EVENT REPORT – War in Ukraine: a watershed moment for European defense policy and transatlantic security? by Politico

by | Aug 18, 2022

Russia’s war in Ukraine has fundamentally shaken Europe’s sense of security. European governments are urgently reviewing their defense plans and ramping up military spending while the EU itself wants to get much more serious about defense. After years when European defense policy was seen as a low priority and politically polarizing, shock at the war in Ukraine has prompted governments to blow the dust off of this file and give it new impetus. Could this be the time when Europe seizes the moment to craft a common, modern defense policy? 

This was the proper introduction to yet another enriching and very enlightening online session of POLITICO Europe, presented by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. For those who don’t know or follow its activity, POLITICO is a global nonpartisan politics and policy news organization, launched in Europe in April 2015. With operations based in Brussels and additional offices in London, Berlin, and Paris, it connects the dots between global power centers.

Mikulas Dzurinda, the President of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, started the session by stating that the eyes of the entire democratic world are on Ukraine these days. The International Community now provides Ukraine with all the necessary assistance — humanitarian, material, financial, and military — seen as necessary to support the people fleeing the Ukrainian territory, as well as those that have chosen or are obligated to stay and fight for their sovereignty and the defense of their cities. The European Union has been projected as a project of peace, said Mr. Dzurinda. All common European decisions made so far are made to guarantee Europe’s security and eliminate the threats that we as Europeans face from the outside. In that manner, all the aid given to Ukraine represents an expression of that same common European commitment.

In the past 15 years, the EU has faced unprecedented challenges such as the global financial crisis; the euro crisis; the migration influx; the covid 19 pandemic, and in 2022: Russia’s war against Ukraine. All these crises call for a change of the basic paradigm on which the EU has been created and developed, stated Mr. Dzurinda. We — the Europeans and the power elected representing the people — need to transform the EU from a group of inward-looking and wealthy but fragmented community of nations into a more united, effectively acting, and stronger community. Mr. Dzurinda posited that this is not only to develop the EU, but also to give it the ability to defend itself and other nations who share our values.

Mr. Dzurinda manifested the idea that the European Member States should proceed to the final step of European integration, to the completion of the EU in the form of an authentic federation. It means a political union built and developed on the consistent implementation of the principle of subsidiarity. If we want to build an effective European defense, we need to increase defense spending and, first of all, change our decision-making process in the area of foreign policy, he said. In his opinion, the EU needs to move on from seeking consensus to effective decision-making to avoid stalemate which can be caused by the veto of a single European Member State. The European defense pillar must be further built and become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not as a competitor or a duplicator of NATO. It would be beneficial for the all transatlantic community if the EU can defend the eastern and southern flanks of the alliance. Europe must also be able to share global alliances with like-minded countries to defend our basic values and the rules-based international order.

The session that followed was moderated by Suzanne Lynch, author of Brussels Playbook and a member of Politico, and was also joined by: Mr. Janne Kuusela, the Director-General for Defense Policy at the Ministry of Defense in Finland; Mr. Eerik-Niiles Kross, a member of the Estonian Parliament; Mr. Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — NATO; and Mr. Stefano Sannino, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service — EEAS. 

The session intended to mainly address the following questions: 

  • Has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a fundamental shift in European policymakers’ attitudes to defense?
  • Does Europe need a new policy to protect itself from a nuclear attack?
  • Does the EU’s Strategic Compass point the way to a bold new path in security policy or leave Europe standing still?
  • How will plans to ramp up military spending in Germany and other EU countries affect the bloc’s defense capabilities as a whole?
  • Will the crisis prompt Europe to move toward strategic autonomy or bond more closely with the United States and NATO?
  • How far can Europe go in revamping energy, technology, and trade policy to make the Continent more secure and more resistant to external shocks?


Finland and Sweden as the newest NATO members

Mr. Janne Kuusela expressed his confidence in the idea that Finland is sufficiently aligned with NATO to make the transition into being a member as seamless as possible, once the ratification by all members happens. Of course, Ankara’s opposition to Helsinki’s and Stockholm’s membership represented a challenge for the Finnish government, but Mr. Kuusela voiced at the time of the session his optimism about a positive decision in the near future from Ankara. In his first statement, the Director-General for Defense Policy focused on the robust and developed defense capability of Finland and the very high resilience shown in the Finnish society. For a number of decades the Finnish have prepared to defend their country, he stated, against whatever threat the country could face. Despite their preparation, the country also views with importance the fact that a number of NATO nations have clearly stated that they support the Finnish and Swedish accession to the military organization. 

