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Si vis pacem, para bellum? Europe's Shifting Security Landscape


Introduction: The Return of Geopolitics

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine underlined the significance of geopolitics as an element of the strategic and security paradigm1, not only in terms of scholarly reflections (e.g., theories like offensive realism making a return) but also regarding strategic and operational dimensions. An uncertain outcome of the war in the EU’s close neighborhood is among the most important factors shaping developments in the strategic and security domains. How Ukraine and Russia emerge from the conflict will largely determine future moves on the ‘grand chessboard’. Today, Ukraine’s NATO membership remains elusive. In a similar vein, accession to the EU should be viewed as a very demanding process. In particular, for a (candidate) country such as Ukraine, which must continue its reforms process (in order to meet the Copenhagen criteria) amid an extremely brutal war with an uncertain outcome. Against the background of an uncertain future, de facto Ukraine is already being incorporated into the Western peace and security architecture. With the geopolitical pendulum swinging in the direction of Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine can be considered the centerpiece of effective European defense. The EU’s interest lies in Ukraine becoming a resilient democratic state along the 1991 borders, able to withstand ongoing and future hybrid challenges. However, such an outcome is not guaranteed. More importantly, the concept of the European integration as a peace project may need to be adapted to arguably the most significant security challenge since its inception after World War II.

The global strategic and security landscape is adapting to challenges that have emerged since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU is no exception to the trend. Brussels is making efforts to keep pace with an epochal geostrategic shift in foreign policy (also known as Zeitenwende). In 2012, key European dignitaries Jean-Claude Juncker and Jose Manuel Barroso received a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU: “For over six decades of contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe.”2 The latter constituted a milestone accomplishment and a realization of a historical mission for an integration process, which was conceived to promote (economic) cooperation, instead of (military) confrontation. At this time, military aggression in Europe as an instrument of dealing with disputes was perceived as “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”3 The European response to Russia’s revisionist, neo-imperialistic policy begs the question of whether the seven decades of relative peace and stability in Europe will not turn out to be an Interbellum in a region which has a long history of armed conflicts.

Examining trends within the broader strategic and security realm can bring us closer to the answer. A war of this magnitude creates previously unseen challenges and exacerbates existing ones. Even before the tragedy unfolded in Ukraine, a European security was fragile (e.g. Balkans, South Caucus, Eastern Europe). In retrospect, one may well see the European response to these challenges as naïve and complacent4 . Furthermore, in ongoing conflicts and civil wars (e.g., Syria, Afghanistan, Sahel), many have criticized the lack of European presence and viable long-term strategy.

Shaping Factors, Key Actors, and Issues Driving the Change in Europe

The EU’s legacy of being a successful regional peace project ensured its active role in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict stabilization. In the 1990s, this commitment was formalized through the establishment of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), which allowed the EU to participate in numerous civilian and military missions, spanning from the Balkans to Africa and the Middle East. Russia’s renewed aggression towards Ukraine in 2022 does not negate the relevance, nor the importance of the mission to advance peacebuilding, embark on effective conflict prevention, and participate in crisis management. The invasion of Ukraine further underlines the importance of the EU’s commitment to maintain stability and address security challenges. The pressing question in 2024 therefore is not so much about the “why” but increasingly “how” these goals should be attained. The delay in the adoption of its Strategic Compass5 by the EU reflects a paradigm shift. Brussels had to clarify not only its approach to crisis management and capacity building but also develop a viable strategy against the background of growing multipolar competition in the world, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ongoing political-military turbulence in Africa, and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

The latter became an act of open, blatant opposition to core values associated not only with the European Union but with the international rules-based order— the rule of law, human rights, and the freedom of expression. It emerged as a shock test to the peace and security architecture carefully crafted after World War II. This process has prompted a reflection on core principles and ideas behind security and defense strategies on the national (e.g., Germany, UK, France, Baltic states, Scandinavia) and supranational levels (the EU). Furthermore, a continuing large-scale war has served as a practical measure to assess the preparedness of both military forces and societies in terms of combat readiness, organization of defense, and resources needed for an effective and successful war effort. The latter process has been driven by anxieties about the apparent inability of militaries across Europe to defend against a brutal military offensive, should one be launched on the territory of the EU in the immediate future6.

The same can be said about the concept of collective defense, which has been the prevailing approach to Europe’s security and stability. Over time, the EU’s military ambitions have started to grow, which is reflected among others in the interest to pursue ‘strategic autonomy’ in the defense realm. The latter desire has been dictated by challenges such as the presidency of Donald Trump, characterized by the disengagement of the US from Europe; Brexit; and hostile foreign influences. The invasion of Ukraine further accelerates the consolidation of European security architecture. Whether it is Finland and Sweden deciding to join NATO despite their long history of neutrality and non-alliance, or Denmark opting-in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy, room for neutrality and strategic ambiguity is closing. However, as the consolidation occurs, the potential emergence of a new Iron Curtain looms. The outcome of the Ukraine war and its aftermath will determine the timing and existence of this prospect. Yet, it has already revealed that this phenomenon is likely not to be confined to the regional context but to escalate into a global rivalry.

