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Analysis: European military leaders express concern over potential Russian invasion.

| Defense News Army 2024

Like other European military leaders, in November 2023, Admiral Michel Hofman, Chief of Defense (CHOD) of the Belgian armed forces, expressed deep concern regarding the potential for a high-intensity conflict with Russia. He emphasized that the Belgian military is undergoing a transformation aimed at ensuring preparedness for any future conflicts that may arise in the coming years, given the deteriorating global security situation. During a meeting with journalists in Brussels, Admiral Hofman expressed uncertainty about whether this transformation would be completed in time to effectively address possible crises.
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The scenarios of the Cold War based on a large invasion by Russian forces in the central plains of Western Europe long became forgotten, giving ground to limited offensives against  Moldova and the Baltic states, not excluding Finland, like in 1939. But who knows? (Picture source: Army Recognition)

Admiral Hofman's main fear lies in the adaptation of the Belgian army to the rapidly evolving geostrategic landscape. He worries that the pace of this adaptation may not be sufficient to meet the challenges posed by future security threats, including those related to the conflict in Ukraine, China's growing influence, and various hybrid threats. To mitigate these concerns, he aims to make the Belgian Defense more robust by collaborating with NATO and the European Union, emphasizing the importance of burden-sharing in foreign policy.

The Admiral specifically highlighted the potential for a significant escalation of the situation in Ukraine, which has been resisting Russian aggression with Western assistance for over a year and a half. He noted that the outcome depends on Russia's capabilities and intentions, especially regarding potential actions against Europe and NATO member states. NATO's analyses suggest that Russia may require five to ten years to rebuild its military capabilities following the Ukraine conflict, despite Western economic sanctions. Russia has sought to overcome these sanctions by establishing new weapon factories and forging alliances with China, North Korea, and Iran to procure ammunition and drones.

To adequately prepare for the future and deter potential aggression from Russia, Admiral Hofman stressed the importance of allies within NATO and the EU taking five to ten years to bolster their defenses. He emphasized the need for a robust, well-equipped, and sustainable defense apparatus to prevent a possible confrontation with Russia. Failure to do so would leave nations in an unfavorable position, vulnerable to Russia's attempts to disrupt cohesion within Western alliances, both in Europe and Africa.

Belgium has responded to this pressing need by increasing its defense efforts, as illustrated by the approval of the STAR plan in February 2022. However, the plan does not account for the lessons learned from the conflict in Ukraine, such as the growing importance of drones and long-range artillery. The Belgian Defense aims to adapt the STAR plan and military programming law (LPM) to reflect its long-term vision, aligning it with NATO's defense planning process (NDPP) and addressing the objectives set by NATO. This includes potential acquisitions of additional F-35 fighter jets beyond the initially ordered 34.

The Netherlands raises the alarm

Lieutenant-General Martin Wijnen, the outgoing Commander of the Royal Netherlands Army, emphasized the need for both the Dutch military and society to prepare themselves for the potential of a conflict with Russia. In an interview published by NL Times and Telegraaf, Wijnen stressed the importance of following the examples set by neighboring countries like Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic nations that share borders or proximity to Russia, as they are better equipped to handle the outbreak of war.

Wijnen urged that Dutch society should understand the necessity of readiness for unforeseen circumstances, such as having stockpiles of food and drinking water for emergency situations. He cautioned against complacency based on the misconception that the Netherlands' safety is guaranteed due to its distance from potential conflict zones, stating, "The Netherlands should not assume that our safety is assured just because we are 1,500 kilometers away". Furthermore, Wijnen emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong military as a deterrent to potential threats from Russia, asserting that the only language Russia comprehends is one backed by a robust military capability. He stressed the urgency of addressing personnel shortages within the military.

Wijnen expressed optimism about the voluntary service year for young people, inspired by a successful program in Sweden, with hopes of attracting two to three thousand young participants annually. He anticipates that a significant portion of these young individuals will choose careers in the army or become reservists, forming a vital "outer shell" of 18-year-olds to complement the professional army and absorb potential losses.

