The Impact of the War in Ukraine on the Transatlantic Relationship

May 10, 2022
Russia’s war against Ukraine has given a shot in the arm to the transatlantic relationship after several years of concern in Europe and the United States about their slow, long-term drifting apart.

Today the broad transatlantic community finds itself more united in purpose than it has been for some time, which probably will give it a new lease on life. However, how long the reinvigorating impact of the war will last is uncertain.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 initially had a positive impact on transatlantic unity, if with limitations. But this impact faded as the situation in Donbas and Crimea became seen by many in the West as a regrettable but tolerable “new normal.” What could happen in the coming months and years is a replay on a larger scale of this dynamic if the fighting drags on while Russia occupies large parts of Ukraine, as seems very possible.

Security Urgency and Unity

The most obvious and consequent impact of the war on the transatlantic relationship has been in the security sphere. NATO is experiencing a revived sense of unity and urgency, based on a clear reconfirmation of its core mission as one of collective territorial defense in Europe. The war has also made clear the centrality of the United States as the security underwriter of Europe, which has in recent years been questioned by, among other things, the US pivot to Asia and European debates about strategic autonomy.

Irritants in the relationship from Washington’s perspective—such as the reluctance of some European countries to take on a greater share of the security burden in their continent or to reduce their energy dependence on Russia (exemplified by Germany on both counts), or the desire by some for a more independent geopolitical path (exemplified by France)—have been shelved, for now at least. The war might lead to substantial progress toward solving the tensions between the two sides over Europe needing to take on a greater share of the security burden in Europe.

The war has made clear the centrality of the United States as the security underwriter of Europe.

The war also confirms for Central and Eastern European countries their decision to put their trust in defense ties with Washington, even if at the same time it reinforces their doubts about Berlin and Paris as partners in this sphere. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden could soon apply for NATO membership and the post-Brexit United Kingdom has the opportunity to advertise itself to the European Union and the United States alike as a key transatlantic security actor.

The war may also delay, perhaps indefinitely, the Biden administration putting pressure on some European allies—especially Hungary and Poland—of the United States to reverse their democracy backsliding. Such a deprioritization would be a mistake by Washington, but it would nonetheless put on ice one potential element of transatlantic tension.

Limited Economic Impact?

The impact of the war on transatlantic economic ties is likely to be much weaker, despite the damage it inflicts on the global economy, which hurts especially Europe but also the United States. Ukraine and even Russia are simply not consequential factors in transatlantic economic relations—that is, in terms of trade or investment—compared to their near-existential role in the security sphere.

One partial exception is in energy, where before the invasion rising prices and fears about Europe’s dependency on supply from Russia had led to efforts at finding transatlantic alternatives, as with the export of more US liquefied natural gas to Europe. A lasting war in Ukraine and matching European and US economic decoupling from Russia could see more moves toward a closer transatlantic energy coupling. They could also boost the importance of the recently created EU-US Trade and Technology Council as a nexus of closer transatlantic economic cooperation.

What is more, the efforts of the Biden administration to ease the economic tensions between the European Union and the United States that have built up over the years, and culminated during the Trump presidency, should make it easier for the two sides to weather the economic impact of the war collaboratively—at least initially.

Further ahead, the major postwar reconstruction that will be necessary in Ukraine could provide Europe and the United States with an opportunity to work together on a large economic project with major political repercussions following the example of the Marshall Plan after the Second World War.

The China Dimension

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will also affect developing a transatlantic approach to China. While it reinforces the hand of the transatlanticists in Washington and the strategic rationale for the United States’ role in NATO and Europe, all the signs still point to China and Asia remaining the top US priority for the foreseeable future. Only the security situation in Europe worsening, with Russia’s military moves spreading beyond Ukraine, might change this, but even then not necessarily for the long term.

Beijing’s positioning in more or less open support of Russia is likely to reduce European illusions about China as a geopolitical actor and drive greater alignment with the United States in viewing it as more of a rival or even a threat than a partner. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine could also lead to a greater shared understanding across the Atlantic about the need to reduce dependencies on China just as much on Russia.

However, these drivers of closer transatlantic alignment on China can be counterbalanced by the economic impact of the war in Europe, where many will not want to pay on any additional price of decoupling from China at this time. What is more, the need for European countries to focus on the security crisis in their neighborhood will reduce their bandwidth—at least for the time being—for building on recent efforts to define Europe’s strategic role, alongside the United States, in the Indo-Pacific.

The Time Element

The impact of war on the transatlantic relationship could ultimately be determined more by its duration than any final outcome, inasmuch as there can be a clear one in the short to medium term. The longer the fighting lasts, especially if eventually at a lower level of intensity or restricted to eastern Ukraine, the more probable the emergence of divisions within the EU on the war and on Russia policy, with a knock-on effect on relations with the United States.

A long-lasting economic shock with sustained inflation or even stagflation resulting from the war will fuel public discontent across Europe and in the United States, which could boost once again intra-EU and transatlantic divergence. Especially with both sides just emerging from two years of the costly COVID-19 pandemic, tighter monetary policy by the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve could make things worse in this regard. This could slowly push the United States in particular toward a more inward focus.

The impact of war on the transatlantic relationship could ultimately be determined more by its duration than any final outcome.

This leads to a final consideration, which is that any positive impact of the war in Ukraine on the transatlantic relationship could be lost as a result of the US presidential election in 2024—or maybe even to a degree of the 2022 midterms. A serious economic downturn due to the effects of the war would increase the probability of a second win for Donald Trump or the election of another president sharing his nationalist, unilateralist, and EU- and NATO-critical views.  

For Europe, this means that the reaffirmation of the United States’ crucial security role in the continent cannot be totally guaranteed beyond the next two and a half years. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that the war in Ukraine will still be ongoing in some form beyond 2024 and have lost some of its crisis urgency in Washington and European capitals.

This means that, however improved the transatlantic relationship is today as a result of the war, this coming period will also be marked by nagging European concern about the return of Trump or Trumpism to the White House. Meanwhile, emerging divisions over Ukraine and Russia policy in Europe would prompt renewed US frustration with any remaining European security complacency or renewed striving for strategic autonomy. The revival of such a cycle of mutual concern and frustration could cost the transatlantic relationship what it has gained since the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This article was first published by ISPI—The Italian Institute for International Political Studies on May 9, 2022.