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Despite Ukraine war, NATO members falling short on defense pledge

Even an armored invasion on their doorstep has not spurred most European nations to cough up sufficient money for their own defense.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second year, just seven of NATO’s 30 members are meeting the alliance’s funding guidelines that call for them to earmark at least 2% of their GDP on defense, according to the annual report of the Western military alliance released earlier this week.

A string of U.S. administrations have pressed wealthy Western European allies to boost their defense budgets, with limited success.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago prompted Germany’s left-center Chancellor Olaf Scholz to pledge a reversal of his party’s traditional NATO skepticism and support the 2% defense spending target. But the new NATO report shows that Berlin devoted just 1.49% of GDP to the military in 2022, below even Albania (1.57%) or North Macedonia (1.61%).

Those failing to meet the 2% target, which is supposed to kick in for good by next year, include lower-income NATO allies that were once under the control of the Soviet Union such as Bulgaria and Albania — 1.54% and 1.57% — but also wealthy nations that have been part of the alliance for decades such as Canada, which spent 1.29%, and France at 1.89%.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there were some promising signs, even as the U.S. and its allies transfer billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Ukraine. He noted that 2022 was the eighth consecutive year of increased defense spending across the alliance, amounting to an overall 2.2% rise in real terms and $350 billion extra since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

SEE ALSO: Blinken warns of ‘Pandora’s box’ if Ukraine support falters

“We are moving in the right direction, but we are not moving as fast as the dangerous world we live in demands,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in a statement released by NATO. “It is obvious that we need to do more, and we need to do it faster.”

The report says Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the United Kingdom are the only NATO countries besides the U.S. spending more than 2% of their GDP on defense.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said her country has “significantly” increased its defense budget. Estonia hit the 2.12% GDP mark in 2022 and that figure will rise to 3% by 2024, she said Wednesday.

“Two percent of GDP on defense spending must be the floor, not the ceiling,” Ms. Kallas said in a Twitter post. “Russia has prepared for a long confrontation and so must we.”

The NATO report showed that the U.S. was the largest defense spender in 2022 among alliance members. Washington spent more than $821 billion on the military, with Great Britain coming second at almost $68 billion. Germany and France spent about $61 billion and $53 billion on defense, respectively.

The invasion of Ukraine was a shock but not a surprise to NATO, Mr. Stoltenberg said. He called it the culmination of a pattern of aggressive action that Mr. Putin had unleashed against Russia’s smaller neighbor. Since then, NATO has pulled the trigger on what Mr. Stoltenberg called the “largest reinforcement of our collective defense in a generation.”

SEE ALSO: Putin, Xi send chilly words to Western world; Chinese leader offers lifeline as Ukraine war churns

“When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, we were ready,” he said. “Within hours, we activated our defense plans from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”

The U.S. has committed more than $32.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russian tanks rolled across the border on February 24, 2022. But there are signs the early enthusiasm for supporting Kyiv could be waning on both sides of the Atlantic.

More than 25% of Americans now say the U.S. is providing too much support to Kyiv, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. The figures have increased by 6 percentage points since September 2022 and 19 points since shortly after Moscow launched the invasion.

In the weeks after the invasion, Republicans and Democrats were about equally likely to say Mr. Putin’s war posed a major threat to U.S. interests. But today, only about 29% of GOP respondents still consider that to be the case, while 43% of Democrats still back U.S. support for Ukraine, according to Pew’s January 2023 survey.

“There is a wide partisan gap over whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses a major threat to U.S. interest or not, a shift from the early days of the conflict,” Pew said. 

Mr. Stoltenberg told reporters this week he hoped to see increased defense spending pledges from members when they gather in Vilnius, Lithuania for a NATO summit in July.

“I expect allies to agree to a more ambitious new defense investment pledge, with 2% of GDP as a minimum to be invested in our defense,” he said.

Russia, he added, was determined to continue its campaign in Ukraine and the West had to be prepared to respond.

“The need will continue to be there, because this is a war of attrition; this is about industrial capacity to sustain the support,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

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