The United States sold $80.8 billion worth of weapons to export customers in 2023. This was in reaction to the Ukraine War, when many European NATO countries sent large quantities of weapons to Ukraine. Now those NATO nations want to rebuild their own weapons stockpiles. NATO nations close to Russia, especially Poland and the Baltic States are also increasing their defense spending and acquisitions of weapons in case Russia attacks. Before 2022, such a Russian threat was seen as very unlikely. Then Russia invaded Ukraine and later Russian leaders indicated that once Ukraine was absorbed there were other border areas requiring similar attention.
Since 2022 Poland has been ordering large quantities of weapons and expanding its peacetime armed forces. This is to discourage a Russian attack or defeat it if Russia attacks anyway. That is still seen as unlikely because Poland, unlike Ukraine, is a NATO member, as are the smaller Baltic States. NATO is a defensive coalition, formed in the 1950s to protect members from Russian aggression. NATO membership means that if you attack one member, all NATO nations act as if they were attacked. This arrangement has worked so far, but there are fears that Russia now feels they can attack a NATO nation and intimidate other members from getting involved by threatening to use nuclear weapons against what they consider an attack by NATO. That twisted logic interprets NATO defending itself against Russian aggression as a NATO conspiracy to destroy Russia.
Sales by American defense companies in 2023 were up 56 percent over the previous year. That was because the Americans were increasing their own stockpiles while helping other NATO members do the same. At the same time, NATO countries were still sending more weapons and munitions to Ukraine, which is still fighting the Russian invaders. Poland is the NATO member spending the most on defense because they have faced a thousand years of attacks by Russia. Poland considers themselves as the defender of Europe from Russian aggression. Nations west of Poland, especially Germany, see themselves as eventual targets of Russian aggression. During the Cold War many Europeans feared that a Russian attack would seek to overrun all of Europe from Poland to the Spanish border. This is less likely now because France has had nuclear weapons since 1960 and those weapons were to deal with a Russian invasion that sought to cross the Rhine River and enter France. Russia has had nuclear weapons since 1949 but, like all other nuclear powers, has not used them.
The Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan to end World War II and the impact of those attacks have convinced subsequent nuclear powers to threaten to use them, but not actually do so. This led to some strange politics after 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, three of the new nations emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, inherited some Soviet nuclear weapons. A 1992 treaty arranged for Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to eliminate their nuclear weapons in return form guarantees by the United States, Britain, and Russia that Russia would never attack them. That lasted until 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine to nab the Crimea and parts of the Donbas area. That petered out in 2015 without a formal ceasefire. Russia then invaded Ukraine a second time in 2022, intending to conquer the whole country. That proved to be not only a mistake, but a disaster.
The fighting is still underway, and a frustrated Russia asserts it will keep fighting the Ukrainians for as long as it takes to absorb Ukraine back into the Russian empire. Poland and the Baltic States believe with some justification that they are next, so Poland has increased procurement of weapons and will soon be the most powerful military power in NATO Europe. This includes ordering $15 billion worth of weapons from South Korea, particularly including a thousand K2 tanks which are similar to the American M1 tank but more modern. This will give Poland the largest tank force in Europe. Poland has also ordered more American HIMARS missile launchers and AH-64 Apache helicopters as well as 32 of the new American F-35 stealth fighters. More F-35s will be obtained as soon as the F-35 manufacturer catches up to orders from the United States and other NATO nations. F-35s are replacing the F-16, which has been the staple fighter for the United States and many NATO nations for 50 years. European nations receiving F-35s are sending their F-16s to Ukraine.
Germany is allegedly reviving its armed forces, after allowing them to shrink during the 1990s. That was because Russia was no longer a threat and Germans wanted to spend money on social programs rather than armed forces. That has changed and the Germans promise to send a military force to Poland to add to the forces deterring a Russian invasion. American forces remain in Germany where they are part of the NATO defense forces there to deter Russia. The largest American contribution has been the majority of the military aid initially sent to Ukraine after Russia invaded. Since then, European NATO members have increased their contributions while the Americans reduced theirs, in part because the United States had depleted its reserves of weapons and equipment and needed to rebuild those reserves in case China became a problem in the Western Pacific.
The Russian threat in Ukraine has led many European NATO members to increase defense spending to the NATO goal of two percent of GDP. Until now, few European nations came close to two percent. Now several nations are headed for two percent, and some will be spending a little more than two percent. The Ukraine War is responsible for this revived interest in defense among European nations.