There is really only one great power in the Transatlantic alliance and that’s the United States. Without the roughly $113bn in aid already committed and pledged, Russia’s aggression would have had far greater success, with unknowable consequences for European security.
But while there is no comparison with the assistance from European allies, they have not stinted. Some, led by the Baltic states, have gone much further. Indeed, Estonia has provided six and a half times as much help as the US (1.3% of GDP compared to 0.2%), and Latvia almost five times as much when assessed by the proportion of national wealth contributed. That includes military, humanitarian, and other assistance.
The efforts of the top six contributors by GDP — the three Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech and Slovak republics — are not the most noticed. That’s hardly surprising when the debate on Leopard II tanks, and the UK contribution of Challengers, has dominated debate in the lead-up to and aftermath of the so-called Ramstein 8 meeting of Western military allies on January 20.
Yet the enormity of Estonia’s actions cannot be overstated. The country has stripped parts of its arsenals almost bare to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including handing all its 155mm artillery pieces to Ukraine. Other packages have included Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-tank mines, anti-tank grenade launchers, mortars, vehicles, communications equipment, medical supplies, personal protective equipment (including helmets), dry food packages, and — with Germany — contributions to three field hospitals.
Baltic leadership in the defense and survival of Ukraine is especially remarkable as the three countries don’t have money to burn. In terms of GDP per capita, in 2021 Latvia ranked fifth from last, and Estonia 11th from last among the 27 member states of the EU.
But political elites and large parts of the population see the defense of Ukraine as an extension of their own. This conclusion is borne out by the sheer number of initiatives by civil society in the Baltic states not just to help refugees and people staying in Ukraine, but also to bolster the Ukrainian war effort (collecting money to buy drones for the Ukrainian army became something of a Lithuanian popular sport in 2022). If Ukraine falls, the logic goes, we will be next.
At this stage, it is impossible to predict the amount of help that will still be needed to ensure victory for Ukraine and the renewal of its energy infrastructure and economy at large. The only certainty is that much, much more will be needed.
Clearly, this is beyond the means of the smaller democracies with first-hand experience of Russian occupation (the top six contributors all had Soviet troops based on their territory until the late 20th century.) It is the great European powers that must step forward and here the picture is much murkier.
As Ulrike Franke of the European Council of Foreign Relations recently noted, in the 10 months that have passed since Chancellor Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, there has been very little German initiative or leadership on the matter; Europe’s biggest power has instead moved at “the speed of shame.” The long-drawn-out debate about the dispatch of German-made tanks (finally resolved on January 25) is a good illustration of this point. Meanwhile, Italy, one of the biggest economies in Europe, has only committed 0.036% of its GDP to aid Ukraine, lagging seriously behind France (0.054%), which is the sixth biggest contributor in absolute numbers.
In fairness, the numbers are better when EU assistance, rather than bilateral aid, is considered. The bloc says its members gave almost $50bn to Ukraine in national and collective funds, including items like refugee costs which have been very considerable. The Kiel Institute tracker estimates EU assistance at around €35bn ($38bn) so far.
But at least the war has had one positive effect. It has helped to dismantle, at least partially, the division between the Visegrad group of four Central European states, which occasionally pulled the Baltic states into its orbit, and western Europe.
While Hungary has refused point blank to contribute to the military effort in Ukraine and has even refused to allow arms for Ukraine to cross its territory, and while the Slovak population seems ambivalent about which side to support, Poland has taken a notable lead.
Meanwhile, these mark the early days for a new group of like-minded countries taking a similar approach to Europe’s security architecture. The Nordics, Baltics, and Poland, supported by the UK and the US, now appear to see eye to eye on the need to prevent any future aggression from Russia. They also form the core of those determined to ensure that Russia loses in Ukraine. With the final approval for the dispatch of hundreds of advanced Western tanks to the Ukrainian armed forces now announced, it seems their star is on the rise.
Marija Golubeva is a Latvian politician, political scientist, and historian. She served as the Minister of the Interior of Latvia and as a member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022.) She has been also active as a public policy researcher and international consultant.
Francis Harris is CEPA’s managing editor.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.