Jens Stoltenberg chooses his words carefully. The strait-laced Norwegian secretary-general of Nato is famous for his ability to stick rigidly to talking points. So when he warned this week that the west’s “under strain” defence sector had “a problem”, he meant it.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is almost a year old. Tens of thousands have been killed. Western governments have provided more than $110bn worth of support to Kyiv, according to the Kiel Institute, with $38bn in the form of weapons.
But in many capitals, defence ministers are being informed by their generals that there is precious little left to give. Warehouses and dumps are bare. Denmark has given Ukraine every single one of its Caesar howitzers. Estonia has provided so many 155mm artillery guns it has none left.
As such, the conversations between western defence ministers who met at Nato’s headquarters this week and who will congregate at the Munich Security Conference this weekend are littered with furrowed brows and anxious looks: how long can we sustain this level of support, and with what?
Looming over them is Russia’s spring offensive, which Stoltenberg said had already begun. It is expected to involve a mass wave of newly mobilised troops, a level of air power not yet deployed by Moscow, and the daily firing of as many artillery shells as Europe manufacturers in a month.
“It is worrying what is coming,” admitted Kajsa Ollongren, the Netherlands’ defence minister.
She described “a sense of urgency” among her fellow Nato ministers this week. “[It is] a critical moment because of what we see happening on the ground and what we expect to be happening in the next few months.”
“Also, thinking a little bit ahead, a serious scenario is of course that this war will drag on for a long time,” she added.
Europe responded to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion with initial disbelief. Capitals that had previously declared he had no plans to do so then duly predicted Kyiv would fall in days.
But that rapidly gave way to a level of unity and support that defied both expectations and past form. Armies starved of funding by governments that had long dismissed the notion of war in Europe dug deep, and within weeks arms were flowing east across the Polish-Ukrainian border (as refugees flowed the other way).
But almost 12 months of gruelling war, in which Putin’s troops have targeted both civilian infrastructure and military targets, has placed immense pressure on Europe’s ill-prepared defence sector.
Europe’s factories are barely able to make enough shells to supply a week’s worth of Ukraine’s needs. Waiting times for some munitions have more than doubled.
Stocks of Soviet equipment held by eastern Nato states, which Ukraine’s soldiers know how to use, have been exhausted. Decisions to send new types of western-made weapons — such as armoured vehicles — are met with fanfare but are followed by weeks and months of delays as armies realise how much refurbishment they require.
“It’s not going well for the Ukrainians. They are short of everything,” said Judy Dempsey, non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “Ukraine really needs the means [to fight back], but they aren’t getting it.”
“[The Europeans] are fully behind the Ukrainians. But it’s not enough,” said Dempsey. “You don’t question the political will to support Ukraine, but the actual ability to deliver enough, and quick enough.”
The answer, according to most officials, is large, long-term contracts with defence manufacturers, initially for the war effort but with pledges from European governments to keep buying even when peace comes to Ukraine. Such conversations will dominate Munich, too.
Estonia’s defence minister proposed to his counterparts this week that donor countries combine to sign a €4bn contract to procure 1mn artillery rounds, as a test case for joint purchases that give defence contractors the security to invest in new capacities.
Seven European countries, including the UK, Norway and Denmark, announced on Wednesday a jointly funded £200mn package of direct contracts between Ukraine and western defence manufacturers for supplies, including artillery ammunition and spare parts for tanks.
Nato, for its part, late last year ordered all its members to perform a snap check of their inventories. It is now using the results to target individual governments and push them to sign new production contracts.
“We’re not just sitting there idle and watching this happening,” said Stoltenberg this week, suggesting that factories add shifts and “even work during weekends”.
The problem, of course, is that Russia’s war economy has been running for at least a year. Europe, meanwhile, is just getting into gear.