Countries in Central Europe made some of the largest increases in military spending between 2015 and 2016, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), while Russia became the third highest defence spender worldwide.
The increase comes amid growing tensions between Russia and EU countries, especially the newer member states in the eastern part of the bloc. Nato members in the region have also sought to raise their defence spending to the 2% of GDP stipulated by the alliance, due to both growing perceived threats from Russia and pressure from US President Donald Trump for fellow Nato members to fulfil their commitments.
Total spending in Central Europe grew by 2.4% in 2016, although this was a more modest rise than the 2.6% recorded in Western Europe, led by an 11% increase in Italy. Data from individual countries in the region – from the Baltic states in the north to Bulgaria and Romania in the south – showed an upturn in spending in the last one to five years.
“The growth in spending by many countries in Central Europe can be partly attributed to the perception of Russia posing a greater threat,” said Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI AMEX programme. “This is despite the fact that Russia’s spending in 2016 was only 27% of the combined total of European Nato members.”
Poland plans to increase defence spending to 2.2% of GDP in 2020 and 2.5% by 2030, according to a draft bill published on April 21. Warsaw is also reportedly eyeing a number of large military purchases, including the US-made Patriot missile system. Romania too plans to buy Patriot missiles, along with other defence purchases. Elsewhere in the region, the Czech Republic is reportedly planning to buy 12 multi-role helicopters from US aircraft manufacturer Bell Helicopters.
Currently only four Nato member states – Estonia, France, Greece and the US – meet the 2% of GDP spending target, with Turkey and the UK falling very slightly short. Other states, several of which say they are aiming to reach the target within the coming years, have more substantial ground to make up; SIPRI claims total military expenditure by Nato’s European member states would have reached $320bn in 2016, an increase of 26%, had all the states met their targets.
Russia hiked spending by 5.9% in 2016 to $69.2bn, pushing Saudi Arabia, which saw a substantial decline in spending, into fourth place. Russia is now behind only the US ($611bn) and China ($215bn).
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced in January that Moscow has no plans to cut defence spending, Tass reported at the time. The Kremlin is currently developing a modernisation programme for the defence industry for 2018-2025
The strong increase in spending within the region was in contrast to an increase in global military expenditure of just 0.4% to $1.686 trillion, equivalent to 2.2% of global GDP. This was still the first annual increase since 2011, when spending peaked at $1.699 trillion. Globally, the sharpest increase in spending was seen in Asia and Oceania, where five of the top 15 global spenders in 2016 – China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia – are located.
“There are many ongoing tensions in the region: in the Korean Peninsula, between North Korea and South Korea; between China and Japan, over claims in the East China Sea; between China and several South East Asian countries, over claims in the South China Sea; between India and Pakistan; and between India and China,” the report said.
“Such tensions help governments to continue to justify the need to modernise their military capabilities, and to drive military spending upwards. On the other hand, economic growth in the region has generally continued, even if sometimes at a lower rate than in previous years, which makes it possible to increase military spending without increasing the military burden on the economy.”
Meanwhile, low oil prices also dragged down military spending in most oil exporting countries, with notable exceptions such as Russia and Iran. The largest declines in spending among oil exporters were seen in Venezuela (-56%), South Sudan (-54%) and Azerbaijan (-36%), with a reduction also noted in Kazakhstan.
Spending also fell in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. A drop was also reported in the Middle East (as far as there is available data) but reductions of spending in Iraq and Saudi Arabia were offset by “substantial increases” in Iran and Kuwait.