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Will the War in Ukraine Lead to Real Transatlantic Security Burden Sharing?

March 22, 2022
13 min read
Photo credit: GarryKillian / Shutterstock.com
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning point in the post-Cold War European security order.

Its political, military, and strategic implications cannot be overstated. The war is forcing the United States and Europe to adapt their strategic postures and priorities, and a new transatlantic burden sharing is tentatively taking shape.

The debate on transatlantic security and defense burden sharing has taken on added importance and attention over recent years, yet it has been stuck and at times quite counterproductive. Meanwhile, getting European countries to shoulder more of the burden remains a crucial component of US policy. Before the invasion, the Biden administration was largely trying to do two things: ask the United States’ European allies to assume more responsibilities in Europe and its neighborhood, while reassuring them that it would remain committed to their security.

This US approach will remain for the most part, but the war is transforming how the United States and Europe manage Euro-Atlantic security. It has drastically reshaped European countries’ perceptions of their security environment. It is also forcing the United States to reevaluate its strategic outlook, delaying the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

Now is the time to develop new and more clearly articulated principles and expectations for burden sharing.

Some European taboos, like Germany’s reluctance about massive defense investment or providing direct military aid, have been broken. Countries like Denmark and Sweden have also made significant shifts. Now is the time to develop new and more clearly articulated principles and expectations for burden sharing. This includes thinking more about EU-NATO coordination in collective defense, the tensions between normative and strategic considerations, and the domestic and international pressures facing US foreign policy. Ultimately, the ability to successfully rebalance the burden will be greatly influenced by the Kremlin’s decisions and the trajectory of the war as well as by the United States’ and Europe’s ability to sustain a costly effort to rearm.

Signs of Change

The war has triggered rapid European responses. Some reveal a significant change in threat perception, reflected in the promise of dramatic defense-budget increases in Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Romania; the referendum on Denmark’s opt-out from the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy; and Sweden’s decision to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Existing tools such as NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and the European Peace Facility were quickly used, indicating a new readiness to act. Further decisions could include the creation of a $200 billion EU fund to support defense investments and energy independence as well as a waiver on defense spending in the EU deficit rules. The war is also likely to have a significant impact on the forthcoming NATO Strategic Concept.

The US strategy has been to work with allies and empower greater European leadership. Since the beginning of Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine in the fall of 2021, this crisis has brought a new level and quality of coordination between Washington and European capitals. The Biden administration established an unprecedented level of intelligence-sharing with its European allies to alert them of the seriousness of the threat. It also made public some of its intelligence to be proactive in the battle of narratives with Russia. These efforts continue. Finland and Sweden are receiving added intelligence through NATO. The United States continues to share intelligence with Ukraine. European countries have taken more of the lead on certain sanctions and in coordinating the response to the invasion, with the United States playing a more supportive but critical role.

Constant coordination with European capitals helped limit diplomatic divergences and reassure them that Washington was not about to make any arrangements with Moscow that did not include Europe and Ukraine. At the beginning of the conflict, Russia made clear its unwillingness to engage with Ukraine or European countries rather than the United States. But, while the Biden administration was open to diplomacy with Russia, it ensured that efforts were Europeanized with talks at NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation as well as outreach to several European countries. Until the day Russia invaded, Washington continued to point to the European Minsk framework as the best way to resolve the problems caused from Russia’s first invasion in 2014.

Sustaining the Effort

These signs, however, do not yet constitute a revolution in Euro-Atlantic security burden sharing. The ability to sustain current efforts and address the structural issues of defense cooperation will determine the real impact of the war.

The first test will be whether the changes in European defense budgets are politically sustainable. The shock of the war has pushed leaders to take quick measures to increase investment. However, the costs for Europe of the sanctions imposed on Russia, as well as other pressures on public budgets, may lead them to reconsider. Though the changes in threat perception are likely to last, there is some skepticism about the political change in countries in Western Europe. How delivering on these commitments progresses will depend on how the war develops and Russia’s evolving posture as well as on the United States’ ability to keep pushing Europe for more defense investment. A prolonged war in Ukraine, with a continuous risk of direct confrontation between Russia and a NATO country, would undoubtedly force European governments to take even more ambitious measures to strengthen their defense posture.

