Czech Republic Hungary Insight Poland Slovakia

Flames of war: is Europe’s centre of gravity shifting towards the East?


Warsaw, Poland – The 2023 Munich Security Conference dominated by calls to invest in the arms industry and huge increases in the defence budgets marks a historical change as the geopolitical center of gravity shifts towards Central and Eastern Europe.

The time when Europe was a peaceful anomaly in a conflictual world has come to its end. Security has surpassed economics as the main concern, returning to the Cold War era mentality. The Munich Security Conference (MSC) was held on February 17-19 with a complete shift from last year’s environment: from trying to prevent an escalation in Ukraine to discussing how to coordinate efforts to help a democratic country being invaded by the Russian autocratic regime.

As the flames of war sparked again on European soil, leaders and governments across the continent have been facing the lack of preparation of the local arms industry to meet the necessities of supplying weapons and ammunition in wartime. The European defence industry has become used to peaceful times and is struggling to keep fuelling the Ukrainian effort, and it is difficult to foresee if it will be capable of matching the rising spending in security across the continent. The European Union, used to soft politics, is struggling to define itself as a geopolitical actor and develop further security capabilities.

Divided between an aspirational strategic autonomy and its security dependency on the United States, the West and the East of Europe have different views on the future security structure in the continent. At the MSC, the EU’s High Representative of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, stated a clear intention of maintaining and intensifying the support towards Ukraine. However, the heavy armament and ammunition needed to repel the possible Russian offensive is facing difficulties in order to be delivered.

The classical warfare taking place on Ukrainian soil has proved to be a problem for the type and structure of the European arms industry, used to highly technological equipment and long-term deliveries during peace time. As President Volodymyr Zelensky stated at the opening of the conference “We need speed” and the European Union negotiations and developing military production capabilities are not characterised by their speed.

European defence industry faces wake-up call

European stocks of armament and ammunition are being drained by the Ukrainian war effort and it seems that the arms industry is not capable of following its rhythm. Despite the statements by the European diplomats and politicians of a short-term increase in the ammunition production, there has been no concrete plan to assess the supply shortage.

There have been calls led by the Estonian Prime Minister, Kajas Kallas, to develop a European Union framework in order to purchase ammunition on behalf of its member states. The proposal, backed by Josep Borrell, could help in rationalising and making more efficient the supply and purchase of ammunition but it does not address the production problems.

The development of joint financial programs in order to boost the local arms industry could be highly beneficial. Coordination of the participants would enable a more efficient management of resources. Former joint European projects such as Airbus have proved to be a success, and taking a similar approach towards other arms sectors could result in a European defence industry capable of meeting the standards of times of war. The security budget increases across the continent are going to put a strain on the already saturated arms industry.

Huge investments in the medium and long term are needed in order to ensure that European countries are capable of supplying the weapons and armament demanded by their rising military spending. Despite the important support of the public opinion towards initiatives in order to help the Ukrainian military effort, future and important increases in defence budgets may spark some controversy due to dedicating a growing number of public resources towards the military in times of economic recession and rising costs of living.

New opportunities

The traditional foreign markets for arms, mainly the United States, are already struggling to cover its own demand. However, the South Korean arms industry is proving to be an important and reliable source of new equipment and a natural ally of European countries.

The historical deal between the Polish government and the South Korean government valued at $5.8 billion could be representing the trend of Central and Eastern European countries willing to substitute their Soviet-era armament with weapons and vehicles developed and supplied by a major ally and partner. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has boosted an already booming South Korean arms industry. In opposition to the European arms industry, South Korean weapons production is proving to be capable of meeting the needs of the current increase in armament demand.

Despite not being able to surpass American technological armament quality, the highly competitive prices and the reliability in delivery is placing South Korea as a global major arms exporter. The purchase of weaponry and vehicles from South Korea could serve as a substitute for European countries willing to deliver their Soviet-era equipment to Kyiv, being more efficient due to already being in European stocks and the fact that Ukrainian troops are already familiarised with that type of armament.

West and East

The renewal of imperialistic aspirations of Russia has been faced with fear and anxiety by the Central and Eastern European countries that remember well the tyrannical yoke of the Kremlin. Those countries have shown a higher degree of solidarity towards Ukraine, delivering funds and weapons massively and being the principal advocates for increasingly tough countermeasures and sanctions to Russia.

The rebirth of the NATO spirit has put at the centre the Eastern flank of the alliance – from the Baltic state to Poland and Romania – renewing the importance and influence of the countries at the backyard of the Kremlin. With the new language of security in Europe, the power is moving its traditional Western centrism towards the East.

The negotiations in Poland between the Bucharest nine (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) and the Biden administration to increase the number of US’ troops show the contrast between Western Europe, advocating for the so-called Strategic Autonomy, and CEE countries, maintaining American security guarantees at the centre of their defence strategy.

Massive increases in arms purchasing and defence budgets are placing the Eastern sector of NATO at the centre of the arms race, with Poland leading the group. The huge investments of the Polish government will probably make Warsaw one of the main military references in Europe and a new powerhouse at the East of Brussels.

By Valeria Quintá Bértolo and Arnau Torras Sierra

Valeria Quintá Bértolo and Arnau Torras Sierra are independent researchers based in Barcelona, Spain, with a focus on geopolitics and current global affairs.