Russia’s war on Ukraine has set a new direction for Europe’s international relations. Russia’s actions have confirmed that it unambiguously represents the state-based threat to Europe’s security order for the foreseeable future. The period of relative geopolitical stability, enjoyed by Europe from the late 20th century and through the early decades of the 21st century, is over.
Even as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, key components of the future for Europe’s international relations have come into focus. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been reaffirmed as a peerless European organisation that has the credibility and capabilities to counter a systemic challenger to the European security order. The United States (US) has also demonstrated that it represents an irreplaceable guarantor of Europe’s military security in the absence of a revolution in the levels of European countries’ defence expenditure and a resultant dramatic step change in the acquisition of military capabilities.
Active US leadership in relation to Russia’s war has also affirmed that the US is neither disinterested in European security, nor that it has allowed NATO to become ‘brain dead’. The behaviour of the recent presidency of Donald Trump was not the most reliable guide to the actions of his successor. However, this should not breed complacency on the part of Europeans that future US presidents will demonstrate the same degree of material commitment to Europe’s security as has been the case with the presidential administration of Joe Biden. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) will remain the foremost concern of future presidencies and the role of the US in Europe as an adjunct to managing the challenge presented by this systemic competitor.
If the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine has seen a reaffirmation of the centrality of the US role in Europe’s international relations, it has unsettled the role and function of the European Union (EU).
The EU’s response to Russia’s war has been impressive and it has undeniably moved to develop policy responses at an unprecedented pace. This has been exemplified in the ten rounds of sanctions restricting Russia’s trade and the targeting of its kleptocratic elite, the use of the European Peace Facility to supply defence-related equipment, macroeconomic support for Ukraine, and the decision to accord the country EU membership candidate status. Further, the role of EU member states in hosting Ukraine’s civilian population, displaced by Russia’s indiscriminate warfare, has been exemplary.
However, the ambitions for a future EU defence union, a geopolitical EU with the capacity to play an active role in managing international order, and, most especially, the ambition to build a foreign policy with the leitmotif of remaking international relations in its image, look to have been superseded by the existing means in-hand to counter Russia’s ongoing threat to Europe’s security. And it has been the exercise of leadership by the EU’s states in the Baltic which have given impetus to a firm collective response to Russia in place of the political vacillation that has characterised the traditional French-German EU leadership duo.
Alongside the upsetting of the EU’s normal patterns of leadership there has been a new centrality for Poland in Europe’s response to Russia’s war, the assertiveness of Baltic states in both action and advocacy for Ukraine, and the major shift in the strategic culture of member states most spectacularly demonstrated by Finland and Sweden seeking accession to NATO. It is also Europeans outside the EU that have provided some of the most significant responses to Russia’s war: notably the United Kingdom’s (UK) substantial military support for Ukraine pre- and post-February 2022 together with diplomatic leadership within the G7 on the Russian sanctions regime, and Norway’s key role in the EU’s pivot away from Russian gas supplies.
Perhaps the most profound impact on Europe’s international relations is the new position occupied by Ukraine. Ukraine has moved to the centre-stage of Europe. Its war for national survival will also determine the fate of Russia’s willingness and ability to use military force to craft its preferred security order for Europe. Without its military defeat and expulsion from Ukraine’s territory, the Kremlin will have secured a licence to destabilise European peace and security at will. As with Britain’s 1939-1941 experience, Ukraine’s experience of solitary war fighting (albeit with supporting states providing military material) should deeply mark its future perspective on Europe’s security order. And if it accedes to the EU it will further broaden and deepen the collective of member states with a strategic culture willing to counter a revanchist Russia.
The EU has been a significant supporting player in the response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, but its aspirations as a leading diplomatic, defence and security actor have been blunted.
As the centrality of the UK, Ukraine and Poland to Europe’s security order has waxed, the leadership role of France and Germany has waned. Germany’s ‘Zeitenwende’, though dramatic in its domestic political impact, has not translated into a leadership role in response to Russia. Rather, the public diplomacy of Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, on Russia’s war on Ukraine has been frequently equivocal and even when he has taken supportive actions (such as the commitment to supply Leopard 2 tanks) it has appeared to be an outcome which is the result of the external pressure of allies rather than decisive political leadership.
France has also been a laggard rather than a leader on the European response to Russia. In maintaining direct communication with Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, for six months into the Kremlin’s’s war, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, appeared to place égotisme over the more appropriate action of diplomatic ostracisation. Until recently, France’s supply of military equipment has also been underwhelming, when compared to its European peers. Notably, France and Germany (unlike the UK), were not among the nine signatories of the Tallinn Pledge to deliver main battle tanks, heavy tracked artillery, air defence systems, ammunition, and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine.
Finally, Europe’s (and most especially Germany’s) energy dependence on Russia has been transformed. And most dramatically with the switch from the use of Russian gas to supplies replaced with imports of Liquid Natural Gas and Norwegian gas. The illusion that economic interdependence with Russia would have a transformative effect on Russia’s economy and politics has been shattered. The pursuit of the same policy approach of trade interdependence yielding a positive political transformative effect has also been pursued by the EU (with significant German prompting as the pursuit of its philosophy of ‘Wandel durch Handel’) with the PRC. Beijing’s support for Russia in the war on Ukraine alongside its actions against European states pursuing closer links with Taiwan have prompted a long overdue reappraisal of trade and technology links with the PRC in European capitals. But this is not being pursued with the same degree of animation as in Washington. The EU will find it difficult to relinquish its core philosophy that the ‘Brussels effect’ of enmeshing states in its regulatory orbit will give it sufficient leverage to play a significant role in maintaining an open international order.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has transformed the European geopolitical landscape, presenting a challenge to key multilateral institutions, while upending the leadership roles performed by key European states. The EU has been a significant supporting player in the response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, but its aspirations as a leading diplomatic, defence and security actor have been blunted. French-German leadership in the EU has been degraded. The role of the UK in its support for Ukraine has reaffirmed its importance as a Euro-Atlantic power, able to act in concert with liked-minded states for significant effect. NATO has been re-credentialed as Europe’s key security guarantor, with the US as indispensable as ever.
Prof. Richard G. Whitman is a Senior Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.
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