Weapons shortages could mean hard calls for Ukraine’s allies

WASHINGTON (AP) — Europe’s arms shortages could force difficult choices for Ukraine’s allies as they balance support for Ukraine against the risk that Russia will continue to target them.

For months, the United States and other NATO members have sent billions of dollars worth of weapons and equipment to Ukraine to help it fight Russia. But for many of the smaller NATO countries, and even for some of the larger ones, the war strained already depleted arms stocks. Some allies have sent all their spare Soviet-era weapons and are now waiting for American replacements.

It may be difficult for some European countries to quickly resupply because they no longer have a strong defense sector to quickly build replacements, many relying on a dominant American defense industry that has eliminated some foreign competitors.

Now they face a dilemma: Do they continue to send their arms stockpiles to Ukraine and potentially increase their vulnerability to Russian attack, or do they hold back what is left to protect their homeland, risking the possibility that a Russian victory in Ukraine is more likely?

It’s a hard calculation.

After eight months of intense fighting, the Allies expect the war to continue for months, perhaps years, with both sides quickly using up their weapons supplies. Victory may come down to who can last the longest.

Stockpile tension occurs “all the time,” especially in smaller NATO countries, said Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur of Estonia, a Baltic nation that shares a 295-kilometer border with Russia.

That weighs on them even as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged members of the Western alliance at a recent NATO meeting in Brussels to “dig deep and provide additional capabilities” to Ukraine.

European officials, in public comments and interviews with The Associated Press, said Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine and that their support would continue. But they pointed out that domestic defense weighs on all of them.

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“Our estimate is that Russia will restore its capabilities sooner rather than later,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin can order weapons manufacturers to go into 24-hour production, Pevkur said.

Russia directed some troops to factories instead of the front line, he said. The minister said Russia has a history of rebuilding its military so it can launch invasions against its European neighbors every few years, citing moves against Georgia in 2008, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and now all of Ukraine in This year.

“So the question is, ‘How much risk are you willing to take?'” Pevkur said at a German Marshall Fund event last week.

Other smaller nations, such as the Baltic state of Lithuania, face the same challenges. But so do some larger NATO members, including Germany.

“Ukraine has led to a general supply shortage because so many states have forgotten that conventional warfare is burning through your ammunition supply. I just burn through it,” said Dovilė Šakalienė, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament, in a telephone interview. “In some situations, even the word ‘excess’ is not applicable. In certain situations, we left ourselves with a strict minimum.”

Germany is facing a similar situation, the Defense Ministry said in an email to AP. “Yes, Bundeswehr stocks are limited. As is the case in other European countries,” the ministry said.

“I cannot tell you the exact stocks due to security issues. However, we are working to close the current gaps.”

For some NATO countries, it may not be possible to “dig deep,” said Max Bergmann, European director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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“They essentially cut out the fat,” Bergmann said. “Now it cuts to the bone.”

Stockpiles are low because for many European nations, military spending has become a lower priority since the end of the Cold War, which weakened their defense industrial bases. American defense companies also had a role as they moved to compete for European contracts.

“We wanted them to buy American,” Bergmann said. “When the Norwegians operate F-16s and F-35s instead of Swedish Saab Gripen fighters,” it impacts the strength of Europe’s defense market, he said.

The US has long called on other NATO countries to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP — a target most had failed to meet.

Since the Russian invasion, several European countries have pledged significant increases in defense spending to quickly rebuild their militaries, while sending Ukraine much of what they have on hand.

Estonia has given Ukraine the equivalent of a third of its defense budget, Pevkur said. Norway provided more than 45 percent of its stockpile of howitzers, Slovenia committed nearly 40 percent of its tanks, and the Czech Republic sent about 33 percent of its multiple-launch rocket systems, according to Germany’s Kiel Institute. The team based its analysis on an annual report on the known weapons and troop sizes of militaries around the world, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The US has pledged more than $17.5 billion in weapons and equipment to Ukraine since February, raising questions among some members of Congress whether it too is taking too much of a risk. The Pentagon will not provide data on its own stockpiles.

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The Washington-based research group Stimson Center estimates that the war in Ukraine has reduced US stockpiles of Javelin anti-tank weapons by up to a third and Stinger missile stocks by 25%. It also put pressure on artillery supplies, as the US-made M777 howitzer is no longer in production.

Pentagon spokesman Air Force Gen. Pat Ryder said that when Austin recently met with top government arms buyers from dozens of countries, he discussed the need “not just to restock our own stocks as a community international, but also to ensure that we can continue to support Ukraine in the future.”

Estonia adopted a 42.5% increase in its defense budget this year to replenish its stocks. Germany is working on long-term contracts for high-end munitions such as Stinger missiles and in September signed a 560 million euro ($548 million) contract for 600 new Navy guided missiles, with delivery scheduled until 2029.

Restoring stockpiles and rebuilding weapons manufacturing capacity will be a long process, said Tom Waldwyn, a defense acquisition researcher for the IISS.

For some countries, “it may require more significant investment in infrastructure. This will not be cheap as inflation and supply chain instability have increased costs,” said Waldwyn.

Šakalienė pressed other members of the Lithuanian Parliament to start awarding long-term defense contracts now to rebuild the country’s ability to defend itself.

“Without making long-term sustainable decisions in the expansion of the military industry, we are not safe,” Šakalienė said. “This decade will not be peaceful. This decade will be difficult”.

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Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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