplay solidarity among the allies, play negatively on domestic public support, and dismiss other major, necessary efforts.
To start with, anyone willing to make an inventory of the delivered weapons by Western governments is confronted by an initial double difficulty: For one, some countries are reluctant to communicate on how much and what they deliver. It is the case for instance of Italy. Such a choice can be driven by different factors: skeptical public opinion, tactical sensitivity or concern of escalation.
Second, the difference between what is pledged and what is actually delivered can be substantial (the United States delivered 24% of what has been pledged, while Poland or France are at 100%). Looking at pledges can be thus misleading as long as they have not been fulfilled. In addition, the delivery of many Western-made weapons means additional training that represents specific costs, albeit less visibly so.
Direct support to Ukraine hides other mechanisms of solidarity among European nations. The EU is financing the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility up to €2.5 billion (U.S. $2.51 billion). Each member state contributes to the budget according to a gross national income distribution key, meaning that even member states unwilling or unable to send national military equipment to Ukraine might end up contributing substantially by financing the instrument.
While there is no communication so far on countries which applied for reimbursement, some European countries may decide not to seek it as part of their national effort to support Ukraine. It is thus critical to consider the European Peace Facility as a whole when assessing the European support to Ukraine. Furthermore, Germany agreed to compensate states that delivered Soviet-era equipment by donating tanks (negotiations ongoing), a potentially significant, indirect effort from Germany.
While European military stockpiles are depleted, solidarity is again at play with the new €500 million instrument incentivizing joint procurement of weapons for countries. Meanwhile, support to Ukraine must be balanced with the imperative to preserve the capacity for NATO to protect its members.
A critical point when looking at the military support delivered to Ukraine is to consider not only its financial value of the equipment but its operational value: scarce ammunitions, the level of operational availability and the issue of repairs can limit operational effectiveness of the delivered weapons. As warfare evolved since Feb. 24, so did Ukrainian needs, and state-of-the-art weapons are the ones now able to make the difference on the battlefield. For example, Caesar howitzer and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fill a key need for the Ukrainian army.
Still, Europeans are not the decisive military partner Ukraine needs, and they can do more, especially at the EU level. Yet, the delivery of weapons is but one type of support among many others: diplomatic, humanitarian, economic and financial. In that regard, Central and Eastern European countries tend to take the greatest share compared to the size of their gross domestic product. Less known, Portugal ranks at the same level of the United States (as of Aug. 3, 2022, per the Ukraine Support Tracker). Second, imposed sanctions on Russia hurt more European economies than the American one (in 2021, Russia was the EU’s fifth-largest trade partner and the United States’ 26th in 2019).
Europeans are doing a heavy lift, in solidarity with Ukraine and in close coordination with the United States. Risking trans-Atlantic unity over chosen paths of support is not an option we can afford.
Marie Jourdain is a visiting fellow from the French Armed Forces Ministry at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. She can be found on Twitter at @MarieJourdain10.