It’s fair to say Donald Trump‘s declaration this past weekend that Russia should be allowed ‘to do whatever the hell it wants’ to NATO countries not contributing their fair share to defence spending was not well received by the alliance.
The former US President ignited a political firestorm with the comments at a rally in South Carolina when he said: ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’ No, I would not protect you.
‘In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.’
The White House immediately issued a scathing retort, labelling his comments as ‘appalling and unhinged’ and argued they ‘promoted dangerous chaos’.
And a furious NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg retorted: ‘Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.’
But despite the classically brash and inflammatory nature of his comments, the platinum-blond firebrand might have a point.
Although NATO has some common funds, to which all members contribute, the vast bulk of its strength comes from members’ own national defence spending.
Back in 2014, alliance members committed to spending at least 2% of their GDP every year on defence – and most of them fell well short of that goal last year despite making the commitment when Russia first annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump attends a “Get Out the Vote” Rally in Conway, South Carolina, on February 10, 2024
US Army Abrams tanks fire during the military exercises in Latvia
British special forces are seen taking part in military exercises. According to estimates from July last year, only 11 of the 31 NATO countries were on track to meet a defence spending target of 2% GDP in 2023
Navy personnel walk past F-18 jet fighters on the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford, on November 17, 2022 in Gosport, England. The US and UK have both exceeded their 2% GDP defence spending target
Viking Vehicles move through deep snow around Bardufoss exercise areas during the NATO exercise Cold Enabler 2018 in Norway
According to estimates from July last year, only 11 of the 31 NATO countries were on track to meet the 2% GDP defence spending target in 2023.
Those members were Poland, the United States – which contributed 3.9% and 3.49% respectively – Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, Britain and Slovakia, which just tipped the threshold at 2.03%.
German officials were quick to point out they expect to meet the 2% target this year, partly thanks to a special 1-billion-euro fund established in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
And despite not meeting the 2% GDP defence spending mark, Germany remains Ukraine’s second biggest weapons contributor, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been vocal in pushing other EU nations to give more.
Europe must ramp up production of armaments massively and urgently, he said today, warning that the continent now ‘does not live in times of peace’.
Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for Rheinmetall’s new munitions factory, Scholz said European nations must pool together orders and financing to provide the defence industry with purchase guarantees for the next decades.
‘This is urgently necessary because the painful reality is that we do not live in times of peace,’ he said, pointing to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
‘We must move from manufacturing to mass production of armaments,’ he said, arguing that ‘those who want peace must be able to successfully deter aggressors’.
But even if Germany is ramping up its defence spending, that leaves nearly two dozen countries lagging behind their commitments.
The lowest spenders as a share of national GDP were Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg, at just 1.26%, 1.26% and 0.72% respectively, according to the NATO figures.
Given Luxembourg’s miniscule size and resources compared to other NATO countries, it is not expected to meet the same requirements. Iceland meanwhile isn’t included in the list, because it doesn’t have its own military despite being a founding NATO member.
NATO is expected to release updated figures in the coming days that will show more allies meeting the 2% target, according to people familiar with the data.
But according to the existing figures, there are seven member countries whose defence spending remains less than 1.5% of GDP, non-inclusive of Iceland and Luxembourg.
Trump’s harsh words for European NATO nations seen to be skimping on defence commitments has prompted major concern for some.
Ben Hodges, the former Commanding General of US Army Europe, went as far to tell MailOnline last month that European nations would be ‘sitting ducks’ if Trump was to be elected in November.
And the US Congress got so concerned Trump could unilaterally withdraw from NATO if he won a second term that it passed a law in December requiring the president to get a two-third majority of the Senate to do so.
Others meanwhile have kept a lid on the hysteria, reasoning that Trump’s polarising comments were made amid a fervent campaign for re-election months away from what promises to be one of the most hotly contested – and mean – presidential races ever.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell appealed for calm, treating Trump’s comments as ‘humour’.
‘Let’s be serious. NATO cannot be an a la carte military alliance, it cannot be a military alliance that works depending on the humour of the president of the US.
‘It exists or it does not exist,’ he said, adding that he was not going to keep commenting on ‘any silly idea’ emerging from the US presidential election campaign.