Europe’s new defense-spending promises also need to be better measured and assessed. For example, Germany already has the largest defense budget in Europe, but it has not been able to develop a structurally sound military and is handicapped by capability gaps. The chief of the army recently said that the country’s force is “more or less bare” and has limited options to support NATO further. What happens next will matter more than the announcement of the budgetary increase. Germany’s ability to address its most pressing issues of strategic and bureaucratic reforms will be paramount if it is to make a difference to Euro-Atlantic deterrence and defense.

How defense budgets are spent can be as important as the amounts.

How defense budgets are spent can be as important as the amounts. The fixation on the 2 percent of GDP NATO remains a problem in this regard. And, while the 2014 pledge by the allies included that 20 percent of investment should be on major equipment, this metric deals mostly with inputs. The focus must shift to capabilities and contributions. NATO’s Defense Planning Process and minimum-capability requirements offer a path for course correction. They are critical in creating real outputs tied to strategy through agreed upon capability targets. But, even with these, there are key gaps and a continued overreliance on US capabilities.

A new era of transatlantic burden sharing will only dawn when there are more significant non-US NATO capabilities in crisis management and territorial defense. Rather than focusing on national capability targets in NATO, European members should be thinking seriously about collective ambition and targets. These capabilities could also be applied in the context of the EU or on a more ad hoc basis to avoid the EU or NATO consensus decision-making when needed.

Regardless of how new European capability develops, the United States will still play a critical role. Coordination and political support to help European countries pursue their efforts despite the potential costs will be paramount. Beyond burden sharing lies the question of leadership sharing—Washington cannot expect European capitals to assume more responsibilities without changing the responsibilities within the alliance. Supporting, shaping, and embracing a more capable European leadership model with added capabilities and ambition—which the Biden administration seems at least in part willing to do—will be central to increased burden sharing and Europe’s “ownership” of its security environment. This could allow the United States to transform certain military commitments to Europe over the long term and thus to calibrate its defense posture to address the “pacing threat” of China in the Indo-Pacific.

Breaking New Taboos

The European strategic debate will need to progress beyond larger budgets. The war in Ukraine, following the coronavirus pandemic, has underscored how Europe’s dependencies make it vulnerable. The energy sector is under the spotlight, but technology, agriculture, and some key industrial supplies will be affected as well. Continued political momentum for a more “strategically ambitious” Europe will be needed to sustain investment in European capabilities. It will open new opportunities for the EU to directly finance defense and security or at least to reduce the economic, technological, and energy leverage of potentially hostile powers.

Germany is key. The new government in Berlin must implement its €200 billion investment plan for industrial and energy transformation in addition to its recently announced hike in defense spending. Germany has already expressed its discomfort with the idea of a new EU fund to help member states strengthen their energy independence and military capabilities. Whether the much-needed European “defense awakening” is primarily funded by EU loans or by national budgetary efforts will be consequential for the EU’s relevance as a strategic player.

Capacity efforts will need to take place in parallel to efforts clarifying the respective roles of NATO and the EU in European defense. The war in Ukraine has showed their complementarity and highlighted what each can do best. Although it remains controversial, an explicitly defined division of labor is the only path to more capacity in the short term: defense and military coordination for NATO, financial and legislative tools for the EU. Instruments such as the European Peace Facility can prove immediately relevant, but European countries cannot afford to wait for EU capability projects to have a real impact or for EU member-states to reach a consensus of the EU’s role in collective defense. Recent decisions may improve their defense and deterrence capacity in the medium term but they will remain highly dependent on a wide range of US military capabilities for the foreseeable future.

An explicitly defined division of labor is the only path to more capacity in the short term.

Russia’s war in Ukraine also highlights key issues for NATO’s defense posture and the engagement of European and Euro-Atlantic institutions in the region. NATO-Russia relations will change regardless of the end-state of the war. The alliance’s leaders have stated that the invasion constitutes “a flagrant violation of the principles enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act.” The allies are already considering the implications for permanent deployments in Central and Eastern Europe as well as for the security engagement in the Western Balkans. Building deterrence by denial or deploying enough forces to beat back an invasion will increasingly be a priority. In parallel, thinking through how best to engage key partners is paramount. For Ukraine, NATO membership appears unworkable and is highly unlikely, while the EU should be cautious about promising membership that it cannot immediately deliver. It is unclear what the EU and NATO can deliver for their partners in the region at this point, but they need to be honest with them about the prospects of membership. The 2008 decision that Georgia and Ukraine could one day join NATO cautions against promises that cannot be fulfilled soon.

