Weapons shortages could spell tough calls for Ukraine’s allies

Weapons shortages across Europe could force Ukraine’s allies to make tough choices as they balance their support for Ukraine against the risk that Russia could target them next.

For months, the United States and other NATO members have sent billions of dollars worth of weapons and equipment to Ukraine to help it fight back against Russia. But for many smaller NATO nations, and even some of the larger ones, the war has strained already depleted arms stocks. Some allies have sent in all their Soviet-era reserve weaponry and are now awaiting American replacements.

It may be difficult for some European countries to resupply quickly because they no longer have a strong defense sector to quickly build replacements, with many relying on a dominant US defense industry that has crowded out some foreign competitors.

Now they face a dilemma: do they continue to send their stockpiles of weapons to Ukraine and potentially increase their own vulnerability to Russian attacks or do they withhold what is left to protect their homeland, risking the possibility of a Russian victory in Ukraine more likely?

It is a difficult calculation.

After eight months of intense fighting, the allies expect the war to continue for months, if not years, with both sides rapidly depleting stockpiles of weapons. Victory may depend on who can last longer.

Stockpile pressure comes back “all the time”, especially among smaller NATO nations, said Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, a Baltic country that shares a 183-mile (295-kilometre) border with Russia.

It weighs on them even as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged members of the Western alliance at a recent NATO gathering in Brussels to ‘dig deep and deliver additional capabilities’ to Ukraine.

European officials, in public comments and interviews with The Associated Press, said Russia should not be allowed to win in Ukraine and that their support would continue. But they stressed that national defense weighs on them all.

“Our estimate is that Russia will restore its capabilities as soon as possible” because Russian President Vladimir Putin can order arms manufacturers to start production around the clock, Pevkur said.

Russia directed troops to factories instead of the front line, he said. The minister said Russia used to replenish its military so it could launch invasions against European neighbors every few years, citing moves against Georgia in 2008, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and now all of Ukraine this year.

“So the question is, ‘How much risk are you willing to take?'” Pevkur said at a German Marshall Fund event last week.

Other smaller nations, such as Lithuania, another Baltic state, face the same challenges. But the same is true for some larger members of NATO, including Germany.

“Ukraine has led to a general supply shortage because so many states have forgotten that conventional warfare is burning in your ammunition reserve. Just burning,” Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dovilė Šakalienė said during a briefing. telephone interview “In some situations, even the word ‘excess’ is not applicable. In some situations, we left ourselves with the bare minimum.”

Germany faces a similar situation, the Defense Ministry said in an email to the AP. “Yes, Bundeswehr stocks are limited. Just as it is in other European countries,” the ministry said.

“I cannot tell you what the exact stocks are because of the security aspects. However, we are working to fill the current gaps.”

For some NATO countries, it may not be possible to “dig deep,” said Max Bergmann, European director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They basically reduced fat,” Bergmann said. “Now they cut into the bone.”

Inventories are low because for many European countries military spending became a lower priority after the end of the Cold War, which weakened their defense industrial bases. American defense companies also played a role when they stepped in to compete for European contracts.

“We wanted them to buy Americans,” Bergmann said. “When the Norwegians use F-16s and F-35s instead of Swedish Saab Gripen fighter jets,” it impacts the strength of the defense market in Europe, he said.

The United States has long urged other NATO member countries to increase defense spending to 2% of their GDP – a target most have fallen short of.

Since the Russian invasion, several European countries have pledged to dramatically increase their defense spending to quickly rebuild their armies while they send much of what they have on hand to Ukraine.

Estonia has provided the equivalent of a third of its defense budget to Ukraine, Pevkur said. Norway has contributed more than 45% of its howitzer stockpile, Slovenia has committed almost 40% of its tanks and the Czech Republic has sent around 33% of its multiple rocket launcher systems, according to the German Institute for Kiel. The team based its analysis on an annual report on known weapons and military troop sizes around the world published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The United States has committed more than $17.5 billion worth of weapons and equipment to Ukraine since February, raising questions among some members of Congress about whether it too is assuming too much risk. The Pentagon will not provide data on its own stocks.

The Washington-based Stimson Center research group estimates that the war in Ukraine has reduced US stockpiles of Javelin anti-tank weapons by a third and Stinger missile stocks by 25%. It also put pressure on artillery supplies as the American-made M777 howitzer is no longer in production.

Pentagon spokesman Air Force Gen. Pat Ryder said when Austin recently met with major government arms buyers from dozens of countries, he discussed the need “not only to to replenish our own stocks as an international community, but also to ensure that we can continue to support Ukraine in the future.

Estonia passed this year a 42.5% increase in the defense budget to replenish its stocks. Germany is working on long-term contracts for high-quality munitions such as Stinger missiles and in September signed a 560 million euro ($548 million) contract for 600 new Navy guided missiles, with delivery scheduled until 2029.

Restoring stockpiles and rebuilding weapons manufacturing capacity will be a long process, said Tom Waldwyn, defense procurement researcher for the IISS.

For some countries, “this may require greater investment in infrastructure. It won’t be cheap as inflation and supply chain instability have driven up costs,” Waldwyn said.

Šakalienė pressured other members of Lithuania’s parliament to start awarding long-term defense contracts now to rebuild the country’s ability to defend itself.

“Without making long-term sustainable decisions in the expansion of the military industry, we are not safe,” Šakalienė said. “This decade is not going to be peaceful. This decade is going to be difficult.”

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Christi C. Elwood