Judy Asks: Is Ukraine a Game Changer for European Defense?

Since Russia’s war on Ukraine, EU member states and institutions have been taking defense more seriously. But Europe’s security continues to depend on NATO and the United States.

Raluca Csernatoni: Fellow at Carnegie Europe

Russia’s war in Ukraine has spearheaded significant developments aimed at boosting European defense capabilities. But Ukraine’s role as a game changer for EU defense is a matter of perspective.

On the one hand, and in terms of a mentality shift, it is undeniable that EU leaders agree on the need to reassess the union’s security and defense capabilities and spending to become more strategically autonomous. In this respect, the European Peace Facility (EPF) is an important instrument now providing assistance to Ukraine and allowing the EU to reimburse member states for donated ammunition from existing stocks.

The EPF sits outside the EU budget. It remains to be seen whether this will cement into a structural commitment in the bloc’s budget or, for that matter, what this will mean for the EU’s political identity as a defense actor.

Another short-term EU instrument has been recently adopted to reinforce defense industrial capabilities through a common procurementscheme. This will support member states in filling their most urgent and critical gaps in a collaborative way and contribute to strengthening the “European Defence Union” and a defense single market.

On the other hand, are these recent commitments enough to forge a long-term strategic vision for an EU-wide security and defense architecture? This will certainly require a clearer understanding of the EU’s and its member states’ joint goals, the division of labor with NATO, and a stronger EU-level coordination in terms of procurement and defense industrial cooperation.

Martin Ehl: Chief analyst at Hospodářské Noviny

Definitely yes. European armies have realized how weak they are and are building new plans and strategies for capability development. For example, the Czech army this week changed its earlier decision to buy three middle-sized drones and instead of them will buy 200 small ones.

If we include the European defense industry, then the answer is more complicated. Again, there is a new list of needs. Still, this industry is quite fragmented and underinvested and, new investments take years to materialize even if the EU will inundate them with funds, as we see in the case of artillery ammunition production.

Money is not enough; there is a need for consolidation to rationalize output, but this is impossible due to member states’ different priorities and the protection of so-called national champions as well as due to lack of capabilities and skilled professionals and—on top of that—lack of proper raw materials.

European defense is therefore greatly dependent on U.S. production and the industries of non-democratic states—particularly China. To realize that is the first step toward planning some changes, but we are still far from any concrete steps.

Without a proper European defense industry strategy and its implementation, the flow of money from the EU budget only increases prices, not industry capacities and military capabilities.
Justyna GotkowskaCoordinator of the Regional Security Program at the Centre for Eastern Studies, Poland

It should be a game changer prompting Europeans to take deterrence and defense seriously. Russia will be an aggressive country for years to come. But NATO should be further responsible for collective defense in Europe.

Since 2014, NATO has been adapting to a new security environment despite internal political turbulences. After the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO is further reorganizing collective defense—with new regional defense plans, reforms of command structure, and of high-readiness forces. NATO’s European member states should engage much more in the implementation of these changes.

The EU taking responsibility for collective defense in Europe is an unrealistic perspective. It has neither the structures nor capabilities needed to become a full-fledged defense alliance. Without U.S. capabilities, European NATO states are militarily unable to defend themselves against a Russian attack of the scale we see in Ukraine. Without U.S. leadership, it is not certain whether there would be the political will to do so.

The EU can, however, play a useful role in deterrence and defense in Europe. It can support member states in developing and acquiring military equipment. It can help Ukraine boost its military capabilities through the European Peace Facility and by training Ukrainian soldiers.

François Heisbourg: Special adviser at Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique

The game change is obvious: as a result of Russia’s invasion, the EU institutions, including the European Commission, have become operationally involved in defense affairs on a large scale, above and beyond long-term programmatic initiatives such as the European Defence Fund. This is reminiscent of the manner in which the EU was suddenly led to craft a vaccine strategy during the pandemic.

There is a structural limit to what the EU can do: because it isn’t a sovereign state, it cannot set up a European army. That would require a constitutional metamorphosis like that which moved the thirteen American states from their Articles of Confederation into a federal union in 1787. However, the EU can improve its new defense acquisition machinery and expand its funding.

