Q&A: Will Russia’s war turn the EU into a military actor?
Russia’s war on Ukraine sends shockwaves across Europe and the wider world. This Clingendael Spectator Q&A series explores the wider geopolitical consequences with key analysts from across the globe. In the fifth episode Sven Biscop (Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations & Ghent University) discusses the impact on the EU’s defence ambitions. Is the on-going war in Ukraine the long-awaited opportunity for the European Union to become a military actor?
For many decades, the European Union has asserted its ambitions to transform itself from a ‘civilian power’ – using economic power to defend its interests – into a credible military player. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen even promised to turn the EU into a geopolitical actor to be reckoned with by the rest of the world.1
In March 2022 a significant step was taken to fulfil this promise. The European Council formally approved the so-called ‘Strategic Compass’ that makes Member States agree on a common strategic vision for the EU’s role in security and defence and commit to a set of regional and global objectives to achieve these goals in the coming five to ten years.
The on-going war in Ukraine has accelerated the EU’s strategic plans and aspirations even further. Last June, Brussels granted Ukraine candidate status to join the EU. In November, the EU furthermore launched a Military Assistance Mission to Ukraine. Together with the EU’s European Peace Facility (EPF)2 , this new mission will finance the provision of “ammunition, military equipment and platforms designed to deliver lethal force” to Ukraine.3
What is at stake here, and where will the EU’s military ambitions bring us over the next few years?
Question 1: Will Russia’s war on Ukraine kick-start the EU as a credible and capable military actor, or will it prove to be just another political damp squib?
The decision of Member States to fund the transfer of arms and equipment to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility is a breakthrough for the European Union. There is now an awareness that if the EU wants to be a geopolitical actor, this is the sort of thing that one should be willing to do: supplying a partner at war with weapons.
However, that does not say anything about the EU’s own defence policy. Indeed, although all 27 Member States decided to increase their defence spending, still nearly all see this as a national effort. In spite of the Union’s best efforts, there is no real attempt to align, let alone to pool these additional efforts. This absence of a European dynamic, regardless of the adoption of the Strategic Compass in March 2022, is a major missed opportunity. It is not too late to rectify it, though!
Question 2: Will a militarily capable EU compete with NATO, or is this an old and obsolete dilemma?
Objectively this has always been a fake discussion. No matter how the Europeans organise their defence (everybody individually or by pooling their efforts, under EU, NATO or any other flag), any additional military capability granted to the EU inevitably reinforces NATO too.
There is a risk, however, that the European Union’s decisions in the Strategic Compass – to create a credible expeditionary force, to organise deterrence of hybrid threats, and to step up collective defence investment – will see little implementation. The reason is that NATO recently took the major decision to roll out the so-called ‘New Force Model’ (NFM), which will likely absorb all attention.
Crucially, this NFM implies a ‘Europeanisation’ of the first line of NATO’s (conventional) deterrence and defence: the Europeans themselves will have to man that line. The best way to ensure that the EU’s instruments (such as the European Defence Fund) will not be marginalised, is to also use them to implement the NFM.
Question 3: Since the possibility of a nuclear war is again discussed, should the EU consider becoming a nuclear power itself? How real is the prospect of a nuclear EU? And do you consider this desirable?
One thing is sure now, given how soon and how often Russia has issued nuclear threats: a nuclear deterrent remains absolutely necessary. For now this nuclear deterrent can remain a primarily American affair.
For Europeans, it is far more important that by pooling their efforts, they can deter and – if necessary – defend Europe themselves with their own conventional forces (since the US National Security Strategy prioritises Asia). Even if the US might reduce its conventional contribution to the defence of Europe, the nuclear umbrella will most likely remain in place.
That said, there is in principle nothing against developing an EU nuclear deterrent by ‘Europeanising’ the existing French nuclear force – but it is highly unlikely as Paris does not want to relinquish control, while most other Member States just shy away from this debate. Therefore, the EU should prioritise conventional defence at this stage. That will already be a big enough effort.
Question 4: Should Ukraine be integrated in EU defence-cooperation projects?
First and foremost, the EU must prepare to support Ukraine militarily over the long term. At this moment, the major military support comes from the United States. It seems only fair and logical that, over time, the Europeans take over this effort: Ukraine is on our border, not on that of the US, so the security of the EU is far more directly at stake. Taking over this miliary support will imply a financial commitment, but also an increase in defence industrial production capacity (also to supply Europe’s own forces), and a continued training effort.
As Ukraine now is not only a close partner, but even a candidate for membership, it ought to be given the chance to participate (as a third country) in European defence projects that are relevant to its defence, notably in the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO)4 .
Question 5: Should the EU change its strategic approach to its eastern neighbours, and perhaps overhaul its European Neighbourhood Policy?
Offering candidate status to Ukraine has changed the geopolitical situation of the EU. That said, as long as Russia remains in illegal occupation of parts of Ukraine, the country cannot join the European Union. Depending on the outcome of the war, Ukraine may thus still remain a buffer state in between Russia and the EU, though one that is firmly associated with the Union. De facto, this ties up Moldova’s fate with that of Ukraine too.
Russia, on the other hand, has for now managed to turn Belarus into a satellite. As regards the three countries of the South Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), a review of EU strategy certainly is in order. For now, Russia remains the key security actor in that region, but this might change if it comes out of the war too weakened.
In that scenario new questions arise: is the EU able and willing to step in? And what will China’s ambitions be in that region? The same questions, by the way, apply to Central Asia. There are many moving parts, but the EU ought to at least start its strategic reflection now, and make sure that whatever scenario materialises, it is in a position to safeguard its interests.
- 1Lili Bayer, ‘Meet von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical Commission’, Politico, 4 December 2019.
- 2The EPF is an off-budget instrument aimed at enhancing the Union's ability to prevent conflicts, build peace and strengthen international security, by enabling the financing of operational actions under the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) that have military or defence implications. Source: European Council.
- 3Council of the European Union, ‘Ukraine: EU launches Military Assistance Mission’, 15 November 2022.
- 4In an effort to strengthen European defence cooperation and capabilities development, EU ministers agreed in 2017 to establish Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). This mechanism allows willing EU member states to pool their military resources, including crisis response troops while co-operating to develop weapons. As of November 2020, third countries can also participate in PESCO. Source: European External Action Service.