Is an EU Army Coming?

Russia’s war in Ukraine is turning the European Union into a serious military player.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Gen. Claudio Graziano after a visit to the national gendarmerie Carabinieri headquarters in Rome on Nov. 5, 2018.
Gen. Claudio Graziano after a visit to the national gendarmerie Carabinieri headquarters in Rome on Nov. 5, 2018.
Gen. Claudio Graziano after a visit to the national gendarmerie Carabinieri headquarters in Rome on Nov. 5, 2018. LAURENT EMMANUEL/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The war in Ukraine, politicians and pundits agree, is the European Union’s sudden birth as a serious military player. Germany has announced that it will dramatically increase its defense spending and is sending weapons to Ukraine—a previously unthinkable development. The European Union, heretofore mostly known as an outfit that voices concerns about military aggression but does nothing, has already sent Ukraine military aid worth more than half a billion dollars.

But what exactly the EU’s military role should be remains painfully unclear: Member states have widely different opinions on the matter, and European security is of course already being looked after by NATO. What, exactly, can the EU do to grow its military muscle without causing affront to its Brussels neighbor? Severe crises below NATO’s Article 5 threshold, in a way, pose an opportunity for the EU to make a real military contribution. Its Military Committee—composed of member states’ defense chiefs—has the daunting task of mapping a course. At the center sits its chair, Gen. Claudio Graziano.

Graziano, who spent the first part of his career within Italy’s elite Alpini mountain infantry, was previously Italy’s chief of defense and chief of the army. He also served in Afghanistan as commander of the Kabul Multinational Brigade and commanded the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. He assumed his EU post in 2018 after being elected by his fellow EU defense chiefs. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The war in Ukraine, politicians and pundits agree, is the European Union’s sudden birth as a serious military player. Germany has announced that it will dramatically increase its defense spending and is sending weapons to Ukraine—a previously unthinkable development. The European Union, heretofore mostly known as an outfit that voices concerns about military aggression but does nothing, has already sent Ukraine military aid worth more than half a billion dollars.

But what exactly the EU’s military role should be remains painfully unclear: Member states have widely different opinions on the matter, and European security is of course already being looked after by NATO. What, exactly, can the EU do to grow its military muscle without causing affront to its Brussels neighbor? Severe crises below NATO’s Article 5 threshold, in a way, pose an opportunity for the EU to make a real military contribution. Its Military Committee—composed of member states’ defense chiefs—has the daunting task of mapping a course. At the center sits its chair, Gen. Claudio Graziano.

Graziano, who spent the first part of his career within Italy’s elite Alpini mountain infantry, was previously Italy’s chief of defense and chief of the army. He also served in Afghanistan as commander of the Kabul Multinational Brigade and commanded the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. He assumed his EU post in 2018 after being elected by his fellow EU defense chiefs. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisabeth Braw: The EU has suddenly emerged as a serious actor in the security of Europe, and EU governments are increasing defense spending. Is the EU militarily stronger now than it was two months ago?

Claudio Graziano: Absolutely yes. Russia has brought war back to Europe, which was something so serious and dangerous that it wasn’t even considered possible. Even for people who had read about the risk, it was impossible to believe it would happen. When it did happen, it was a shock of immense magnitude that provoked a huge common response from the European Union.

“A defense union is really the only possible answer to this crisis.”

At the Versailles meeting [on March 10-11], the heads of state and government discussed how the European Union can live up to its responsibilities in this new reality. Doing so requires a clear political will, and now the European Union is more united than ever. This gives an incredible push to building a more concrete and credible European defense union. And a defense union is really the only possible answer to this crisis.

We know that’s a long path, but we know that we have to do it now because later will be too late. As part of this effort, we’ll start developing an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity that will give us the chance to deploy a modular and multidomain force of up to 5,000 troops that can intervene in nonpermissive [hostile] environments.

This force will also have strategic enablers that have in the past normally been provided by the United States—for example, command and control structures, strategic airlift, strategic transport, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, cyberdefense, unmanned air vehicles, space communication assets, electronic warfare systems, anti-missile defense, and I hope in the near future main battle tanks and next-generation fighter jets.

EB: But the EU already has battlegroups that have never been deployed. How can you be sure that this deployable force will be successful when the battlegroups have not?