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Coastal Carolina University, HTC Center, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks on the modern needs of the NATO alliance at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, USA, 31 January 2024
FILE: US President Donald Trump (L) chats with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017
A Ukrainian serviceman of the First Presidential Brigade Bureviy (Hurricane) of the National Guard of Ukraine points a direction in a trench at a position in a frontline, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near the town of Kreminna, Eastern Ukraine, February 6, 2024
Ukrainian soldiers firing with a SPG, in the direction of Bakhmut, where clashes between Russia and Ukraine continue to take place, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on February 04, 2024
The squabble over member states’ defence spending comes as the defence ministers of several Nordic and eastern European countries in recent weeks made various unsettling declarations, telling their citizens to be prepared for war in a matter of years.
Russia has often signalled it has no intention of expanding its ‘special military operation’ beyond the borders of Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin most recently telling Tucker Carlson that any suggestion he could invade the Baltic states or Poland is simply wrong.
But Russia’s invasion of its neighbour on February 24, 2022 darkened the door of Europe with a large scale hot war for the first time since the end of World War 2, and caused many European nations to prepare for the worst.
In the two years since the Russian President ordered the invasion, tens if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been killed or injured.
Thousands of armoured vehicles have been destroyed and several battleships have been sunk by Ukraine’s armed forces, whose steely resolve to defend their homeland has been reinforced by a steady supply of Western munitions and military hardware.
But Russia has since halted Ukraine’s eastward march and ground the war to a standstill across hundreds of miles – fortifying the frontlines with mines, trenches and artillery.
Moscow has also called up more conscripts and replenished its forces on the battlefield, and has secured a fresh supply of artillery and drones from its allies North Korea and Iran while it ramps up its own domestic production.
With time now working in Putin’s favour, there are concerns among Western military figures that he could next set his sights on NATO’s eastern flank and to countries which – like Ukraine – were once part of the vat Soviet Union.
When comparing the size and strength of the forces commanded by individual NATO nations to those at Putin’s disposal, it is easy to understand the concern.
But taken as a whole, NATO is by far the world’s most formidable military force.
The alliance’s 31 countries have a combined military budget of over $1.1 trillion, over three million active personnel, 2.7 million reserve personnel and more than 700,000 troops in paramilitary forces.
On top of that, in the event of an all-out war, the alliance’s members could collectively call up more than 206 million people for military service (based on their populations of military-aged civilians).
NATO countries also have over 14,000 tanks in their arsenals and tens of thousands more combat vehicles, 21,000 military aircraft and almost 2,000 naval vessels.
Three nuclear armed nations are also members: the US, the UK and France.
Ukraine’s forces have put up a heroic fight against Vladimir Putin’s invading forces, despite being seen as the inferior military. Pictured: Ukrainian servicemen of the Skala battalion take part in a field military exercise in the Donetsk region on February 3, 2024
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine led to a reevaluation of the perception that Russia commanded the world’s second strongest military, but Moscow’s troops have forced a stalemate in Ukraine and are now working to win the ascendancy in the conflict
Ukrainian servicemen of the Skala battalion take part in a field military exercise in the Donetsk region on February 3, 2024, amid Russia’s on-going invasion of Ukraine
As for Russia, before the invasion of Ukraine, the country was reported to have more than one million active personnel and two million in reserve – though Western intelligence estimates 120,000 Russian troops have been killed while a further 170,000-180,000 have been wounded.
On paper, NATO outstrips Russia’s military in every department, while also having – at least based on the evidence seen in Ukraine – more advanced weaponry than Moscow has at its disposal.
But Russia also has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, and has shifted its economy onto a war footing, meaning it is pouring vast resources into replacing its astonishing losses.
Wars are not fought on paper, and the bulk of NATO’s formidable strength comes from having the United States as a member.
With a presidential election looming in the United States, some fear US support for NATO in the future is not guaranteed.
And without America providing the bulk of NATO’s military might, the playing field between Russia and the alliance’s European members quickly becomes rather equitable.
Again, taken as a whole, European NATO states still lead Russia in almost all categories, aside from the number of armoured land vehicles.
But with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice tens of thousands of soldiers in a grinding style of warfare reminiscent of World War 1.
NATO has never been tested against such aggression, and doubts remain over whether its member nations would be willing or capable to do the same and replicate the Ukrainians’ heroic and dogged defence of their homeland.
While not a huge country, Ukraine still had a pre-war population of around 40 million people, and the existential nature of Putin’s invasion meant thousands of Ukrainians rushed to serve their country’s army.
Other countries that border Russia do not have the same numbers.
The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – all of which border either Russia or its Kaliningrad enclave and were all once part of the Soviet Union – have measly populations of 2.7 million, 1.8 million and 1.2 million respectively.