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The Bear at the doorstep: Is Europe ready for potential continental conflict?

A leaked German secret military document indicates that Europe might be drafted into full-blown armed conflict with Russia if Ukraine becomes militarily incapable of continuing the war. As the war still rages on over the flatlands of Eastern Ukraine, the status of the armies across Europe is raising doubtful assessments among decision makers to deter military aggressions from Russia. Since 2022, The defense budget of the Russian military has drastically increased by three-digit numbers (recent 2024 defense budget was numbering at 376.7 billion euros. The lost numbers of equipment are being replenished as Rostec managed to build up production of tanks by 7 times, armored vehicles by 4.5 times, artillery and MLRS by 2.5 and ammunition of various types by 60% in a single year according to TASS. In 2023, the Russian military received over 1500 tanks, 22 thousand drones and thousands of armored and non-armored vehicles. Despite the huge losses incurred by Ukrainians, the war machine of Russia finally awakens from its hibernation. The pace of the war taught Russia pride-gulping lessons as the Russian military improvises its tactics such as digging tunnels under the noses of Ukrainians. The giant bear might finally cling its claws over Eastern Ukraine. Thus, Europe will face increasing risks of military confrontation with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But can Europe (primarily major European countries) be able to contain future aggression?

Before the storm

Famous author Mark Twain once said: “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme”. The prospective situation is awkward and surprising like the inter-war period of the 1930s: political instability, and unpreparedness of the armies. These factors eventually led to the deadliest conflict of human history. Similarly, Europe is facing quite pressuring scenarios: Political instability (Last week across Europe, the farm protests are wreaking havoc against the government initiatives as if it is a wildfire. The immigration law enacted by French government met with public dissatisfaction. The AfD scandal also resulted in a protest that brought thousands of people), population decline, and the economy (Initially, the EU and the US were on par in terms of GDP a decade ago. Nowadays, the EU is falling behind the US).  As Europe is occupied with its challenging issues, the situation in Ukraine seems cloudy. The proposal to approve the funding from the Congress met a grind-lock as the US government is having heated debates about its borders. In addition, The Pentagon cannot provide necessary missiles to Ukraine according to Associated Press.  Despite the Europe’s enormous material and financial support for Ukraine, Ukraine is increasingly taking defensive positions.  Ukraine is also in a desperate need of manpower as it requires further 500’000 able-bodied men to sustain its strategic competence and maintain its grounds. If the war does not come in favor of Ukraine, the consequences of the war can negatively affect the status-quo of the western hegemony.  An unnamed former British Army official stated that “Not only is this victory vital to NATO’s security, it will also influence China’s appetite for military adventure.” Judging from the above quote, it does not only decide the fate of Europe but also the stability of the Indo-Pacific regions. Therefore, the war in Ukraine could determine whether we have a devastating war or fragile yet stable peace in Indo-Pacific regions primarily near the Taiwan straits.

The UK: The old lion ready for war?

The British Army is counted as one of the best professional all-volunteer armies in the world that casted its shadows across the world. Yet, the military capability of the UK is becoming incapable of assuming strategic competency continuously. At the end of the Cold war, the British army had 300’000 active personnel, 4.1% of GDP for defense budget, 1200 main-battle tanks, thousands of APCs, and ARCs at its disposal. From 2010s to 2020s, the British army is facing a severe shortage of manpower, aging equipment, and lack of funding. According to Sky News, A senior US military general expressed that Great Britain is “no longer a top fighting force” back in 2023. Former Secretary of Defense, Ben Wallace, also stated that the active personnel of the British Army in 2025 would reach 72’500 as the UK scrapped its aim to reach 82’000 active personnel. However, the size of the British Army is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. If the UK sends a quarter of its troops to Europe, it will lack the means to defend its territorial integrity and there would be no miraculous “Operation Dynamo” (During the WW2, thousands of British troops were hastily evacuated as they were facing complete annihilation from the notorious Wehrmacht) if the troops face severe risks of being encircled in the plains of Eastern Europe during the prospective conflict furthering its incapability to contribute. General Sir Patrick Sanders also asserted that the British army needs to be expanded and modernized.

Poland: Arming to its teeth.

When the fuses of war erupted in Ukraine in 2014, loud and bitter sounds of the weapons triggered Poland’s historical and mauvais experience from its deepest memories. Throughout the course of the war, Poland was one of the main supporters of Ukraine as it sent its stocked, old-military equipment (mostly Cold-War era weapons and vehicles) and hosted millions of Ukrainian refugees until the conflict of interests (primarily grain deal issue with the EU and conserving its military resources) with Ukraine reached a breaking point. The role of Poland as a bulwark vanguard of the NATO against Russian forces relatively showcases its importance and vulnerability. Recently, Poland stocked up its defense budget from 2.4% of its GDP in 2022 to 3.1% of its GDP in 2024 on responding the developments in Ukraine. Poland is also crunching its military personnel and equipment (250 Abrams tanks, 180 K2 tanks (with additional 800 K2 tanks will be produced locally), around 212 K9 self-propelled howitzers, dozens of fighter jets such as F-35A and FC-50 are going to be added to stockpiles of Polish arsenal in coming years according to  sources). However, Poland also faces its own dilemmas. The eastern frontier of Poland offers little protection as the landscape is relatively plain and lacks natural defenses. Mere 65 km corridor known as Suwałki’s gap between Poland and Lithuania is also the Achilles heel for not only Poland but also whole NATO. If the gap gets closed, the Baltic states will be cut off from the rest of Europe, cripples NATO’s strategic advantage and creates an open access to the Baltic Sea for Russia. If the attack comes from Belorussian and Kaliningrad oblast, Poland might lose 25% of its territory including Warsaw. Experts such as Robert Czulda expressed his concern that Poland’s financial capability and its struggle to recruit personnel from general populace are the main challenges of Polish military. Nevertheless, Poland is enlarging its military to counter the future conventional (or hybrid) threats from its eastern neighbors.

