Ukraine : to better arm Europe


It is essential that the EU, in order to deal with crises that may arise in its neighbourhood, has at its disposal reaction forces and tools for planning and conducting military operations.

Published on 8/03/2022 at 13:38 Reading time: 6 min

By Louis Gautier, Director of the Chair for Strategic Issues at Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne University, former Secretary General of Defence and National Security for the French Government, for Le Soir.

Whatever the outcome, the war in Ukraine has already revealed the threat to European security, and the necessity to better arm Europe.

Persuaded that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, on the condition of allowing time to pass, the extension of democracy on the Old Continent was inevitable, the Europeans overlooked that democracy remains in history a minority regime, fragile and regularly opposed by authoritarian states. The invasion of Ukraine lifts the fog on a 30-year-old peace, based on some false pretenses. Considered highly improbable, the hypothesis of a major conflict in Europe suddenly became tangible again, the night of February 24th 2022.

Prolonged Inaction

Following the Cold War, the Americans and Europeans alike did not wish to freeze the conditions of continental balance too quickly, enabling the dynamics of recomposition, sometimes in violence, as in the Balkans. The Europeans are now paying a high price for prolonged inaction. Relying on the United States, they have not sought, when it would have been judicious and still possible – between the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and the aggression in Georgia in 2008 – to build with all stakeholders a continental architecture of cooperation and security. It seemed self-evident to the Europeans that regional stability would result from successive enlargements of NATO and the EU, despite warnings of the potential implications of these processes; they did not react to Washington and Moscow’s denunciation of the disarmament treaties, signed at the end of the Cold War. Finally, they have minimized the indirect effects of their military interventions, increasingly associated, after 2003, with “Regime Change” objectives and the geopolitical interests of the West. They trivialized the use of force, opening a breach where others rushed in, especially the Russians in Ossetia, in Crimea, in the Donbass and then Syria. Moreover, their lack of firmness in the face of Russian aggression, provocations and intimidation has emboldened Putin to the point of no return, that is the invasion of Ukraine.

No means of pressure

Putting events into perspective, however, does nothing to diminish the unjustifiable nature of the war against Ukraine, nor absolve Putin’s Russia of the price for which it will be held accountable. Let us make no mistake about the implications of the history being written: our democracies have been able, in the past, to be inconsequential and pusillanimous; Putin’s headlong pursuit to war forces them to counter his belligerence over the long term and with great determination.

At this stage, no means of pressure is influencing the conduct of the Russian president. It is therefore possible that Putin will achieve his war goals, all the more easily since they are not fully explained. We should be prepared for him to use a strategy of stop and go, one-off escalations and localized entrenchment of the conflict leading to a unilateral outcome of the conflict in the more or less short term. Unless we accept to be exposed again to the policy of ‘fait accompli’, we have entered a cycle of high tension with Russia.

A vital test for the EU

Maintaining a united front against Putin over the long term is a vital test for the EU, which must also strengthen its competencies and capacities in defence and security. The war in Ukraine has already forced a historic step in European defence, notably with the purchase, for 450 million euros, of weapons for the Ukrainian forces. The announcement by Germany of an allocation of 100 billion euros, for its defence apparatus and cooperation programs, also shows a complete change of mindset. The Versailles summit on March 10th and 11th should hopefully produce further significant advances for European defence.

Reinforce the capacity for action

NATO enjoys strong enthusiasm because the war against Ukraine highlights the advantages of being a member state. However, the management of this crisis also shows that the Organization is not as « manoeuvrable » as the European Union. Admittedly, its rapid reaction force has been put on alert and reinforcements have been massed at the borders, but, barring a hostile act targeting one of its members, NATO cannot use its arms. Its latitude of action is necessarily limited when the question of its extension is the alleged reason for the current conflict. There is therefore a refocusing of NATO on its historic mission of collective defence, already evident in other situations where it was not involved for political reasons.  It is therefore essential for the EU to have the necessary reaction forces and tools for planning and conducting military operations to deal with crises that may arise in its neighbourhood, for example in the Mediterranean or the Balkans. It is necessary to overcome the aporia of a military organisation, NATO, which for political reasons cannot intervene and a political organisation, the EU, which for military reasons is prevented from doing so. Whatever the employment framework and the missions, the European forces available to NATO and the EU are the same. All that matters is their consistency, performance and interoperability to contribute to the collective defence of Europeans as well as to other missions. However, this rationalization will only occur if we finally bring together the military programs of European states with the consolidation of security systems within the EU, in particular with regard to cyber and critical infrastructure.

…and deterrence

The invasion of Ukraine has immediate consequences on the military posture of European countries. For as long as the hostilities are not over, the countries must remain mobilized to deal with any unforeseen events. Utmost caution must be exercised in the future with regard to the use of force abroad, when the security interests or nationals are not directly threatened.

The war in Ukraine finally prompts a re-examination of European military equipment. The lessons learned from this conflict will naturally influence strategic choices, employment concepts and the composition of armed forces assets. The alerting of the Russian nuclear forces, regrettable as it may be, shows that in the twenty-first century, deterrence still plays its role of assigning the limits and perils of confrontation for the Powers that have it. The Europeans cannot pretend that this issue does not concern them.

Whether it is a question of nuclear deterrence, of efforts to be made in cyber and space or of future conventional programmes, the Europeans need a strategic compass adapted to the present challenges with the ambition of better arming Europe.

*Louis Gautier also authored, in 2019, a report to the President of France « Defending our Europe ».

Last book published: « Worlds at war, wars without frontiers, from 1945 » Passés composés, Paris, 2021.