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More NATO members pushing for higher defense spending

January 16, 2023

In the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, some NATO members are calling for more defense spending. Lithuania says the current benchmark of 2% of GDP should be the bare minimum. Is NATO facing a new test of unity?

Nato soldier in front of a tank
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, NATO has received a boost of fresh spendingImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

One look at the map and Lithuania's difficult geopolitical situation is obvious. To the east, the Baltic country shares a 680-kilometer (423-mile) border with Belarus. To the southwest, it borders on the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. "Being so close to Russia and Belarus, we have to be serious about defense," Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania's vice minister of defense, told DW.

In 2023, the country's national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP), according to the government. But Tomkus said Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. One of NATO's eight multinational battle groups is based on its territory. "For us, 2% is a bottom line, not a ceiling," Tomkus pointed out.

Who is pushing for increased spending at NATO?

Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the alliance to agree to higher spending goals. If NATO is serious about ensuring and enhancing its defense and deterrence posture, if it aims to defend every inch of its territory, "there is a need to increase defense spending," Tomkus said. 

Lithuania's Vice Minister of Defense Zilvinas Tomkus speaking in Sweden
Lithuania's Vice Minister of Defense Zilvinas Tomkus wants NATO members to spend even more than 2%Image: Fredrik Sandberg/TT/picture alliance

Currently, NATO members are expected to reach the benchmark of spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense by 2024. That target was agreed at a 2014 summit in Wales, just after Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

"The burden sharing discussion was most toxic under President Trump, but it far predates him and will continue," Kristine Berzina, an expert on European security at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told DW.

Why is NATO increasing spending?

In the 1990s, she said, there was a sense that: "we no longer needed to pay for defense. And defense spending fell significantly. But the reality is that we live in as dangerous — if not more dangerous — times right now than during the Cold War. And defense spending should reflect that."

Berzina pointed to the poor condition of stocks and preparedness across many NATO countries, among them Germany. "So, it's fixing a problem that has now evolved in the system in order to get to a more competitive place vis-a-vis Russia and potentially China in the future. And that will require a lot of investment," she said.

Western tanks to turn the tide?

Why does Germany spend so little on defense?

However, while frontline states like Lithuania are going to exceed 2% of GDP in their military spending, countries such as Belgium and Germany have underfunded their defense forces for years. Berzina said she expected this to be "an even bigger conflict moving forward."

Most of the NATO allies have yet to hit the existing spending goal, with Germany expected to be spending 1.44% on defense for 2022, and Belgium aiming for 1.54% by 2030. According to diplomats, both countries, as well as Canada, are seen as opposing the push to agree to stricter targets in the face of Russia's war on Ukraine. The topic is set to be on the agenda at the next NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels in mid-February.

'Committed to the 2% target'

"Germany remains committed to the 2% target agreed at the Wales Summit," a spokesperson for the defense ministry in Berlin told DW. "Sufficient funds and a consistently increasing ceiling are the key to modernizing the Bundeswehr, enabling Germany to be a reliable partner internationally and to be able to assume more responsibility."

However, despite a sea change in German security policy announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year, Berlin will not reach the 2% goal every year but only on average over several years thanks to a special fund of €100 billion ($108 billion) approved by Parliament after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Is Germany risking its leadership role in Europe?

The Defense Ministry spokesperson did not specifically comment on the new spending discussion but emphasized that "Germany and the USA are currently responsible for the largest shares in the joint financing of NATO, each with 16.34%." That little-known fact is often invoked by German officials to underline the value of the country's contribution to the alliance despite missing the spending target for its own armed forces.

But not all observers are convinced. There is "continual disappointment with Germany," Kristine Berzina told DW, with critics questioning what Berlin's future role in Europe will be. "It really also comes at a cost for any potential leadership position that Germany can take," she said.

Two Puma tanks at a Bundeswehr barracks in Halle, Germany
The debacle of malfunctioning new Puma tanks is just one example of the shortcomings of Germany's BundeswehrImage: Philipp Schulze/dpa/picture alliance

Berzina expects the "tremendous amount of pressure" on Germany will only increase. "This will, of course, create some tension within the alliance," she said. "It will be very hard to make 2% a real floor. But I think some kind of commitment not to forever fail as badly — as many countries did — would be possible."

NATO unity despite 'messy fight'

However, Berzina does not expect the issue will threaten the unity of NATO. "What is agreed to and presented to the world at the end will be a common position that will proclaim unity. But it will be a messy fight to get there," she said.

Allies might have a difficult and challenging debate over the issue, "but in the end, somehow, they normally manage to reach consensus — which is very important to the alliance," Lithuania's Zilvinas Tomkus told DW. He indicated an agreement could be reached at the next regular NATO summit this June in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. "Ukraine," he said, "was a test to our unity" but added that  the alliance had so far passed the test with flying colors.

Edited by: Jon Shelton