Germany: The Bundeswehr struggles.

The drums of war abruptly awakened Europe’s most populous and biggest country from its lengthy dream of stability as the war in Ukraine erupted like a volcano that was not active for ages. Like an unprepared villager that found himself in a coming winter, Germany found itself in inadequacy for a major conflict. To quote from Bundeswehr’s 2023 defense guidelines: “As a nation and as a society, we have neglected the Bundeswehr for decades. For too long, we were unable to imagine the scenario of a war on European soil and a direct threat to our country. Currently, more than 180’000 personnel serve in uniforms for Germany. Yet, Germany faces severe shortcomings to counter Russia. Starting from the manpower, Germany is experiencing a hardship to recruit as the Defense Minister Boris Pistorius admitted that scraping compulsory military service was “mistake”. To tackle the empty caches, Germany is considering recruiting foreigners in its ranks to fill the vacancies as it has over 20’000 empty slots.   Aside from personnel, the state of the military equipment is in run-down form. Nearly all the military vehicles such as fighter jets (65 out of 212 fighters in total are capable of operating) helicopters, and naval vessels (for instance: All six submarines of the Deutsche Marine are non-operable for further operations) are not ready for immediate military operation. Munitions (primarily artillery shells) are also becoming a headache for officials as it requires years to refill the caches. Even though Chancellor Olaf Schultz expressed his commitment to increase the defense budget by 100 billion of euro back in 2022, years of constant cuts on defense cheques and slow reaction of grasping the threat sculpted Bundeswehr into malnourished black eagle that lost its majestic feathers and dulled its cut-edging fangs. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stated that Bundeswehr requires 5-8 years to overcome the pressuring issues. Yet, there is no guarantee that within five to eight years a seasoned Siberian bear would be crossing the Oder River just like his own backyard.

France: A waning rooster

Compared to Germany and the UK, France maintained its army impressively and hailed as the most capable army of assuming broader roles across the world. Despite its limited equipment (over 200 tanks, around 96 of self-propelled howitzers, more than hundred fighter jets) and a modest size of 200 ‘000 active personnel, France has been through mud and blood across the world especially in West Africa. The efficiency of its military is attributed to its unique military doctrine (known as High-Intensity Warfare. It dictates that a surge of kinetic energy (firing artillery shells, launching missiles for example) is deployed in a limited space in a shorter period combined with technology and lethality. France also places high emphasis on maneuverability and reliance of nuclear weapons. Thereby, French government insists to have fit-for- all military as it did cut spending on military gradually until Ukraine’s conflict).  Nevertheless, just as their other counterparts in Europe, France has its issues: low ammunition, outdating equipment and to a lesser extent, human resources (French Airforce was experiencing lack of human resources as it mentioned in 2021 report that there was lack of personnel to maintain the jet fighters). Last year, President Macron declared his intention to beef up the defense by increasing 400 billion euros for next five years to enhance the military’s capacities according to France 24. What would the spending on defense go for remains a riddle. Even though most of the funding will be spent on modernizing the equipment and replenishing ammunition stockpiles, the French government is neglecting core equipment production such as tanks and fighter jets according to Foreign Policy.  Yet, France must muster up its strength in terms of prolonged period of conventional war. French author Jean-Dominique Merchet (who authored “Are we ready for war?”) also stated in an interview with Geo France: “Our army, at the bottom, is too light. If we compare engagements of Ukrainian army against Russian army and Israelian army in Gaza, French Army cannot perform this type of deeds. We do not have human and material resources.” Several other resources indicate that pursuing conventional warfare might not be best scenario for France as it will drain its resources dramatically. Henceforth, the situation might force its commanders to pull up its personnel from other operations across the world, diminishing its presence in its sphere of influence. But can France really bear a burden that could span years? If the war situation in Ukraine deteriorates immensely, the French military might reconsider its current doctrine and push for “levée-en-masse” policy to tighten its grip on European defense just as it did during the Cold war.

Conclusion

Last week, the EU managed to reach a compromise to send the financial aid package which is worth 50 billion euros to Ukraine. The amount of money is quite hefty as it could assist generously for the Ukrainian war effort. Several European nations are still supporting the Ukrainian cause to deter Russian invasion. Situation in Avdiivka also seems dire as Russian troops entered the outskirts of the city and initiated street-to-street fights. Losing Avdiivka means losing Verdun to Germany as it means severe blow to Ukrainian morale and strategic advantage. Despite its tenacity against Russia just as David gallantly fights Goliath, Siberian Bear is licking its engraving wounds and might push itself until the banks of Dnieper River. Even though most European countries are realizing to pump up its military, reluctance, slowness, and wrong distribution of budget might hinder re-armament’s progress. The scenario of conventional warfare seems far away from materializing as Russia might not attack Europe directly as it must recover its losses instigated from Ukraine. Yet, the strong odor of gunpowder is still lingering from Russia. Only time would unveil whatever prospective war is bound to happen and how Europe is ready to brace its staggering struggle in the name of liberty and freedom.