CG: The EU battlegroups are designed to be used for stabilization management [crises less severe than war], and it’s true that they’ve never been used. That’s because we never reached an agreement among the EU member states on certain issues, such as cost and who was supposed to lead the effort. The other complication was that they shouldn’t compete with NATO. In the past, I served in NATO missions for many years, including in Afghanistan, and NATO does foreign deployments well. It also has at least nine rapid reaction corps, and they’re much bigger than the EU battlegroups. Our new EU Rapid Deployment Capacity is an effort to answer a security need without competing with NATO. But to be a real answer, the Deployment Capacity must also be used in exercises. And having it on the roster will send a message of European unity to Russia and others.

EB: Speaking of unity, Poland wants to give Ukraine its MiG-29 fighter jets but doesn’t want this to be just a Polish initiative. The United States said no because it didn’t want to be drawn into the war in the active way that sending aircraft from Ramstein Air Base in Germany would mean. Can the EU step in to help Ukraine now?

CG: The provision of combat aircraft is currently not on the agenda. But you have to remember that on Feb. 27, only 72 hours after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU adopted an unprecedented aid package to help the Ukrainian armed forces defend Ukraine’s territory and population. This aid package included lethal weapons. That’s a milestone! It’s even more than a historical moment. Remember that in 2013 we weren’t able to provide anything to Mali. [Editor’s note: Despite having monitored the 2012 Islamist takeover of the country’s north closely, the EU failed to intervene militarily. Instead, France launched an intervention in which it was assisted by Germany, Denmark, and other EU member states.]

Regarding lethal weapons, we’re sending whatever the Ukrainians need most—for example, ammunition and anti-tank weapons. This will help the Ukrainians fight for freedom, and their will to do so is the most important surprise in this war. Neither the Russians nor we probably understood how far the Ukrainians would go to defend their freedom. It’s so different from Afghanistan this past summer, when we saw the Afghan armed forces melt away.

EB: What is your own role in this growing military role the EU is taking on? Does the Ukrainian government come to you directly with requests for military assistance?

CG: It works a bit differently. The Ukrainians tell us what they need, the EU member states check what they have and can give to the Ukrainians, and we—through the EU military staff —function as the clearinghouse.

EB: One idea that keeps being floated in every discussion about the EU and its military capabilities is the prospect of an EU Army. It’s clearly not feasible, especially considering that it has taken Germany and the Netherlands years of painstaking work to establish their joint panzer division. Short of complete military integration, what can the EU do to strengthen its military capabilities, beyond increasing defense spending, of course? As we know, countries like to spend money on weapons made by their own companies.

CG: Integrating armed forces really is extremely difficult, but it’s not impossible. It starts with the political will. But what we can do first to strengthen our military capabilities is to improve interoperability. After this war, we need to conclude that life won’t be as it was before and that we’ve made a backward leap of at least 70 years.

How do we improve interoperability? Consider this: The U.S. Army, and even the Russian army, uses only one type of main battle tank. We Europeans operate 17 different kinds. That creates enormous problems of maintenance and supply and of training together. Our navies and air forces have similar problems. We’re talking about a total of 180 different platforms, while the United States has 30. This really is anachronistic and unacceptable, especially considering that we collectively spend more than 250 billion euros [about $276 billion] a year on defense, which is much more than what Russia spends. Yes, we need to spend more, but we also need to spend better by avoiding such duplication.

And it’s not just about money. We have to have a mindset that we want to train together and work together. And when you deploy together, you become credible. When I was a lieutenant, I was part of a NATO war group that did exactly this; we deployed to countries on NATO’s outer edges, such as Norway and Turkey. It was a very well-trained and credible group. Now that we’re going back in history in European security, the EU should be able to do such things, too.

EB: When will the EU be able to deploy forces?

“You have to remember that the EU is not in charge of collective defense. That’s a NATO responsibility.”

CG: We’ve set ourselves the target of 2025 for the Deployment Capacity to be fully operational. That’s an ambitious term because it means you need to have all the strategic enablers I mentioned earlier. Then again, you have to remember that the EU is not in charge of collective defense. That’s a NATO responsibility. But in the current crisis, we—the EU—responded immediately not just by sending military aid to Ukraine but by providing military assistance to other countries, too. At the moment, aircraft coordinated by the EU are, for example, flying reconnaissance missions over Bosnia and Herzegovina. That sends a message of solidarity to the people of Bosnia and a message to malicious actors that we’re ready to react.

EB: Your fellow army general Oleksandr Sirsky, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, faces an unbelievably difficult task. What is your message to him?

CG: I want to send him a message of support. Col. Gen. Sirsky is also in charge of the defense of Kyiv, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s original plan was to quickly capture Kyiv. Thanks to him and his troops, that didn’t happen. I want to tell him that we’re on their side, we’ll remain on their side, and that he can count on us.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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