‘Thanks, Putin’: Defense spending spikes across NATO

FP – JUNE 30, 2022

NATO leaders emerged from their summit in Madrid this week touting a more muscular alliance ready to face down Russia and start tackling the long-term challenges from China. And it’s starting to look like they finally have plans in place to put their money where their mouths are.

For decades, the United States has pushed, cajoled, chided, and lectured allies on boosting defense spending, to little avail. Then Russia illegally annexed Crimea and backed separatist movements in Ukraine in 2014, which moved the dial. Then U.S. President Donald Trump came into office in 2017, which moved the dial more.

But Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine this year has completely changed the calculus, and suddenly countries across the alliance are pledging big hikes in defense spending at levels that Americans couldn’t dream of just a few years ago.

Call it the “thanks, Putin” effect.

In 2014, just three out of NATO’s 28 members at the time met the alliance’s guideline of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense: the United States, United Kingdom, and Greece.

Today, nine NATO members meet that guideline, and a total of 19 have clear-cut plans to meet that by 2024. That number will go up after Finland and Sweden enter the alliance as new members—another new development for which the alliance can thank Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Finland is slated to spend 2.2 percent of GDP on defense next year, and Sweden has plans to reach the 2 percent threshold by 2028.)

The U.K., meanwhile, has pledged to beef up its defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2030, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced at the summit, and the United States is on track to approve a record high defense budget of over $800 million. Other NATO allies are pledging to hit 2.5 percent or even 3 percent coming out of the meetings in Madrid.

In total, since 2014, European and Canadian defense spending has increased by an extra $350 billion, according to the latest data from NATO, and that number is on track to steadily increase.

“Two percent is increasingly seen as a floor, not as a ceiling,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the summit.

Changes in defense spending and military force posture can’t be made overnight, but the stats coming out of NATO’s Madrid summit show the alliance views Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a transformational moment that will alter its defense posture for decades to come.

The numbers don’t tell the full story, and some experts still bristle at NATO’s 2 percent benchmark as over-simplistic and misguided.

But even on the policy side of things, NATO appears to be swaying more toward the United States’ view of geopolitical competitors like Russia and China.

At the summit, NATO members agreed to a new “strategic concept” to guide the alliance’s priorities in the coming years, and that document had much sharper language on Russia than its outdated predecessor from 2010. It also mentioned China for the first time ever, characterizing it as a broad strategic challenge.

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