Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Will Europe’s Front-Line States Have Enough Soldiers to Fight?

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Would the European Union’s eastern front-line states fight back like Ukraine if Russia attacked them? Unfortunately, this is no longer a hypothetical scenario: Hardly a day goes by without a Russian government official or pundit threatening Poland, Finland, or the Baltic states with missile attacks, an invasion, or both. In word and deed, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he seeks to restore Moscow’s former European empire.

The answer is probably yes, because the countries that have lived under the Kremlin’s rule know from their own long histories what Russian occupation entails. Those memories have been refreshed by today’s carnage in Ukraine, where the massacres of civilians by Russian soldiers in Bucha and Irpin served as a reminder that a loss of territory to Russia is not just a tactical setback, but also a prelude to barbaric violence.

The post-Cold War pretense that Russia would behave in a fundamentally different, more civilized way from its past practice is gone, reviving memories of more distant tragedies. Citizens of the three Baltic states remember mass executions and deportations at the hands of the Soviets in the 1940s, including the nearly 100,000 people who were deported to Siberia in 1949. Poles cannot forget the execution of more than 20,000 military officers in the Katyn Forest by order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The list of Moscow’s crimes against its neighbors is long—and that list shapes Central Europe’s strategic posture today. As Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently vowed, Poles would “eat grass rather than become a Russian colony again.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, 80 percent of Finns surveyed in a 2022 poll said that they were prepared to defend their country. That same year, the Warsaw Enterprise Institute found that 66 percent of Poles were eager to come to their nation’s defense, and many are now volunteering for basic training. Residents of other nations from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea are expressing a similar determination to protect their lands and fellow citizens from a Russian assault.

The will is there, but is there a way? It remains uncertain whether there will be enough soldiers to fight Putin’s forces. Europe’s front-line countries may have a much greater recruitment problem than what Ukraine faces now—a problem that goes beyond these states’ already grim demographic trends, which have shrunk their populations by millions of people in recent decades.

What the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made clear is that technology cannot take the place of soldiers in a major land war. They are needed to crew tanks and trenches, move and service artillery, fly planes and drones, and occupy and keep territory. Ukraine, for instance, needs thousands of new soldiers each month to rotate forces, replace casualties, and prevent further Russian advances. Even more would likely be needed (along with regular allotments of Western-supplied ammunition) for Kyiv to go back on the offense and push Moscow’s forces out of the occupied parts of Ukraine. A country’s ability to generate a large and steady stream of infantry is thus essential to deter and, if necessary, defeat a potential invader.

But no matter what they tell pollsters, many citizens of Russia’s potential targets may choose to leave when the prospect of war becomes real. Their westward migration would be much easier than it might have been when these countries were not yet members of the European Union. In addition, there is a demand pull from Western Europe, which faces its own population shortages and need for labor. If these factors are not addressed, the likelihood of an exodus casts doubt over these countries’ capacity to guard Europe’s eastern frontier.

Central Europe is a beneficiary of one of the EU’s greatest successes: freedom of movement. The absence of internal borders between most EU member countries allows an easy flow of people and goods, ensuring the rights of nationals and legal residents to live and work in other EU countries. Short distances, cheap flights, educational opportunities, and cultural affinity have created unprecedented mobility of EU nationals. Equipped with language abilities and fungible skills, many young people from Warsaw, Tallinn, or Helsinki feel more at home in Berlin, Amsterdam, or Barcelona than in their own countries’ towns and villages.

In recent years, many Central Europeans have also acquired second residences abroad. Poles, for instance, have been buying real estate in Spain in record numbers. If their rising prosperity and desire to diversify their savings is one reason, then unease about the future since the return of Russian aggression is likely another. In Spain, after all, they would be safe from errant missiles and artillery duels.

The second reason why Europe’s front-line states may have a recruitment problem if Russia attacks is that much of Western Europe would be more than happy to accept large numbers of young people from their eastern neighbors, even if the migration was induced by war. Western Europe’s own labor shortages—and the prospect of large numbers of skilled young migrants who are considered easy to integrate—would be as much of a motivation for Western European generosity as solidarity with a country under attack, as suggested by the reaction to the influx from Ukraine in nations such as Germany.

Europe’s demographic trends are by now familiar: The continent’s working-age population has been shrinking for 13 years, now down by almost 10 million people—from a peak of 270 million in 2011 to roughly 260 million now. Today, the worker shortage is acute. Out of the 27 EU countries, 19 have shortages of bricklayers, truck drivers, nurses, and other skilled laborers. At the end of 2023, three-quarters of small- and medium-sized European businesses reported that they were failing to find needed labor. Germany alone is set to lose as much as 10 percent of its working-age population over the next decade. Europe is aging fast and losing tax-paying citizens—a threat that, to countries farther from Russia, feels as existential as the threat of war in the east.

It follows that many EU countries would be more than happy to absorb working-age people escaping front-line states under attack. Instead of being an economic burden, these war refugees would be a boon to Europe’s labor-deprived economies.

What’s more, many countries across the West face military recruitment problems. There is simply a shortage of people willing to serve and fight if needed. Poland now plans to train Ukrainian citizens of conscription age living on its territory for potential deployment in Ukraine. But this would also create a precedent for establishing a foreign fighting force on Polish territory, which other states could follow as a way to replenish their demographically shrunken forces. In the past, it has not been unusual for a country to have military brigades or even divisions composed of foreign citizens from war-torn nations.

From a political and societal perspective, it will also be easier for Germany, France, or Italy to take in European refugees who have connections across the continent, share a similar culture, and are generally eager to integrate. For European politicians, this could be a way to promote immigration without the political backlash that was visible in the recent EU parliamentary elections, where parties campaigning against the current trend of mass migration from Africa and the Middle East polled a record share of the vote.

The EU’s front-line states, if under attack, may therefore face a soldier shortage considerably more dire than the one facing Ukraine. It is hard to have a nation under arms if the bulk of the nation can easily leave. Of course, the affected countries could always institute border controls to keep recruits from fleeing, which even EU law allows. But unless there is a firm and detailed plan, these kinds of controls would take days, if not weeks, to put in place—and they would likely be met with an outcry in Brussels and Western European capitals, since they would contravene one of the EU’s proudest achievements. And by definition, any plan implemented only as a last resort following an attack would come too late to deter Moscow from attacking in the first place.

As war-waging Russia advances westward, European countries on the front line need to plan how to retain their own people. The ability of an EU member to fight will depend on the timely imposition of border controls, but even more on the patriotism of its people. Like the Ukrainians now, many front-line Europeans will fight for their nation—and for their nation’s place in a free Europe. But if their fondness for other parts of Europe trumps the sense of duty to their country, then they may choose to enjoy the benefits offered across the continent rather than face the Russian armies on their native lands.

One of the tasks for Europe’s front-line countries is, therefore, to sustain a vibrant patriotism. Only a deeply shared sense of nationhood can overcome the temptation of an easy and comfortable exit—and engender a willingness to sacrifice. Without cultivating this sense of patriotism and duty, Europe’s front-line states may face a soldier shortage that they haven’t bargained for.

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