Sweden potentially on a frontline

As recalled by Laurent Lagneau in Opex360, in December 2012, General Sverker Göranson, then Chief of the Swedish Armed Forces, raised concerns about Sweden's vulnerability in the face of a limited military attack due to a rapidly shrinking budget. However, his warning initially fell on deaf ears among political leaders. This perception changed in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea and increased military activity in the Baltic region.

In 2017, a government-commissioned report titled "Resilience" confirmed Göranson's earlier assessment, suggesting that limited attacks on critical Swedish areas, such as the strategic Gotland island, were possible. Though not explicitly naming Russia, suspicion turned toward the country, especially in light of recent naval and aerial incidents involving Russian forces. This threat prompted Sweden to make significant changes to its defense policy. The country increased its military spending, reintroduced conscription (which had been suspended in 2010), revitalized its defense industry, remilitarized Gotland island, and refocused on the concept of total defense.

The situation escalated further in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. In response, Sweden, already an EU member, decided to join NATO alongside Finland. The membership process was on track, allowing Sweden to benefit from NATO's deterrence and the assurance of collective defense under Article 5.

Despite these steps, some Swedish officials remained concerned about their nation's preparedness for a potential conflict. At the "Folk och Försvar" conference in January 2024, the Swedish Minister of Civil Defense, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, issued a stark warning to the public, urging them to prepare for the possibility of war. He emphasized the need to modernize the civil defense system and for every citizen to contribute to preparedness.

This sentiment was echoed by the Swedish Minister of Defense, Pål Jonson, who stressed that an armed attack against Sweden could not be ruled out and highlighted Russia's wartime preparations. Jonson announced the forthcoming adoption of a historic resolution on total defense, grounded in Sweden's NATO ally status and developed in response to the ongoing war in their neighborhood.

In summary, Sweden's defense landscape has undergone a significant transformation due to growing security concerns in the Baltic region and Russia's actions. This has led to increased military spending, policy shifts, and a move toward NATO membership to bolster Sweden's defense capabilities. Despite these efforts, officials continue to emphasize the need for heightened preparedness and modernization of the civil defense system in the face of potential threats.

Moldova, Lithuania… and where else? Poland would be a too strong adversary for Russia, as they are reputed to be extremely strong warfighters and still bitterly feeling against Russia since World War 2 and the Hitler-Staline non-aggression pact (actually the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact) followed by the coordinated invasion of Poland by the German and Soviet armies. And they have not forgotten the dark period of the Warsaw Pact that cut Poland from Western Europe.

Russian armed forces far from ready and able for land battle in Europe

However, according to Major General Vadym Skibitskyi, Deputy Chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU), Russia lacks the capability to engage in strategic offensive operations on foreign land, given that all its ground forces are currently deployed within Ukraine and are actively engaged in conflict there, Ukrainska Pravda reports. In a recent episode of the (Un)Safe Country podcast by Ukrainska Pravda, Skibitskyi assessed the potential for Europe to be drawn into the conflict, particularly for nations like Finland, the Baltic states, and Poland, but considered such a scenario to be unlikely.

Skibitskyi elaborated on Russia's limitations, stating, "While we are containing the aggression of the Russian Federation, Russia does not possess the necessary resources to open a second front. They lack strategic reserves. They have relocated air defense units from various regions, including the Far East and the north, to reinforce their air defense in Crimea and bolster their positions along our border. This is the primary constraint. Secondly, although Russia had previously ventured into Finland in 1939, the geopolitical landscape has changed significantly since then, with Finland now being a formidable player as a NATO member. Therefore, our analysis is straightforward: the Russian Federation presently lacks the capability to execute strategic land-based offensive operations against other nations, as its ground forces are fully committed and concentrated within our territory."

Skibitskyi acknowledged concerns regarding potential isolated attacks employing long-range or strategic aircraft, but he emphasized that there is no immediate, direct threat of a conflict erupting in the Baltic states. He concluded, "Russia essentially has no adversaries left to engage with."

Defense News January 2024

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