National Security

What’s Really Holding Back European Defense Spending?

Insufficient defense spending by our European allies has been a sore spot for several successive American administrations. Very few allied governments spend anywhere near what they have promised, in spite of repeated commitments. Not even Russian aggression toward Crimea and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, has motivated them to spend on their own defense.

European economies are in good shape. Most countries have the budgets and administrative capability to make the purchases. So what is holding the Europeans back?

Russian Objective is to Weaken and Divide NATO

The primary barrier to defense spending is Russian infiltration throughout European governments and their defense industries. Vladimir Putin deploys his spy network strategically, corrupting and preventing European governments from making acquisitions. The repeated European failure to fulfill their commitments creates tension among allies.  That is one of Putin’s foremost foreign policy goals: To keep the Europeans weak and drive a wedge between them and America.

This week I attended a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill on this topic. The event was widely attended by American, NATO and European businessmen and officials. They reported that the correlation between Putin’s influence and the lack of defense spending was glaring, and cited specific problems in Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and others.

The participants held up the Czech Republic for special consideration, because while the intelligence services are loyal to NATO, the political leadership is loyal to Vladimir Putin. Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven, the chief of NATO intelligence, recently praised the professionalism and commitment of his Czech colleagues, but about a month later Czech President Milos Zeman insulted the Czech counterintelligence service (the BIS), calling them “bozos.” Zeman is frequently criticized as serving the interests of Russia and China, and his comment underscored that criticism.

The BIS is well respected in Washington, where Zeman’s insult was taken as evidence that the service has not been corrupted by Russia and China, and is frustrating some of their designs. But Zeman’s comments were also prompted by fear of recent U.S. government steps to counter-malign Chinese and Russian influence. Patrick Ho, an executive of CEFC, the former Chinese energy conglomerate with close ties to Zeman and to Russian interests, was convicted last month after a spectacular effort by the U.S. Department of Justice that effectively unwound CEFC. That must have sent chills down Zeman’s spine.

Corruption: a Tool of Russian Statecraft

This is exactly the kind of effort that is needed to remove the Russian barrier to European defense spending. Only a “whole-of-government” approach, combining law enforcement and intelligence activities, will curb Putin’s influence.  The investigations need not focus on Putin’s political allies, but should target their entourage and political allies.  This will weaken their support base and slow the flood of Russian money being laundered by private sector supporters of Russian puppets.

This effort should be conducted by combined allied intelligence services, including national and pan-European authorities such as OLAF and Europol. They must pursue Russian agents of influence, front companies supporting Russian operations, and the corrupt officials who receive their money and provide them protection. These fronts allow Putin to use corruption as a tool of statecraft. A simple review of the biographies of senior European officials to assess the likelihood of collaboration with Russia would be a good first step.

Securing the NATO Supply Chain

One more topic of discussion at the NATO event was the importance of securing the military supply chain. Participants warned of Chinese and Russian fronts masquerading as legitimate companies, positioning themselves to steal technology and disrupt the NATO supply chain.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has already ordered a task force to protect the American supply chain. Now we must go a step further and support the efforts of national services such as the Czech military intelligence (VZ) and NATO intelligence to eliminate Chinese and Russian influence inside the transatlantic defense industrial base. Until such measures are undertaken across the alliance, European defense readiness will remain out of reach.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

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