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Ukraine: What should Europe do next?

On the first anniversary of Russia’s renewed assault on Ukraine, the Council on Geostrategy asks leading experts what Europe should do next

David Blagden, University of Exeter

Bolstered deterrence and prudential statecraft are key…

Although Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine has seriously reduced Moscow’s terrestrial combat power, its naval, air, and nuclear forces – the Russian capabilities most dangerous to the United Kingdom (UK) – remain relatively intact. Furthermore, while Russia cannot match the productive potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), it has more scope to impose domestic privations on its population to sustain military production and, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a deep-pocketed backer of force regeneration with its own reasons to mire the power of free and open nations in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, NATO’s principal armourer and guarantor – the United States (US) – faces intensifying pressures to ‘pivot’ away from non-Asian commitments to contain Chinese power in the Western Pacific. As such, major European NATO states like the UK must bear more of their region’s security burden against a revanchist and (still) heavily-armed adversary for the foreseeable future. 

Therefore, Britain’s national strategy towards Russia should be based on robust deterrence and prudential statecraft. Deterrence requires the UK to lead on Northeast Atlantic maritime control, abandoning the unipolar moment’s presumptions of uncontested Western air-sea dominance. It also includes recapitalising anti-ship weaponry and ground-based air defences, while ensuring that any ground forces it deploys in support of NATO have sufficient depth of fires, enablers, and protection. Prudential statecraft entails careful prioritisation of British interests and commitments, including recognition of limits to Britain’s own power and resolve to bring about preferred international outcomes.

Tim Edmunds, University of Bristol

Scenario planning for Ukraine’s post-war transition… 

The ongoing war against Ukraine is understandably dominating the policy agenda of NATO and EU members. However, serious attention should also be paid to scenario planning for its conclusion and aftermath. Even in the event of a Ukrainian victory, the country will face significant post-war challenges, with implications for wider European security. These include the task of rebuilding its shattered economy, of managing a resentful (possibly unstable) Russia on its doorstep, of laying the path to closer integration with NATO and the EU, of demobilising its wartime army, and of adapting to peacetime politics. 

These last two issues have received less attention than the others and are likely to pose significant disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) and civil-military relations challenges for the Ukrainian government. It will face the task of restructuring an enormous wartime army into a sustainably affordable force structure that can continue to defend its borders. It will have to find jobs for thousands of demobilised soldiers, many of whom will have been traumatised by their wartime experiences. In the context of heavily militarised national politics, it will also need to find ways to contain the army (and veterans’ groups) politically and prevent their intervention in politics (or their use and abuse by civilian politicians seeking to draw them into politics). The difficult experience of Croatia between 1995-06 is instructive in this regard. 

NATO and EU states should be planning for how they can best support Ukraine through this transition, as well as how to manage its likely status as a major new military power in Europe. This should include efforts to support Ukraine’s democratisation process, including democratic control over its armed forces; financial and technical assistance for DDR and economic restructuring; and clear pathways towards NATO and EU accession. This final point is critical: in Croatia it was the incentive of NATO and EU membership, and the assistance and conditionalities which accompanied these processes, that kept the military out of politics and helped to consolidate the country’s democratic transition.

Jamie Gaskarth, The Open University

In times of war, prepare for peace…

During his visit to Europe in February 2023, Wang Yi, Director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, said Europeans should be asking ‘What kind of architecture is needed for peace and stability to endure in Europe?’ Whatever his motives, he is right. 

In the first place, European states have an interest in a just peace in Ukraine. Russia’s renewed assault is indefensible, but any settlement will have to set forth an inclusive vision for the future of Russian culture and language in Donbas and Crimea. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s peace plan does not mention how the different sides will be reconciled. That should be a quid pro quo for enhanced European support. It would ease a possible transition to EU membership and undermine Russia’s justification for war.

Beyond that, there is the thorny issue of what to do about Russia. Excluding Russia from European security affairs is practically difficult. Russia has too much scope to make mischief along Europe’s periphery and any decline in its domestic security would have spillover effects.

Yet, when Russia is included in security arrangements, it subverts them by spreading misinformation, blackmailing officials and undercutting efforts to enhance cooperation. With its withdrawal from the 2010 New START agreement, Russia is extracting itself from mechanisms that allow trust-building and dialogue. For now, Europe needs a strategic pause in relations with Russia. Backchannels can continue but public diplomacy will only be counter-productive.

That does not mean Europe should stand still. There’s a strong logic for having a formal European congress to address key questions over European strategic autonomy, NATO-European Union (EU) relations, UK-EU cooperation, how coalitions like the Joint Expeditionary Force link with these structures, and how Europe will engage with the PRC in future. If Europe unites, Wang may regret what he wished for.

