One Year After Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, Three Western Illusions Have Collapsed

February 23, 2023

This piece was originally published in l’Opinion in French.

One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, three Western illusions have collapsed, forcing the United States and Europeans to adjust their positions against the backdrop of a changing international order.

The first illusion was that of believing that Europe's economic interdependence with Russia would guarantee lasting peace. The war in Ukraine brutally highlights the strategic cost of our economic and energy dependence and the consequences of denial—by Paris and Berlin in particular—of the threat that Vladimir Putin's Russia poses. We have entered an era of lasting confrontation with Moscow, and this requires Europe to strengthen its territorial defense capabilities, its economic resilience, and to rethink its neighborhood policy to avoid gray areas that are permanently exposed to the risk of Russian destabilization, such as Moldova.

The second illusion was the certainty that the war would be short and would not require long-term military and financial assistance. This vision has given way to the imperative of ensuring Ukraine's military victory, despite the lack of a common understanding of what that victory should look like. This implies an urgent adjustment of our industrial capacity to accelerate and maintain military aid and training for the Ukrainian army, since these will constitute the core of future security guarantees.

The third illusion was that the invasion of Ukraine would turn Russia into an isolated pariah state. However, Russia continues to benefit from the support of countries around the world, which, though impatient for the war to end, allow Russia’s economy, and therefore its war effort, to resist Western sanctions. In fact, only 34 states have imposed sanctions on Russia since the beginning of the war. These countries, which define themselves as multi-aligned, wish to manage Russian and, by extension, Chinese interests. The war in Ukraine highlights and accelerates the multipolarization of the world against a backdrop of increasingly vocal contestation of American and Western leadership, whose pitting of democracies against autocracies is unacceptable and rejected. Here, too, the method and the discourse must be simplified: If Russia were to succeed in this invasion, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, including in the Global South, would be jeopardized. Our objective should not be to rally them to our principles, but to co-define the constructive role they could play in finding a solution to the war in Ukraine.

The end of these three illusions has been translated into practice by a shift in European and American policies toward Ukraine and Russia. In this respect, 2022 will have been seen the West relearn high-intensity warfare and progressively assume ownership of the war through the increasingly important involvement of Washington and European capitals, all against the backdrop of accelerating geopolitical transformation.

Relearning War

Europe has had to wake up to the threat Putin poses to European security and relearn the language of geopolitics. While Eastern European and Baltic countries warned of the Russian danger and asked that NATO reinforce its presence on their soil, France, Germany, and Italy, which had bet on diplomacy, faced a steeper learning curve. Many warning signs were ignored: the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia; the 2013 installation of Russian military bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia against the backdrop of Kremlin mediation, with the West’s approval, to rid the country of chemical weapons; the 2014 annexation of Crimea; and the deployment of Wagner mercenaries in the Central African Republic starting in 2018.

Europe must change its strategic compass regarding Russia and the future of the bilateral relationship. After 30 years of expeditionary operations, this will require a revision of military doctrines. The war has shown that our industrial capacity is not fit for high-intensity warfare, having exposed the shortcomings in the industrial bases of NATO countries with the rapid depletion of stocks and insufficient or nonexistent production capacities for other equipment. It will take five to six years, for example, to renew the American stocks of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger surface-to-air missile launchers supplied to Ukraine. Germany is reviving ammunition production, but the 12- to 18-month industrial lead times are out of step with the Ukrainian army's urgent needs. In France, Nexter has increased production rates for Caesar guns. To overcome these difficulties, the United States and Poland have turned to South Korea, and France has concluded an agreement with Australia to manufacture 155mm shells and has suggested organizing a conference on European air defense with the continent’s manufacturers.

Owning The War

Ownership of the war by the United States and Europe has accompanied the rise of military aid to Ukraine, though France and Germany have been slower to accept that Russia must first be defeated militarily on the battlefield and then pushed to the negotiating table. This ownership coincides with a demand from aiding countries that Ukraine achieve rapid and decisive military victories. At the same time, the delivery of arms and the training of the Ukrainian army will have to be extended in the form of security guarantees and long-term deterrence in the face of the permanent destabilization risks from Russia. The sustainability of military aid to Ukraine is increasingly questioned, however, in Europe and especially in the United States, where the 2024 presidential election is approaching. The recent "Ukraine Fatigue Resolution", supported by ten Republican representatives, to end US military and financial aid to Kyiv is just a glimpse of the pressure US President Joe Biden will face in the coming months. He will be tempted to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to agree to negotiations.

Accelerating Global Geopolitical Changes

This pressure to find a cease-fire agreement is also being exerted on Putin, with competition already underway among countries positioning themselves as mediators. Turkey has already played such a role, China is set to propose its vision for a political settlement, and countries, such as India, that are eager to find a way out of the conflict, could also vie for a part. But even if a cease-fire agreement is reached, the military conflict will be frozen, leaving the political aspects unresolved. Issues of territorial integrity and security guarantees will be essential to building a lasting peace.

It is the responsibility of our political leaders to publicly explain that our involvement in Ukraine is long-term since Europe’s security environment depends on it. A new burden sharing paradigm between the United States and Europe must be defined. Despite the American reengagement in European security, Washington's long-term strategic priority is China and the prevention of an invasion of Taiwan, a scenario that the United States considers possible within four years. Europeans must therefore strengthen their industrial and territorial defense capabilities and their neighborhood policy. The French-initiated European Political Community could provide a geopolitical framework to prevent future crises and help shape a new European security architecture.