Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Europe’s New Security Unity Can Repair Damaged Relationships

The United Kingdom should be a critical part of post-Ukraine arrangements.

Ibrahim-Azeem-foreign-policy-columnist11
Ibrahim-Azeem-foreign-policy-columnist11
Azeem Ibrahim
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as they arrive at Lancaster House for the Visegrád Group summit in London on March 8. Richard Pohle/WPA Pool via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought predictable international condemnation. But it has also prompted a response in Europe that came as a surprise. Instead of the squabbles and pettiness many analysts expected, the democracies have come together with surprising unity to sanction Russia’s economy, identify and begin to seize the dirty money of its oligarch class, and give concrete military and financial aid to the Ukrainian resistance.

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that his country would provide lethal aid to Ukraine, increase German defense spending to at least 2 percent of its GDP, and begin rearming Germany at a large, upfront cost of $113 billion, Europe’s security architecture shifted overnight. Months happened in days. France had persisted with failed diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin long after other Western intelligence agencies said an invasion was impossible to avert. Now, French President Emmanuel Macron has said, “The war in Ukraine marks a break for our continent and our generation.”

Across Europe, disagreements over Russia are being shelved. European nations support destructive sanctions on the Russian economy and arming Ukrainian forces. European airspace is closed to Russian aircraft. Europeans have said they will make sacrifices and pay economic costs in the short term. Many have pledged to make themselves increasingly independent of Russian fossil fuels.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought predictable international condemnation. But it has also prompted a response in Europe that came as a surprise. Instead of the squabbles and pettiness many analysts expected, the democracies have come together with surprising unity to sanction Russia’s economy, identify and begin to seize the dirty money of its oligarch class, and give concrete military and financial aid to the Ukrainian resistance.

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that his country would provide lethal aid to Ukraine, increase German defense spending to at least 2 percent of its GDP, and begin rearming Germany at a large, upfront cost of $113 billion, Europe’s security architecture shifted overnight. Months happened in days. France had persisted with failed diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin long after other Western intelligence agencies said an invasion was impossible to avert. Now, French President Emmanuel Macron has said, “The war in Ukraine marks a break for our continent and our generation.”

Across Europe, disagreements over Russia are being shelved. European nations support destructive sanctions on the Russian economy and arming Ukrainian forces. European airspace is closed to Russian aircraft. Europeans have said they will make sacrifices and pay economic costs in the short term. Many have pledged to make themselves increasingly independent of Russian fossil fuels.

Last month, all of this was almost unthinkable. The European Union appears more unified than it has at any time this century. And, paradoxically, this offers a fantastic chance for the EU and United Kingdom to repair relationships damaged by Brexit.

The crisis has brought the U.K. closer to the policies espoused and practiced by the British government. Britain was arming Ukrainian forces—notably, with next-generation light anti-tank weaponry systems—before most European countries decided to do the same. Since January, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted on keeping to Britain’s long-standing training and equipment programs with Ukraine’s forces. When this airlift began, Britain had to fly around German airspace, which meant seeking overfly permission would not have arrived before war broke out. Germany once committed to sending 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, and those took weeks to arrive. Now, it sends anti-air weapons, which arrive within days.

Britain and the EU, engaged in protracted arguments and negotiations for the past six years over Brexit, are approaching agreement and the forging of a common front. Other affiliations have overridden regional disputes and placed ordinary diplomacy on hold. Although Britain is no longer a member of the European Union, it has come together with fellow NATO members to defend the peace the alliance was created to protect.

The quietist policy of earlier European leaders is over. The foreign policy of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel—which was considered mercenary, insubstantial, and counterproductive in parts of the Anglophone world even during her time in office—has been almost entirely repudiated by her successors.

But current cooperation alone is not enough. Rearming Europe will need bigger armies, with more soldiers, more armor, and expanded logistics corps. Each country must look to its vestigial militaries and begin major expansions in manpower and resources.

As Europe develops its new security architecture, it has friends and allies willing to help.

With Germany’s deep pockets and the United Kingdom’s military and intelligence expertise, a new security architecture can be developed—one where Europe has the ability and will to handle its own defense.

Talk of a European army has been offered by various national leaders for two decades, but there has never been a compelling case for a centralized body made up of Europe’s component parts before February. Tenacious Ukrainian resistance has given a shot in the arm to the free world. It has prompted both increased seriousness and optimism.

One of the key lessons from Ukraine is just how badly the Russian military can fight a war. That doesn’t mean that future battles will see the same level of military incompetence from Moscow. Armies learn. But it also has gone some way toward knocking down the idea that Russia is unstoppable. Analysts of Russian armed forces are surprised by the lack of coherence in Russia’s advances, in which small exploratory attacks on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and other urban areas were recklessly thrown forward before being isolated and destroyed. The entire advance seemed overhasty, poorly planned, and unprepared for the resistance Russian forces ran into.

Russia may still win in Ukraine by resorting to overwhelming firepower. But all hopes of a quick, easy victory have been proven absurd. For all of Putin’s posturing, he would fear a very likely defeat if his forces were to fight a conventional war against an invigorated NATO—with a newly rearmed and determined Europe at its heart.

The United Kingdom is the leading military and intelligence power in Europe. France and Britain are the only democratic European powers with the ability to operate independent military operations abroad. The failures and successes of each of these countries will provide ample lessons as Europe takes its first steps toward rearmament.

Britain was a voice urging deterrence against and disentanglement from Russia long before Germany saw the justice of that argument. Together, the two countries could form a unified approach for both of their interests—and the interests of Europe as a whole.

The EU has already made missteps, such as EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell’s significantly premature announcement that EU member states will donate jet fighters to Ukraine. With the help of Britain and the United States, EU countries could learn lessons in both diplomacy and fighting.

Europe has always been reliant on the United States for defense. But it seems possible that if Britain, Germany, and France developed a new security partnership—perhaps even a joint security council, going beyond those three and taking in all of democratic Europe—these countries might well manage their own defense. A security council, as conjectured in 2019, could speed up and intensify the formation of pan-European foreign policy.

This council could overcome the inertia of individual states and allow each to participate in the formation of collective policy decisions that all national governments would willingly commit to. On its own, this could not give European states more military options. But combined with rearmament and a newly urgent sense of common defense, it could provide the executive supervision and leadership needed for a strong and more active European security policy.

If any new structure was supplemented by bilateral or trilateral deals—in which European states shared resources and expertise, as Britain, Poland, and Ukraine started to do in February—Europe could be more closely integrated on the question of security than it has ever been in a remarkably short time. These deals could be nimbler and more targeted than any plan for a European army ever could. Sovereign countries remain unwilling to pass decisions to a distinct supernational chain of command. Alongside existing NATO infrastructure, closer ties among individual European nations could lead to better working relationships among these militaries, sharing training, expertise, and materials.

Europe is a rich continent. If its nations met their NATO defense spending commitments of 2 percent GDP—and if these numbers were not fudged and inflated, as they have tended to be—European powers could rapidly provide for their own defense.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of this war may yet be a strong and united Europe: an Europe willing and able to defend itself from threats on its borders and determined to ensure the continent’s hard-won peace not be shattered by armed forces.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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