Russia’s War on Ukraine: the EU’s Geopolitical Awakening

March 08, 2022
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis /
In reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has started making use of its full toolkit, from fierce economic sanctions to the activation of the European Peace Facility to equip Ukraine with arms.

This geopolitical awakening has been long awaited. But how sustainable is this geopolitical leap? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is permanently reshaping the European security order and the EU must regain control of its political, strategic, and energy future. It is not surprising that the March 1011 EU Summit, gathering at Versailles as part of the rotating French EU presidency, focuses on European energy independence and European defense. Just as the Covid-19 crisis forced the EU to acknowledge the strategic cost of its dependence on China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine obliges the EU to address the interlinked security and economic challenges presented by a revanchist Russia and use the tools at its disposal to address the new combination of geopolitics and geoeconomics.

A Brutal Wake-Up Call to Finally Open the EU’s Toolkit

Until February 24, 2022, the EU has been criticized for giving preference to instruments instead of strategy, and for not using its complete toolkit for geopolitical leverage. The war in Ukraine is a brutal wake-up call for the EU. The union’s history as a peace project must not prevent it from acting strategically—and hence a geopolitical awakening was triggered. Within a few days, Brussels delivered: the EU has adopted five packages of increasingly fierce sanctions within a week, with repercussions that will most likely be felt in the member states, and contributed to a meltdown of the Russian economy. This trend is likely to intensify over the next few years, as a litany of European gas and oil companies—including BP, Shell, and Equinor—are pulling the plug on their Russian investments, hitting the Kremlin where it hurts: its energy sector. The EU’s willingness to leverage its full economic weight as a coercive tool against Russia is evidenced by the discussions between the United States and European allies on banning imports of Russian oil and gas. Though a compromise is yet to be found, the discussion itself is remarkable, as it shows that the EU is willing to pay the price of exploding energy prices for geopolitical action.

On the inward-looking front, the EU has begun to mitigate the challenges that affect European societies directly. Policymakers in Brussels triggered the Temporary Protection Directive, drafted in 2001 but never used; this emergency mechanism grants protection to a large number of Ukrainian refugees, including rights to residence, as well as access to the labor market, medical assistance, and education. To support people in Ukraine directly, the EU has also announced an important package of humanitarian and financial aid. In parallel, the EU has moved to suspend Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik, and the Commission’s East StratCom Task Force has stepped up its efforts to tackle Russian disinformation.

Most importantly, the EU is emerging as a security actor on the geopolitical chessboard by unleashing the European Peace Facility, an initiative declared operational in July 2021 to fill financial gaps in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy and support partner countries bilaterally in military and defense matters. The instrument will provide €500 million to equip Ukraine with arms, including lethal weapons. This geopolitical awakening is not only happening in Brussels. After years of military reluctance, Germany made the most dramatic turn in its defense policy by announcing a special fund of €100 billion for defense spending over the next four years and a permanent commitment to more than two percent of annual defense spending. In addition, Sweden announced it will boost its defense expenditure, Denmark committed to NATO’s two percent goal, Romania and Latvia aim to increase defense spending to 2.5 percent of their GDP, Poland plans to raise spending to three percent by 2023, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce an increase in the defense budget by the end of March.

Sustainable Efforts to Win the Geopolitical Long Game

With the return of power politics, Europeans now face a new geopolitical long game—as well as the challenge to make its recent efforts sustainable. The increase in defense spending by EU member states is an important starting point, but these efforts must be translated into coordination at the EU level. Accordingly, the member states should make use of the European Defense Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation to ensure use of the increased defense budgets in a coordinated manner. And an extensive borrowing program to finance European defense, similar to the NextGenerationEU’s efforts to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic, would allow the EU to step up against conventional and hybrid threats. In case of Russia’s destabilization in the Baltic States or Northern member states, boosting resilience is a fundamental condition for the EU’s capacity to address future challenges.

The increase in defense spending by EU member states is an important starting point, but these efforts must be translated into coordination at the EU level.

Yet, becoming a geopolitical actor requires the EU to make use of these efforts and overcome its institutional paralysis. Instead of using a lowest common denominator approach for all 27 member states, those states that are willing and able should be able to lead in defense; once again, the structures are already in place—the EU just needs to make use of them. For this case, the draft Strategic Compass is a source of cautious optimism, evoking the possibility of using article 44 of the Treaty of the European Union, through which the EU delegates the execution of a security task to a group of states willing and able to act in the field of security and defense. To that end, NATO and partner countries can find support in EU Battlegroups, multinational, rapid-response military units created in 2003 but never used.

In addition to agreeing on responsibilities and leadership, the EU can only play a sustainable role on the geopolitical chessboard if it redesigns its neighborhood policy. The Balkan countries have been candidate countries for years, but negotiations are stalling, which has pushed these countries to seek different partnerships, particularly with Turkey, Russia, and China. Furthermore, the EU’s attempt to build a “ring of friends” with the Balkan countries through the Eastern Partnership as an alternative to EU membership has been empty rhetoric, focusing on economic aspects, the fight against corruption, and cultural aspects, with the security dimension almost methodically excluded. Countries like Georgia and Moldova are afraid of falling victim to Russian aggression, and Brussels must take this fear seriously. Full membership for these countries does not seem likely within the next few years, but the threat stemming from Russian influence will force the EU to add a security component to its neighborhood policy. In five years from now, we might see closer cooperation through instruments like the European Peace Facility.