What’s your view on the decision by Finland in particular to join the Alliance? The question has been addressed to Mr. Eerik-Niiles Kross, a member of the Estonian Parliament. Mr. Kross expressed that the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO for the Baltic states is very welcomed news. In his understanding it is the best thing that can happen for Baltic security. Is Europe facing and responding to the crisis in an adequate way? Regarding the threat assessment, Mr. Kross expressed the view that Europe is making progress since nowadays the Member States acknowledge a common threat to the continent. Even though the countries do not entirely agree on this matter, progress is being made. For the Estonians, the Russian threat has been real for years, and as he stated, the country has been trying to convince its European and western partners of this reality. The situation is different now because everyone understands the problem, he added. 

For Mr. Kross, NATO’s presence in Estonian and the region is crucial. Since 2014 the Baltic States have hosted the so-called ‘Forward Presence’ of NATO, which means that there is a NATO battalion group in each Baltic country. Since last February the numbers have doubled.  Those units are there to counter an attack, he said. Permanent NATO present is needed, said Mr. Kross. The current war in Ukraine actually allows the NATO members to look at what taking back territory actually looks like, in case of a war scenario within its borders and if the territory is conquered by enemy forces. In the face of Russian aggression toward Ukraine, Estonia is committed to investing a big sum of its money  — around 1 billion euros — to meet their needs in procurement and different expenditures.  In regard to Estonia’s military capabilities, the country lacks air defense, for example. Even though the country has neighboring fighter jets policing their space, their own defense capabilities are still weak, the speaker added. In his view, Finland and Sweden will come to play a very significant part in the defense of the region, and because of that, the whole defense planning will look very different once they have joined. What is to be expected is precisely the strengthening of the defense of the entire region and a greater readiness to respond in the face of possible Russian aggression.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine – a galvanized NATO in the result? 

The question was posed to Mr. Mircea Geoană. The Deputy Secretary-General of NATO believes that Russia’s war against the independent and innocent Ukraine has galvanized not only NATO or the EU but led also to something which is much deeper and much more important — It galvanized our democratic societies. NATO’s and the EU’s help is undeniable, for sure, but in his view it has been quite remarkable seeing European citizens in every train station and airport across Europe helping and receiving the ones who flee from war. It is equally inspiring to observe young citizens in EU countries fundraising for Ukraine, for example. 

NATO has been training the armed forces of Ukraine since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 but without the help of the private sector. Now cyber defense is also being provided to Ukraine. Mr. Geoană referred to the attack that Russia has conducted against a satellite that was providing internet to Ukraine, with a private company also coming to provide help after this attack. A kind of a “holy triangle” was formed between the political level, the private sector, and the citizens, the speaker described. He went further, “if we can do this, then we can then maintain this beyond this war. It means that our democratic resilience will be stronger, and then we can compete with anyone in very good conditions”, said Mr. Geoană. When looking at the new memberships of NATO, Mr. Geoană expressed that Finland and Sweden are already close partners of NATO and salutes the decision of the two countries to join. Both will contribute significantly not only to the Baltic region’s security but to the whole organization, benefitting all of its members.

A new purpose for European defense was undoubtedly conceived before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – but has it changed, and is it still relevant now? The question was submitted to Mr. Stefano Sannino, the Secretary-General for the European External Action Service – EEA. The speaker stated that the European security and defense dimensions have become even more important under the present circumstances. The EU developed a common threat assessment of the challenge faced now. This represents a lot since now we have a common ground on which we can work, also in terms of evaluating what needs to be done. NATO has a key role to play in the security of the continent. 

Questioned on the necessity of reviving or even re-examining those more formal links between the EU and NATO, Mr. Staninno emphasized the idea that the approach needs to be pragmatic when thinking about the cooperation between NATO and the EU. Despite the challenges and the difficulties between the two institutions, there is a really constructive relationship and cooperation. The focus needs to go more on the performance being carried out on the ground. The speaker gave the example of the hybrid sector where cooperation is truly needed and in many other areas where the EU can contribute significantly with its assets and capabilities. In a situation where the organization needs not only conventional security capacity, but also the capacity to react to hybrid warfare and attacks that we are facing, the problem is not so much about the form, the speaker defended. 

Has the European calculation changed in terms of its defense policy? Mr. Stanino indeed thinks that when looking at the development of the European security and defense dimensions over these last few years, it’s been really quite remarkable because of the necessary assessments made – and as a result of that – Europeans can think more in-depth on further developing their common defense capabilities. The aggression of Russian toward Ukraine has been a sort of turning point in the willingness and determination to move forward, the speaker stated. Europe is now determined and mobilized to support the supply of armaments to Ukraine — and this notably means sending lethal weapons to a third country — as well as the complementarity between the US, NATO, and the EU on the approach to this war. This has been extremely relevant because the EU has been able to work as a team whilst aiding Ukraine on its capacity to resist the invasion, as Mr. Stanino explained. Is it fundamental to look at how the treaties work and how the EU is able to move forward with its common defense? Mr. Stanino is in favor of much further integration and contends that to further make progress it is necessary to change the current qualified voting majority, and further strengthen the aligned foreign policy among EU members.