A moment of truth may occur if the United States were to relinquish its leading role in the military support of Ukraine after the November 2024 presidential election. To make up for a less proactive United States, the EU’s institutions and member states would have to massively increase the level of their military support. Would they summon the required political will and budgetary efforts? Will we be lucky and able to sidestep that question one more time?

Ben Hodges: Former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and senior advisor at Human Rights First

Russia’s war against Ukraine is what failed deterrence looks like. We were not ready or united in recognizing that Russia was a real threat. We failed to respond decisively after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. We failed to react after Russia jumped over former U.S. president Barrack Obama’s red line regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And we failed to respond decisively after Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

So, Europe has been reminded, at enormous cost, that the best way to preserve peace is to be prepared for war.

Fortunately, it does seem that Europe and NATO are taking the right steps to ensure better deterrence in the future, and, if necessary effective defense. Increased readiness of forces, increased industrial capacity, and the adaptation of plans and command structures to the requirements of large-scale warfare are all underway. Adding Finland and eventually Sweden to NATO are huge positive steps.

But Europe’s defense will never be assured unless we are willing to do all it takes to ensure Ukraine wins its war with Russia and then invite Ukraine into NATO. Russia and China will then be deterred and only then will Europe be secure.

Karl-Heinz Kamp: Former special envoy to the political director in the German Ministry of Defence

It definitively is, as it has put an end, once and for all, to the long and idle debate about European “strategic autonomy.” From the outset of the Ukraine crisis, the EU has proven to be an important and efficient security actor. It has put together sanction packages, ensured a secure energy supply for its members, and organized large-scale military and civilian assistance to Ukraine. As a result, the EU has become a key security player and has learned “the language of power.”

However, its role has been political and economic, not military. Military issues, like deterrence and defense, are and will remain a matter for NATO. Thus, the security policy future of the EU lies in close cooperation with NATO, where each of the two organizations limits itself to its core competencies.

Pipe dreams of an EU establishing itself as an autonomous military power alongside the United States had no chance of realization even before the war, since no one wanted to pay for it—not even France. With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the grand plans of a “defense union” have finally died because especially the Eastern European EU members no longer want to follow these illusions. What, they ask in Warsaw or Vilnius, could Europe have done against Russia without the United States? The last thing Eastern Europe wants today is an “autonomous” EU under French or German leadership.

Berlin is slowly beginning to understand this—in Paris, it is apparently taking much longer.

Rem Korteweg: Senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute

Yes, without a doubt. Since the end of the Cold War, Europeans have struggled to develop a common threat perception. But that appears to have been resolved, thanks to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Nothing focuses the mind like threats to your territorial security. Defense budgets are rising and Europeans are rediscovering the importance of having credible conventional military forces. They are investing again in high-end capabilities and enablers that were neglected over the past decades. NATO is no longer “brain dead”, and the EU is developing an embryonic version of a defense union by agreeing common procurement of ammunition and using “peace facility” funds to provide military support to Ukraine.

However, there remain major disagreements over the degree to which this can—or rather, should—lead to greater European strategic autonomy in the military domain, or whether Russia’s war on Ukraine simply reinforces Europe’s dependence on Washington and U.S. military technology.

The war in Ukraine war has made Europeans take defense more seriously again, but that doesn’t mean those old discussions and divisions have faded.

Alena Kudzko: Director of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava

The enhanced role of the EU in European defense is one of the key paradigm shifts that will not easily unravel. NATO’s decision to avoid institutional involvement has pushed Europeans to look at the EU to help coordinate military assistance—through the EU Military Assistance Mission (EUMAM)—and financial military support for Ukraine—through the European Peace Facility.

The decision to allow EU members to redirect cohesion and recovery funds to finance defense production also signals a new and more publicly sustainable mode of economic thinking. The defense industry is increasingly perceived not only as a necessary mechanism to produce needed weapons but, as with any other industry, a contributor to local employment, supply chains, and regional development. This strengthening sentiment will enable the EU to enact more ambitious schemes to bolster the sector.

