Russia’s war against Ukraine is system-changing. It has shattered the illusion that decades of East-West engagement had created a security community of sorts from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The post-Cold War ‘European security order’, an increasingly challenged notion in the wake of the wars in the Balkans, Chechnya, Georgia, and other places, will hardly be patched back together anytime soon.
Ukraine’s heroic resistance, indissolubly linked to its quest to join the ‘European family’, will not bring us any closer to the 1989 vision of a ‘Europe, whole and free’. The war has put in sharp relief a fault line separating the Euro-Atlantic space from what lies east of it. This has to be accepted as the new international reality, at least until profound changes take place in Russia’s political and economic systems and security culture. Left of the line, peace is holding, diplomacy remains the go-to tool to address international tensions, and security is defined mostly cooperatively, despite issues such as migration exposing serious solidarity gaps. Right of the line, a revanchist nationalist Russia that sees itself at war with the ‘collective West’ is bent on coercing the ‘Russian world’ under its control, with brutal force if necessary.
While the West’s key test is how to protect democracy and the ‘open society’ amidst powerful anti-globalization sentiments and authoritarian tendencies, the challenge is more dire in the East. All of a sudden, the authoritarian stability local leaders had achieved after years of backtracking from the initial promises of post-Communist transition seems fragile. Russia’s failing military adventure is dramatically exposing the gap between ideology and reality, the straining war effort putting the resilience of Russia’s uncompetitive economy and President Vladimir Putin’s regime to an existential test.
Between the loss of prestige and the loss of authority, the step is short; hence President Putin is increasingly struggling to pull the strings, as dramatically exemplified by Wagner’s armed rebellion attempt this past June. Launched with the objective of forcing Ukraine back into the imperial fold, Russia’s war may lead to growing instability inside Russia and disintegration within the post-Soviet space. Moscow’s close allies were already seeking a degree of distance from the war when Putin looked strong. They may take further steps now that his leadership no longer looks solid. Meanwhile, economically, post-Soviet regions continue to be pulled either westward, towards the European market, or eastward towards China, the Russian market looking less and less attractive due to the bleak prospects of the Russian economy.
Shoring Up the Euro-Atlantic community
Against this backdrop, restoring the pan-European security community that probably never was is not in the cards. While stabilizing East-West relations remains a necessary objective - one that can be pursued through platforms such as the OSCE in which the West can engage not just Moscow but all post-Soviet states - European security’s best hope rests on further organizing and securing the Euro-Atlantic space, with Ukraine now firmly in it.
Towards this goal, a central challenge revolves around renewing and strengthening a Euro-Atlantic community that will be even more NATO-centered yet cannot become over-reliant on the US and NATO. Without Washington’s leadership and support (and London’s), Ukraine’s outlook would be very different, to put it mildly. Europeans have been reminded of their vital transatlantic security link, and the conflict has reaffirmed NATO’s irreplaceable role in collective defence. Russia’s aggression has bolstered transatlantic unity, sweeping away recurrent concerns about NATO’s future. Sweden and Finland have ended their neutrality, staking their security on NATO, not the EU (which they already belonged to).
In fact, while the EU has made impressive strides in the wake of the war, from leveraging the European Peace Facility for massive weapons transfers to exploring joint military procurement, it has given its best as a strategic rather than strictly security, let alone military, actor. After flirting with the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ for years, the first concrete acts of EU strategic sovereignty have been the adoption (in close coordination with Washington) of unparalleled sanctions against Moscow, the radical decision to terminate EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels and a long-overdue revival of European enlargement. If managed more politically - that is, less bureaucratically while preserving its criteria-based nature - the accession process will be Europe’s key security policy tool for the years to come.
However, a Europe that finally speaks ‘the language of power’ will not automatically become a more independent military actor any time soon. Even if the recent uptick in defence spending continues, the EU will face a capability and technological deficit with the best chance of being reduced by more - not less - cooperation with Washington. Moreover, among Europe’s more military-ready countries are Poland, prospective EU member Ukraine, post-Brexit UK and new NATO members Finland and possibly Sweden, which in all likelihood, will prioritize transatlantic partnership.
Yet, leaders of Atlanticist European governments should be the first to recognize the risks of transatlantic dependence. It should serve as a warning to all that former President Trump, currently leading the Republic camp for the presidential nomination, bolstered America’s military presence in Europe but also disparaged NATO while more recently hinting at cutting a deal with Putin. As US political elites both on the left and the right become warier of open-ended commitments, Baltic and Central and Eastern European countries have as much of an interest as the Western European ones in reinforcing the ‘European pillar’ of transatlantic defence. That may be the only way to keep America engaged in European security for the long term as Washington’s attention is increasingly absorbed by the defining strategic competition with China.
For its part, the EU will continue to have the edge over NATO on many issues, suggesting a more paritarian relationship in strategic terms overall. From managing complex relationships with the post-Soviet space to reframing partnerships with the MENA, from combining China containment with Global South outreach, the EU can enter the field with a toolbox and a bandwidth NATO simply cannot. Not to speak of the crucial role Brussels and European capitals will play in charting a firm but credible path for Ukraine to join the European Union in a not too distant future. As a seminal NATO summit convenes in Vilnius this week, European and American leaders should acknowledge that growing transatlantic strategic interdependence - rather than strategic autonomy - suggests a course whereby the EU takes a larger responsibility for European security even as a revamped and expanded NATO continues to provide the bedrock of transatlantic defense.
* Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or EACEA. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.