The Ukrainian crisis and the ghost of Europe
Russia has with great skill engineered a security crisis around Ukraine on a continental scale. With fanfare, he published requests for a new safety order, and he managed to get most Western governments and audiences talking about it. Military strength clearly matters, and Russia has plenty of it.
The crisis has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of the collective organizations we normally trust to maintain order, primarily NATO and the EU. The most notable and regrettable weakness is that Europe is a mere phantom when it comes to power politics. Major European countries, Britain and France in particular, should stop hiding behind NATO and EU fronts and get to work.
The resolutely Western response to the Russian offensive is the result of American diplomacy. The Biden team is in good shape. It is important, because until 2021 we have seen how the team has groped football North Flow 2Afghanistan and the AUKUS alliance – alienating some allies at all times.
The bad news is that the enlarged NATO is so heavily dependent on American leadership. The point is not simply that NATO is one US presidential election away from chaos (think Trump). It is also that Europe’s contribution to collective defense is so lamentable.
The EU is part of the equation, although it is not a defense organization. In 2013-2014, it was the EU that Russia feared. In response to the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which promised to pull Ukraine irrevocably westward, Russia seized Crimea and stoked civil war in the Donbass region. Russia saw the power of the EU and responded with balance of power measures.
The EU was unable to respond in kind. True, the EU has imposed and maintained sanctions against Russia. However, the absence of the EU in the current crisis over Ukraine is remarkable. The deterrent threat of dramatic new sanctions came from the US, not the EU.
On energy, where Europe is vulnerable to massive imports of oil and gas from Russia, the EU is in deep trouble. Its member states have delegated competences at EU level only on sustainability and climate change. No one is really in charge of energy security, and Russia can exploit this situation.
NATO is better off because the United States provides leadership. However, there is no second level of leadership, as evidenced by the current crisis. The alternative to American leadership is fragmentation. Given the enduring pull of China and Asian geopolitics that will cause the United States to rebalance priorities, this is troubling. There is an emerging lack of leadership and European allies will have to do something about it.
Britain and France will have to take the lead, in unison, and beyond the borders of NATO and the EU. They are the two most capable European allies. They have forces ready to go. They have major defense innovation programs. They are nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The absence of joint Franco-British initiatives during the crisis is all the more glaring. They pursue national initiatives aligned with NATO’s collective priorities, but which do not oblige Russia. Why should Moscow listen to London or Paris? What NATO outcome can London or Paris deliver that would make Moscow listen?
An ability to attract Moscow’s attention can only come from a concerted defense capability led by European powers and backed by the United States. This capability must have Britain and France at the helm, integrate with NATO command, training and modernization structures, and leverage defense industrial innovation and military mobility programs in the EU. In this regard, the current crisis reveals both the interdependence of NATO-EU structures and a real lack of leadership initiative.
The problem is not that British and French domestic politics interfere, which is almost always the case. Rather, Britain and France are locked in a battle of ideas. Where Britain is going ‘global’ (think global Britain), France is betting on EU ‘autonomy’. Remarkably, the leaders of both countries felt the need to insist on these distinct visions during the Ukraine crisis, as if they mattered. Unfortunately, Brexit, as well as the AUKUS affair of 2021, not only fuels this need for national distinction, but promises to do so for a long time to come.
NATO and the EU have become proxies in this battle of ideas. Britain claims to be closer to NATO, France to the EU. In fact, none of them offer the leadership that could build real European muscle. Washington will become frustrated. And Moscow will not pay attention to it.
In the best of all worlds, Britain and France would give up their proxy war and do three things.
First, they would set up a European defense force anchored in NATO, organized to reassure NATO allies in the Baltic or the Black Sea. This force should project considerable and therefore deterrent firepower. It is better to start small but with a real punch. Over time, it should evolve into a larger European first-aid force which, in a rebalanced transatlantic partnership, the United States can support.
Second, they would draw Germany into a European energy security pact. They would be fine with anchoring this in the EU but with Britain in partnership. The pact should reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and build a collective vision around sustainability (and green energy) and security.
Third, they would accept the coordinated exploitation of new defense technologies. NATO should be at the tip of the spear, because that is where technology and force structures merge. But the big markets for defense innovation are the US and the EU: they are too big and too different to merge, but their creative interaction needs to be managed.
This is all for the long haul and not easy. Yet the Ukrainian crisis painfully reveals how vulnerable NATO and the EU are to reigning national jealousies. And how illusory the comfort of nationalism can be.
Through Sten Rynningprofessor in the Department of Political Science and Public Management at the University of Southern Denmark.