Jenny Mathers, Aberystwyth University

Expedite Ukraine’s victory…

Europe should prioritise enabling Ukraine to achieve decisive victory on the battlefield and retake occupied territory as quickly as possible, and bring Ukraine into the EU and NATO soon afterwards. The speed and scale of Europe’s support for Ukraine have been unprecedented, but at the same time this support has only enabled the Ukrainians to mount a spirited defence. Europe’s response to Russia’s aggression has been constrained by concerns about provoking the Kremlin into taking even more drastic action, and the expectation that a negotiated settlement can be achieved. 

True, the risk of the conflict expanding beyond Ukraine or Moscow deploying even more dangerous weapons – even nuclear weapons – must be taken seriously. However, several of the ‘red lines’ that Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, articulated have already been crossed (e.g., attacks on Russian-occupied Crimea, strikes on military targets in Russia itself) without the war escalating in either of those directions. There are no signs that the Kremlin would be willing to give up its claims to the four regions of Ukraine it has annexed or to Crimea in any negotiated settlement. The legitimation of Russia’s occupation of these regions would both be unacceptable to Ukraine and make a mockery of the open international order.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

Look to British, Polish and Ukrainian leadership…

On 24th February 2022 the German and French approach towards Russia and the ‘Three Seas’ region – the space between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas – was in ruins. Almost overnight, Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine upended over 30 years of German energy policy, and 20 years of German and French foreign policy. Berlin and Paris had long hoped to draw Russia into the European security order, much against their Central and Eastern European allies’ better knowledge and advice.

Since then, beyond Ukraine, which has fought valiantly, the two countries which stand out for their leadership and initiative are the UK and Poland. Even before Russia’s renewed assault, Britain began to denounce German energy dependency on Russian gas, just as it enhanced its military support for Ukraine. The shipments of British Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapons (NLAWs) to Kyiv in late January 2022 may have been critical to Ukraine’s victory over the initial Russian attack. Poland, too, has shown itself willing and capable: despite having a national income around a sixth of Germany’s, it has provided more military support, and taken in over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees.

To expedite a Ukrainian victory, and secure the continent in its aftermath, Europe should look to the new leaders of ‘geopolitical Europe’: Britain, Poland and Ukraine.

Abi Watson, Global Public Policy Institute

Avoid viewing all conflict through the prism of great power competition… 

Even before Russia’s renewed assault on Ukraine in February 2022, Europe had seemingly lost its direction in how to deal with protracted conflicts. Parallels of the soul-searching following the fallout from large-scale military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been drawn again in Mali and Somalia where years of international intervention have achieved little to nothing. Contradictions in responses to climate change and rising authoritarianism have raised further concern about whether European leaders are able to prevent the conflicts of the future.

With European policymakers, researchers, media outlets and donors now focused on Ukraine, there is additional danger that all global conflict is framed in terms of ‘great power competition’ with Russia. Doing so could warp strategic thinking and allow rights and democratic freedoms to erode further. 

In the past, threat-based strategies led to no-strings-attached security partnerships with military leaders and a de-prioritisation of peacebuilding ahead of military-first approaches. These policies reduced the prospect of peace and created the very chaos and uncertainty that allowed adversaries to thrive. Europe must avoid repeating the mistakes of the Cold War and the War on Terror. The last year has seen dramatic shifts in European defence and security policy; however, some enduring truths remain, including the fact that only policies grounded in an understanding of the local context stand a chance of succeeding.​

Mark Webber, University of Birmingham and NATO Defence College

More and better weapons, intelligence and training needed fast…

NATO allies have maintained impressive unity over Ukraine. But the most consequential war in Europe since 1945 has not meant an assertion of European leadership. It is the US which remains NATO’s pivotal state. Washington has calmed nerves on NATO’s eastern flank and given the Ukrainians hope of a historic victory. More is required and quickly. The repute and fighting capabilities of the Russian military have taken a huge knock in a year of fighting in Ukraine. Yet Putin’s State of the Nation address on 21st February 2023 showed he is in no mood to compromise. Russia has deep reserves of strategic patience – just look at its involvement in Georgia and Syria. Its leaders are also free of the domestic political pressures that might occasion retreat.

Europe and the US, therefore, need to continue to show resolve and exploit the current balance of forces which favour the Ukrainian side. They also need to act before America’s domestic politics (not least the possible election of an isolationist president in 2024) start to narrow down the options for action. More and better weapons, intelligence and training are needed to head off the much-anticipated Russian spring offensive and to put the Ukrainians on the front foot in battles to recover territories in the east and south of the country.

The Council on Geostrategy would like to thank Prof. Jamie Gaskarth for his assistance with this article.

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