The EU’s Capacity to Address the Merging of Geoeconomics with Geopolitics Will Define Its Role on the Geopolitical Chessboard

Nevertheless, equipping the EU for the geopolitical long game also requires rethinking its geoeconomic posture. Germany in particular has been arguing that Nord Stream 2, the pipeline transporting Russian gas through the Baltic Sea to Germany, was a purely economic project without any political component. In the absence of sufficient European sources to meet their energy needs, European member states accepted dependence on Russian gas—41 percent of the EU’s gas imports in 2021 came from Russia. The war in Ukraine has ended this naiveté and forced the Europeans to diversity their energy sources, a political balancing act. In the short term, policymakers will need to prepare their populations for higher energy prices, and hence need to brace themselves for fierce domestic debates once the repercussions of sanctions are felt by their voters. And since renewable sources cannot yet produce sufficient energy to meet demand, some European countries might be forced to return to coal, which would yield disastrous consequences for the EU’s climate objectives.

The EU summit on March 10–11 in France will need to articulate how Europeans aim to tackle these challenges. But the fact that energy (in)dependence and defense are both on the agenda underline that Europeans acknowledge that energy and geopolitics are entwined. Similar to the Covid-19 recovery plan, President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for a common financing scheme to support energy transition and boost European defense capacities. Such a move would be bold, but there is no alternative if Europeans want to ensure that their efforts do not vanish after the current crisis due to budgetary constraints. If Macron manages again to present a French-German proposal for European borrowing to finance energy transition and defense, this will boost the EU’s capacity to act in geopolitics and geoeconomics.

Stronger European Defense or More NATO and US Engagement in Europe?

For the EU’s defense efforts to be sustainable, sustained political will is needed, and that is not a given. Undoubtedly many lines have moved in European capitals. Once criticized for its bilateral dialogue with Russia, Paris has now adopted a much more realistic approach and has enhanced consultation with Eastern European partners. Germany has reversed its military reluctance, and the fact that almost four in five Germans approve of this reversal may indicate a long-term change for Germany’s role in European defense. Likewise, the accommodation of large numbers of refugees by Eastern European member states points to a change in previous behavior, particularly as Poland and Hungary were very reluctant to take in migrants fleeing the Syrian civil war. While all this sounds promising for European unity and making a geopolitical Europe work, key divisions persist. Paris has long pushed for European sovereignty through the EU, and even the French commitments to NATO through the deployment of troops to Romania and Estonia do not outweigh France’s preference for strengthening the EU. Similarly, European states with the most important geographical exposure to Russia, namely Poland, the Baltic and Scandinavian states, and the Balkans, continue to turn to the United States and NATO as security providers.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that these debates will resurface without leading to concrete results. Even when the imminent threat from Russia decreases, Europeans are aware that they cannot afford a lack of coordination, and even countries that are traditionally wary of defense cooperation through the EU might review their stance. The most recent example is Denmark, which announced a referendum in July on potentially joining the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy, from which it currently holds an opt-out. Under the condition that EU member states agree on massive investments in EU defense, it hence appears likely that Europeans will coordinate their efforts on capability development and mutualization through the EU while ensuring compatibility with NATO. Indeed, the United States, Canada, and Norway have already been invited to join the EU PESCO project on military mobility, which will likely constitute a blueprint for future cooperation. Synergies are already visible on the political level, since NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the foreign ministers of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom joined a European Council meeting in Brussels last week.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also highlights the United States’ preference for empowering (and equipping) European partners to take responsibility for their own security rather than deploying direct force.

Once again, the United States is likely to become a key factor in the European Union’s ability to become a geopolitical actor: it is already pushing for the EU to become the geoeconomic arm of transatlantic security cooperation through its sanctions. The EU’s geopolitical position will also be determined with a view to Washington. In particular, Germany and Eastern Europe will wait for the “green light” from DC to commit to extensive coordination within the EU. At the same time, after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, AUKUS, and the possibility of a Trump-like candidate being elected in 2024, the EU will likely step up as a more independent geopolitical actor. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also highlights the United States’ preference for empowering (and equipping) European partners to take responsibility for their own security rather than deploying direct force. In this vein, the United States rejects instituting a no-fly zone over Ukraine but gives an ok to NATO member states, including Poland, to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine.

The United Kingdom also remains a key partner in European defense post-Brexit. Since the beginning of the crisis, the UK has proven a reliable ally, both through active dialogue with Russia and concrete support to Poland by deploying 350 Royal Marines to support the Polish Armed Forces. While an agreement on security cooperation between the EU and the UK is still not in sight, this underlines that bilateral defense cooperation remains a crucial operational mechanism to address European security challenges. Furthermore, the UK is included in defense cooperation formats with other European countries, for example in the Northern Defense Cooperation (Nordefco) and the European Intervention Initiative. These “mini-lateral” formats can complement the EU’s approach through an operational component, particularly when neither the EU nor NATO can agree on a strategy.

But the United States and the United Kingdom will not be at the March 10–11 meeting, so it will be, rightfully, on the 27 EU member states to come away with significant results. The issues of enhancing the EU’s energy independence and strengthening its defense capabilities are most important, and if EU members leave Paris with workable compromises decided, then it is a good sign that this moment of awakening may carry through to enough political will at least for the weeks ahead.

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