Written by: Alex Collado
Edited by: Victoriano Vicente Botella Berenguer


This article focuses on the disarmament policies that European states have undertaken since the collapse of the USSR due to a general feeling of peace and security, which has led European armies unprepared to face the challenges of the current world order. Additionally, the article delves into the impact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had on the defence budgets of European states by creating a shift of paradigm in the European continent, leading to rearmament in order to deter their aggressive Eastern neighbour. This paper explores the transition from disarmament to recent rearmament in Europe, highlighting the impact of different security strategies and the need to be ready to face current emerging threats.


“The question is what to do. We cannot continue to face a more threatening strategic landscape including opponents using high-intensity warfare with bonsai armies,” (EEAS, 2022). These are the words of the EU’s High Representative / Vice President Josep Borrell regarding the small size of European armies and highlighting the imbalance they signify to the threats the EU faces. Borrell referred to European armies as “bonsai armies,” in his own words: “They look like the real thing but have shrunk into miniature versions” (EEAS, 2022). These words showcase how European forces are unprepared and do not meet the standards of the current hostile international order; European forces have lost the strength they had, along with their ability to deter adversaries, and the “post-Cold War mindset” is to blame.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Europe thought it was living at ‘The End of History,’ (Fukuyama, 1992) a period marked by the belief that ideological conflicts had ceased and that liberal democracies had triumphed, signalling an era of enduring peace. In this context, a big question arose: What do we need armies for?

The position held by European states in the past decades can be summarised as: “We don’t need strong armies and Russians are not that bad” (Fonseca, 2024). To the point that in 2014, Spanish parliamentary leader of the opposition, Pedro Sanchez, now Prime Minister, claimed that “the Ministry of Defence is unnecessary, we need more budget for tackling poverty and gender-based violence” (El Mundo, 2014). Meanwhile, countries like Germany were getting closer to Russia to ensure cheap energy supplies with the construction of the pipeline Yamal-Europe and later Nord Stream 1 and 2, respectively (Financial Times, 2023). This mindset has persisted in Europe for an extended period when Europeans did not have any imminent menace around, but the emergence of war in the European territory has caught them off-guard.

European leaders have been trapped in the “post-Cold War” mindset and have faced new threats on autopilot by imagining that peace would last forever. Even when Russian President Vladimir Putin was concentrating troops on the Ukrainian border, for many European leaders this was hard to believe. To the point that after the meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and Putin, 16 days before the beginning of the full-scale invasion and with troops at the border, Macron claimed he had obtained assurances from his Russian counterpart that “there would be no deterioration or escalation of the crisis over Ukraine” (Financial Times, 2022) and Chancellor Scholz expressed he was happy to hear that “Russia doesn’t want war” (Euronews, 2022).

Moreover, before the invasion of Ukraine, European states were key importers of arms to Russia. In fact, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, many EU countries continued to export arms to Russia as they found a legal loophole to evade the embargo and continued to sell weapons (The Telegraph, 2022). The greatest European exporter of arms to Russia was France, to the extent that French equipment can be found in Russian tanks or helicopters that are fighting on the Ukrainian front (Disclose, 2022).

As a result, while Russia was filling with arms, European arsenals were running out due to the mindset that war would never come, and now, Europe is realising too late its necessity to “rearm” and deter its largest Eastern neighbour.

In 1990, the average defence expense of NATO countries was about 4% of their GDP (NATO, 2018), after the fall of the USSR, one can see that the military expenditure was almost cut in half by the year 2000. The figures are even worse if one looks only at European states instead of the NATO average; it seems that European leaders had forgotten the quote si vis pacem, para bellum. In 2014, following the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, there was a general feeling that Europe would undergo rearmament. Indeed, during the NATO summit in Wales that same year, the famous “2% of GDP in defence” target was established (NATO, 2014). However, European states did not take it seriously; by the year 2021, only eight out of the 29 NATO members had reached this goal. Additionally, within the EU, the average defence expenditure was only 1.5% of their GDP; in short, NATO members excluding the US contributed only 27% of the total budget, leaving the US to cover the remaining 73%. 

The rationale behind this was that in a Europe where its population feels secure, no government would risk initiating a debate on increasing the defence budget, fearing a loss of votes (Tomz et al., 2018). Moreover, European nations had no motivation to invest in defence as they were under the umbrella of the US and had a complete security guarantee (Yost, 2009).

This little expense in defence led to anecdotes, that even if they might sound funny, they evidence a serious issue, for instance, “during a NATO training exercise German soldiers had to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks” (The Washington Post, 2015), evidencing the precarious situation of the German Bundeswehr. 

The delicate situation of European armies clearly has impacted the war in Ukraine. While European countries were factually sending arms to Ukraine, many of these arms did not even function properly. For instance, “out of the 300 Leopard tanks that Germany owns, only 130 remain operational” (Foreign Affairs, 2023). Germany decided to send 88 Leopard 1 tanks and about 80 advanced Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. As a result, pieces of news like this arose: “Only a very small number of Leopard tanks delivered by Germany are still operational in Ukraine” (Business Insider, 2024).