Mr. Kuusela — the Finnish Director General for the defense policy department  — assured the viewers that the EU has done its job, and done it well, in regard to close cooperation with NATO. The speaker was positive and confident with the direction the EU’s defense policy is heading, and as a competent security and defense actor. In his view, the recently published strategic compass lays out and focuses on all the right questions and issues where the EU really has a role to play and can make a real valuable contribution. “The compass gives the European Union an ambitious plan of action for strengthening the EU’s security and defense policy by 2030. The more hostile security environment requires us to make a quantum leap forward and increase our capacity and willingness to act, strengthen our resilience, and invest more and better in our defense capabilities”, states the published document.

NATO’s new strategic concept 

While questioned about the several requests from the Baltic nations asking for an increase in the presence of NATO contingents in their territories, Mr. Geoană also elaborated on the changes that are observed at the level of the military alliance. The Deputy Secretary-General ensured the increase of the military forces in these countries and also highlighted the fact that all the defense plans for the eastern flank countries, including Turkey, have been activated after the invasion by Russia of Ukraine. 

A new strategic concept for NATO is on its way. The adoption of the new strategic concept for NATO by all the leaders will carve the way forward for the next decade and for the future transformation of NATO. This is not only in terms of collective defense but also to adapt and adjust to a much broader definition of security: cyberspace, new technologies, hybrid war, climate change — including an important obligation on NATO to play its role in countering climate change, stated Mr. Geoană. Such strategy encompasses the necessity of the military organization to adapt to the changes occurring nowadays in the world. This is salient because we are entering, as we speak, a new era of great power competition, said the Deputy Secretary-General. The 2022 Summit in Madrid had all of NATO’s Asia-Pacific partners for the very first time, and also Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Mr. Geoană was assertive when talking about the importance of Sweden and Finland joining NATO’s ranks in 2022, and the extreme importance of the decisions taken regarding Ukraine. 

25 years after the signature of the NATO-Russia Founding Act

NATO represents an indispensable link between North America and Europe. In fact, the European Union is playing an ever greater role as NATO’s natural strategic partner, bringing synergies together. Because of this, the Madrid Summit was seen as one of the most important events in NATO’s history. Could the Madrid Summit antagonize, even more, the Russian Federation? According to the Deputy Secretary-General, when speaking about deterrence and defense, Russia will continue to be an aggressive and unpredictable player in European and global affairs. The Alliance has been trying since the fall of the Berlin Wall to engage with Russia constructively, he said. In Mr. Geoană’s perspective, it’s false to determine that the Western Countries or the Americans, as members of NATO, have been in a way coercing nations like Estonia or Slovakia or any states to enter NATO – as a means to further antagonize Moscow. Is absolutely the opposite of this, he stated.

Mr. Geoană added that in 1997 NATO signed together with Russia a NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed on mutual relations, cooperation and security. The presidents of the United States, Russia, and France — Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, and Jacques Chirac — celebrated with NATO Secretary General, Javier Solana, and the leaders of other NATO countries, agreeing on what was heralded as the start of a new era. Russia by doing so committed to respecting several international obligations, including the obligation not to threaten or use force against any country in Europe, and in that way, they would not go against the territorial integrity of countries in Europe. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and instigated the war in eastern Ukraine, NATO froze cooperation with Moscow and invited the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, to the 2014 NATO summit in the UK. Both sides condemned Russia’s actions and stated their firm commitment to developing a special partnership between the alliance and Ukraine. 

Today, Russia has basically walked out of the Founding Act with NATO – the speaker explained – and because of that NATO needs now to take any measure seen as necessary. Of course, we hope that one day Russia will change course, Mr. Geoană added. This is a dead end for Russia, he believes. “This is one of the historic failures strategically for Russia, believing that Ukraine will be basically welcoming Russia as liberators. Look at the fierce resistance, believing that the West will be this disunited and weak. Look at the level of unity, strength, and resolve we are showing”. “So for us, constructive relations with Russia will always be important as long as Russia behaves as a normal country and really abides by the international norms that she’s still a member of”, declared the Deputy Secretary-General of NATO. Mr. Geoană was also very clear on the following: we are very cautious here in NATO not to escalate the war in Ukraine into something bigger between NATO and Russia. But the ball is in Russia’s court, the speaker assured. If they want to come back and become a constructive and normal player abiding by the international norms, we’ll be open to re-engaging with them for the time being. They prove just to be the opposite of that, the speaker asserted.

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