Finally, the invasion of Ukraine and the response to it highlights the difficulty of framing the Euro-Atlantic security order in purely liberal democratic terms. It relies on an active role from NATO members such as Hungary and Turkey that have democracy shortcomings as well as on coordinating diplomatic and economic measures with non-democratic regimes around the world or working with energy producers in the Middle East. Normative convergence is important but does not always overlap with key strategic security interests. Reducing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and strengthening transatlantic coercive tools require cooperation with regimes that do not easily fit into a democracy-autocracy divide.

The Role of Domestic Politics

The evolution of the war in Ukraine, the potential opening of new fronts in or around Europe, and the possibility of a direct military confrontation Russia will transform the transatlantic burden-sharing debate. But domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic are also likely to be a decisive factor.

In the United States, the bipartisan congressional and public support for Ukraine includes a broad backing to engage allies and partners in confronting Russia’s continuing aggression. But the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election will determine if this consensus holds or if foreign policy reverts to that of the Trump administration. Europe’s ability to take on a greater share of the Euro-Atlantic security burden could alleviate some of the pressure facing the alliance in US domestic policy discussions, particularly from the Republican party. The more isolationist Trump wing of the party or those pushing for a sole focus on the Indo-Pacific and China could soon again have a louder voice. The return of Trump or a Trump-like figure to the White House in 2024 would likely come with much of the rhetoric and unclear positioning toward European allies experienced during the former president’s term in office.

The foreign and defense policy implications of such a development would have a considerable impact on the shape of the transatlantic transformation. If a future US administration has Trumpian mistrust or hostility toward European allies, one could expect the end—or at least strict limits—to US support of EU efforts. This would generate skepticism in relations with several European countries and likely again call into question the US commitment to European security. Many European allies have not forgotten Trump’s rhetoric on NATO or the reports that he discussed the United States leaving the alliance on multiple occasions.

If a future US administration has Trumpian mistrust or hostility toward European allies, one could expect the end—or at least strict limits—to US support of EU efforts.

In Europe, domestic politics will impact the ability to sustain the spending effort in the defense sector or the economic costs of the sanctions against Russia in the long term. As mentioned above, significant trade-offs will have to be accepted, with the war requiring EU members to deal with inflation and supply shocks, to fund the energy transition to reduce dependency on Russian gas, to build a collective energy-security doctrine, to share the cost of welcoming refugees from Ukraine, and to boost defense expenditures. At the same time, European countries are not evenly affected, and the political environment is likely to become particularly volatile in the coming years.

Alliance relations are also challenged from the European side. In France, all the major candidates in the imminent presidential election support increasing the defense budget but there is less consensus on NATO. Several contenders—collectively polling at around 45 percent—have proposed exiting NATO’s military command or even the alliance. The war has weakened Putin-friendly political figures but its evolution and the public’s security concerns could empower those more conciliatory toward Russia. 

In Germany, the parliament still needs to move forward the proposals that Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made. The brutality of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its hinting at the nuclear threat have solidified a parliamentary and public consensus for action. But, while Germany has made a huge policy shift to provide direct military aid to Ukraine, the debates around the transfer of MIG-29s from Poland and cutting energy imports from Russia show there is still room for divergence and thus political obstacles.

A New Era?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a dramatic shift in European security and defense policy. Countries like Germany have taken positions unthinkable only a few months back. But the looming long-term political battles to sustain increased defense investments and to bear the costs of sanctions against Russia signal that the most difficult work to establish a more sustainable transatlantic security posture lay ahead.

Political dynamics in the likes of France and the United States, along with competing US strategic priorities, could complicate the significant strides taken by the transatlantic allies thus far. This only reaffirms that a rebalancing of the transatlantic security burden through a much more robust European role is critical. As Europe’s security environment further deteriorates with what is likely to be a long and protracted war in Ukraine, the importance of establishing new principles and practices for a more responsible transatlantic burden sharing cannot be overstated. The United States’ continued commitment to European security and its strong political backing to European defense efforts, will be essential. This must be the focus of Europe and the United States in the coming weeks, months, and years as they try to lock in the key changes to transatlantic security policy that have developed since Russia invaded Ukraine.

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