The Russian aggression on Ukraine has also demonstrated to Europeans that the “war of the future” is not as technological as they thought. At the end of the day, armies continue needing something as conventional as ammunition, and if something is lacking in Europe, it is ammunition indeed. This issue, again, demonstrates that Europe is not well-prepared. An example of this is that in Germany, it is estimated that in case of war, the Bundeswehr would run out of ammunition in 2 days (The Times, 2022; Business Insider Deutschland, 2023), and in the case of the UK, the British Army’s ammunition would last for only a week of conflict (RUSI, 2022).

To conclude, it must be highlighted that, even if late, the invasion of Ukraine has made the EU change its paradigm and realise the importance of a solid defence budget. Clear evidence of this is the famous Zeitenwende (Change of Era) speech by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in which he announced that Germany would finally meet the 2% NATO requirement (RAND, 2024). In fact, the increase in military spending in the EU has been the greatest in the last 30 years, as 20 of the 27 EU Member States have increased their defence expenses, with six states having increased their spending by over 10% (European Defense Agency, 2023).

European defence companies are preparing for a rise in orders by initiating production even before formal requests are received from states. This proactive approach is driven by growing investor interest in the sector’s potential profitability; Rheinmetall, for example, has experienced a significant 130% increase in valuation (Rheinmetall, 2023). In response, they have announced plans to increase production of 155-millimetre  NATO-standard artillery shell calibre (Rheinmetall, 2023).

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, European nations forged partnerships to develop the esteemed “Eurofighter jet” collaboratively. Today, multiple European countries are immersed in the creation of the “Eurodrone” (El Debate, 2021), marking yet another indication of Europe’s military revival. It must be highlighted that Northern European countries have previously united to construct various fighter jet models, which shows the significant challenge that being in Russia’s proximity generates.

Furthermore, Germany is leading the “European Sky Shield Initiative” to create a European air defence system which includes anti-ballistic missile capabilities. Nineteen European states have joined such an initiative, even traditionally neutral countries like Austria or Switzerland (Melville, 2024). 

All this evidence shows that European states have learned their lesson and have abandoned the “Post-Cold War mindset” as they are finally giving defence the attention it deserves. In the words of Josep Borrell: “If we share lessons learned, we can avoid costly mistakes. If we coordinate among ourselves, we can do task specialisation. Or we can fool ourselves and continue on autopilot, ignoring the changes in the world around us” (EEAS, 2022).


Borrell J. (2022). Foreign Interventions and Future European Defence. EEAS. Available at: https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/foreign-interventions-and-future-european-defence_en 

Business Insider. (2024). Ukraine’s dwindling supply of Leopard 2 tanks aren’t being repaired because Europe doesn’t have enough spare parts, German politician says


Business Insider Deutschland. (2023). Munition für maximal zwei Tage Krieg: Bundeswehr muss ihre Arsenal auffüllen, doch bislang bestellt sie nur wenig


Defence Industry Europe. (2023). Rheinmetall to increase production of artillery ammunition to 600,000 rounds per year

Disclose NGO. (2022). War in Ukraine: How France Delivered Weapons to Russia until 2020. 


El Debate. (2021). Así es el Eurodrone, el dron militar del futuro que proyectan España, Alemania, Francia e Italia


El Mundo. (2014). ‘Sobra el Ministerio de Defensa’


Euronews. (2022). Ukraine crisis: Russia does not want war, Putin says after meeting Scholz


European Defence Agency. (2023). Record high European defence spending boosted by procurement of new equipment


Financial Times. (2022). Emmanuel Macron says Vladimir Putin promises not to ‘escalate’ Ukraine crisis. https://www.ft.com/content/16cd11e8-b800-4846-b977-c1349da38759 

Financial Times. (2023). US inflation rate hits 7.9% in February, fastest pace in 40 years. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/aa2afe9f-0b5d-45b7-a647-cc61f6d010cf 

Fonseca E. (2023). ¿Por qué EUROPA gasta TAN POCO en Defensa?. Solo Fonseca. 

Foreign Affairs. (2023). Why European Defense Still Depends on America


Fukuyama F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press.

Melville A. (2024). Germany Forges Path to Leadership Through the European Sky Shield Initiative. Defense & Security Monitor.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2014). Wales Summit Declaration Press Release


North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2018). Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2011-2018). https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2018_07/20180709_180710-pr2018-91-en.pdf

RAND Corporation. (2024). Germany’s New Plans for Transforming Its Defence and Security


Rheinmetall. (2023). Rheinmetall with strong figures for the third quarter


Royal United Services Institute. (2022). British Army’s Ammunition Would Last Only a Week in War, Says Royal United Services Institute. RUSI. 


The Guardian. (2023). EU to miss target of supplying Ukraine with 1m artillery shells, Germany says


The Telegraph. (2022). Exclusive: France and Germany evaded arms embargo to sell weapons to Russia


The Times. (2022). Germany’s armed forces have ‘two days’ of ammunition.


Tomz M., Weeks J & Yarhi-Milo K. (2018). Public Opinion and Decisions about Military

Force in Democracies. Stanford University Center on Global Poverty and Development. 


U.S. Department of Defense. (2019). US Nuclear Umbrella Extends to Allies, Partners, Defense Official Says. Defense.gov. https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/1822953/us-nuclear-umbrella-extends-to-allies-partners-defense-official-says/ 

Yost D. (2009). Assurance and US Extended Deterrence in NATO. Royal Institute of International Affairs. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like