Institutions are sticky: the demonstrated success of these frameworks will likely ensure their longevity. Yet the ability of Europe to stay the course and convert commitments into long-term planning and practice is yet to be tested. While Europeans have become acutely aware of the subpar state of their defense capabilities, the industry is still awaiting contracts that match these new proclaimed commitments. And although the need for swifter procurement, better cost savings, and higher standardization of equipment is apparent, interest in joint projects and procurement has not grown significantly enough to indicate a break with the past.

Most importantly, while defense spending has increased in many countries to compensate for years—or even decades—of underinvestment, it is yet to be seen if these expenditures will be sustained over a sufficiently long period of time.

Claudia Major: Head of the International Security Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Russia’s war against Ukraine is a game changer: it fundamentally and structurally changes the framework for European defense. But Europe’s answer does not measure up to game-changing times—it would need to be equally structural, fundamental, and sustainable, which is not (yet) sure.

Three old trends persist.

First, there is not one European defense but many. The war confirmed NATO’s key role, the EU’s role as supportive defense actor, and the crucial role of nations. Despite the incredible unity in the aftermath of the invasion, Europe remains fragmented on security and defense matters. Some states send considerable amounts of military equipment to Ukraine (among others Germany, Poland, the UK), others do less (Croatia). Some increase their defense spending (Poland, Baltics, Germany), other do less (Belgium, Spain). Some buy European equipment, others look outside Europe.

Second, there is no credible European defense without the political and military contributions of the United States.

And third, NATO as a nuclear alliance confirmed its role as a life insurance. Sweden and Finland didn’t trust the Treaty on the European Union’s Article 42.7—the mutual defense clause—to defend them and went for NATO.

There is clearly varying levels of concern or urgency to act among Europeans, and differences in opinion regarding how to act and in what framework. Hence, change is underway, but needs to be sustained.

Kristi Raik: Deputy director of the International Centre for Defence and Security, Tallinn

Yes and no.

“Yes” in three important ways. First, Russia is now recognized as the most serious threat to European security and there is a rather strong understanding across Europe that this is likely to remain so for years, possibly decades.

Second, partly as a consequence of this understanding, European states are finally starting to invest more in defense, although the process remains frustratingly slow. For example, Germany announced the special defense fund of €100 billion ($107 billion) in February 2022, but it is still not clear whether and how it is going to reach 2 percent defence spending of GDP in the longer term.

Third, the EU has taken a major leap forward in the field of defense by supporting Ukraine militarily, launching the first-ever joint procurement of ammunition, and seeking new ways to boost the European defense industry.

Yet there is also a “no.” The war in Ukraine has underscored the dependence of European security on the United States. Even if European states now undertake serious efforts to strengthen their hard-power capabilities and cooperate more in the EU framework to do so, NATO as the organization of collective defense that ties the United States to European security is widening and strengthening—because it is needed as ever.

Ester Sabatino: Research analyst for Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)-Europe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rendered the prospect of war tangible and forced member states to urgently face the necessity of having well-equipped, trained, and ready militaries to respond to potential (un)conventional attacks. Ukraine made EU capitals rediscover unity and solidarity, with €4.6 billion ($4.9 billion) fund for military assistance allocated so far to Ukraine as part of the European Peace Facility support. It also generated an increased military presence in the territories and skies of EU-NATO countries in the eastern flank, further showing unity. Besides, there is a widespread determination to increase and maintain the trend of augmented defense expenditures.

From an EU perspective, Ukraine accelerated the prospect of more cooperation in defense, with new and developing initiatives aimed at increasing the capacity of European defense industries and replenishing military inventories.

These can be considered signs of Ukraine being a game changer. But while it has certainly changed countries’ approaches to defense and the understanding of threats, this does not imply a European approach. Furthermore, it is too early to see if the political, economic, and industrial options on defense on the EU’s table will cause a structural, joint shift in defense cooperation or if Ukraine will act “only” as a temporary game changer.

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