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Rising Tensions and the Return of Military Focus in Europe: The Resurgence of Defense Concerns in the Post-Peace Era

After World War II, Germany was disarmed and de-militarized. The devastation brought by two successive world wars led European countries to the idea of a “United Europe,” inspired by the Roman Empire. They thought this would allow them to live in peace without war. Indeed, for 75 years, steps have been taken towards this goal. Wars within Europe ended, and there was an increase in prosperity, peace, and security. During this process, Europe’s major countries downsized their armies and reduced investments in defense and armament.

After the war, although the USSR attempted to carry out socialist revolutions, the social welfare state practices in Europe neutralized this threat. In response to the USSR’s military threats, NATO was established. Founded in 1949 to ensure the security of both sides of the Atlantic, the United States led the North Atlantic Pact with its vast army and tremendous economic capabilities. Security was entrusted to NATO, leading even significant colonial powers to downsize their armies and cut defense spending. While investments in people, society, education, science, health, and social security increased in Europe, military expenditures decreased.

The EU project and its expansion brought additional dynamism, wealth, and peace to Europe. Democratic Europe offered its citizens tangible opportunities that socialism could only dream of. The level of prosperity achieved, the quality of life, and the opportunities provided for workers attracted immigrants and workers from all over the world, including the countries of the USSR. The EU project further enhanced prosperity, peace, and security. The economic capabilities and human and democratic standards of member states increased.

During the Cold War, Europe’s security was outsourced to NATO, but national armies were still maintained. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new buffer states in Eastern Europe, defense spending in Europe fell even further. Military stockpiles dwindled, and ammunition was not renewed.

The bipolar world had disappeared, the communist threat had vanished, and the West had declared its “absolute victory.” Talks began about the end of NATO’s mission. Just 3-4 years ago, French leader Macron said, “NATO’s brain death has occurred.”

Europe had become a single market with open borders. Everyone could travel freely and work and live in any country. Europe had attained a level of peace, tranquility, and prosperity unseen for thousands of years.

The standard of living was very high, the geography was safe, and people were happy. The old continent had achieved a rarely seen atmosphere of peace. This atmosphere, this standard of living, attracted people from every continent. Europeans thought this would last forever, so they did not allocate resources for defense.

With Putin, Russia began to regain strength and pose a threat to its surroundings. The occupation of part of Georgia in 2008 did not alert Western societies and states. The 2014 annexation of Crimea did not cause a serious alarm either. Putin, facing no global backlash, continued his revisionist (expansionist) policies. Europe only realized the magnitude of the threat with the invasion of Ukraine. Societies still don’t want to see the danger, as they do not want to give up their comfort and prosperity. They do not wish to shift the budget to defense spending.

Countries like the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, once having the world’s most powerful armies, now possess only symbolic armies with no preparations for war. Putin’s advancements and recklessness are seriously concerning European states. Russia has militarily and economically recovered, overcoming the embargoes imposed by the West. Although China is seen as a threat to the US’s global leadership, the immediate threat to Europe is Russia. Putin not only makes countries on Russia’s border tremble but also unnerves Europe’s major powers.

Europe, which experienced a dream-like period of peace, prosperity, and tranquility for about 75 years, is now returning to the fear of war. Germany has started rearming. The UK realized how small its army has become. They understood that they would be defenseless if Trump was elected or if the US turned to isolationist policies and stopped providing security to Europe. They saw that relying solely on NATO and the US created a profound defense vulnerability.

Every century in Europe, a mad, adventurous dictator emerges and sabotages European peace. In the 1800s, Napoleon arose and wreaked havoc across Europe. In the 1900s, it was Hitler. Now, Putin is threatening Europe’s security.

There are claims that the perception of threat is deliberately created to manipulate Western societies, that Russia’s power is exaggerated, and that “Putin is being provoked.” Nationalists in Turkey and the media of authoritarian countries use these claims. However, there’s no need to be naive. Russia’s trajectory is clear.

Putin aims to further expand the world’s largest geography with a relatively small population through new conquests. Such arguments are akin to blaming the victim for being “provocatively dressed” rather than the aggressor.

We are not sure if Putin expected such an outcome, but his expansionist policies have led to NATO, which was expected to be dissolved, gaining importance again.

On the other hand, the Ukraine crisis has exposed the military impotence of European countries and their dependence on NATO. Following recent developments, European countries, much to Putin’s displeasure, have moved towards arming and enlarging their armies.

Expanding armies, investing in the defense industry, and arming might be unappealing and subject to criticism. But it is a reality of life. Unchecked power in the hands of greedy leaders knows no bounds in evil.

As Hitler expanded, there were optimistic, conciliatory approaches in Europe, which only encouraged Hitler further. We do not know if Putin will become a Hitler, but we can say that Europe is now more unprepared for a new Hitler compared to the 1930s.

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Mahmut Akpinar
Mahmut Akpinar
Dr. Mahmut Akpinar is a political scientist focusing on international relations and Turkish politics.
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