While the overarching goals to promote peace, security, and stability remain crucial, the instruments to achieve them continue to change considerably. In particular, the EU’s Eastern Policy (Ostpolitik) was built around promoting economic interdependence, de-escalation, and strategic ambiguity. These policies failed to effectively prevent Russia’s invasion of sovereign states (e.g., Georgia, Ukraine), nor stabilize the proverbial “ring of fire” around its neighborhood. As a result, voices calling for the EU to become a soft power with hard edges have intensified. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is making these edges ever sharper – for example, through the adoption of the Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP) or the application of the European Peace Facility to provide lethal equipment and non-lethal support for Ukraine. The Facility expands beyond the original scope of the instrument designed to finance common foreign and security policy (CFSP) activities with military or defense implications. The defense domain after the start of the invasion is increasingly reminiscent of Cold War dynamics, with governments heavily investing in their military capabilities. This is a noticeable shift from the period characterized by what many saw as modest defense budgets across the EU, limited foreign deployments (e.g., Afghanistan), predominantly civilian crisis management, and military training missions to (e.g., Sahel)7.

Transatlantic cooperation has been a consistent element of the security and defense architecture of the collective West since the end of WWII. NATO has been a vital forum for the United States and its European allies to foster close military and political ties, ensuring collective security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted historically neutral states like Finland and Sweden to join NATO, while across the region the belief in Washington as a foundation of Europe’s security only strengthened. Poland alone is expected to buy an arsenal from the USA: Abrams tanks, F-35 fighters, advanced rockets, and rocket launchers worth billions of dollars8. While this is a pivotal election year in the US, one can anticipate that conversations regarding the imbalance in the Transatlantic partnership and the European Union's dependence on the United States as a security guarantor will continue to gain traction9. Similarly, there are calls for the EU and its member states to diversify their security partnerships. On the other hand, support for Ukraine has shown the importance of robust transatlantic relations between Washington and Brussels.

The ongoing war in the heart of Europe emphasizes the intricate nature of contemporary security challenges. For European stakeholders, it has served as a catalyst to further redefine, broaden, and enhance the strategic approach to security and defense by incorporating nontraditional and non-military threats were already underway before 2022. It is likely that these efforts will gain momentum in Europe, propelled by the first-hand revelations caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This conflict has illuminated the diverse battlefields of modern warfare, encompassing information and digital domains, critical infrastructure, supply chains, energy, and socio-demographic dimensions. The German government, among others, highlighted this shift in its inaugural security strategy published in June 2023, advocating for an integrated approach to security that encompasses resources, energy security, climate change, health, and counteracting disinformation10.

Finally, the possible revival of the defense industry in Europe is an important development worth keeping an eye on. Once the process of militarization occurs, it should not be expected to quickly disappear from the political and policy agendas. Sweden’s Saab, Nordics’ Nammo, Germany’s Rheinmetall, France’s Nexter and MBDA, KNDS, and Dassault Aviation are among the companies that currently pursue longterm contracts with governments to ensure the increased demand for their services will not wane11. It is yet unclear whether the European industry will be able to gain and maintain a favorable position. We have already witnessed contracts in the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania, and Poland going to Israeli, Turkish, and South Korean companies. The resurgence of military production is intensifying competition and adding strain to supply chains. Inflation, access to (raw) materials, and the availability of skilled labor are crucial factors influencing the future of the European defense industry. Additionally, there is a need for vigilance regarding the concerning trend of strategic dependencies on third countries, such as the importance of raw materials from China for the success of the green and digital transition.

Implications for Europe: Embracing the (Un)certainty

With buffer zones disappearing and the spirit of the Cold War looming, geography will continue to be a significant factor shaping global affairs. Furthermore, the growing tensions between ‘the West and the rest’ have tempted an increasing number of countries to entertain foreign-policy autonomy and/or non-alignment with the democratic camp. The EU may feel a less immediate impact from these desires when expressed by the Sahel or Saudi Arabia; however, Turkey's active pursuit of strategic autonomy in foreign policy has already introduced significant challenges to the architecture of European peace and security12.

Despite occasional attempts by individual actors to pursue non-alignment and foreign policy autonomy, the current trend is towards block formation. The global order may well end up transitioning towards multipolarity, marked by the formation of blocks consolidating around geographical borders and issues of strategic significance. Simultaneously, there is a noticeable acceleration in militarization and an increasing securitization of public space. Deterrence policy is undergoing a shift from a political emphasis, such as forging interdependence, to a framework centered on strong, developed military capabilities. Moreover, a comprehensive 'whole of society' approach to security is emerging on both national and supranational levels. The emphasis is on enhancing societal resilience against hybrid threats like disinformation and polarization. Finally, preserving critical infrastructure against malign foreign influence is seen as indispensable within the defense domain.

There are a few observations to be made about the possible outlook of the strategic and security realms from the European perspective in the context of the changing international landscape:

  • Russia’s aggression against Ukraine underscores the crucial role of the EU’s enlargement and neighborhood policies as part of its peace and security toolkit. Brussels should work towards minimizing geopolitical competition in favor of cooperation. Furthermore, growing geopolitical tensions emphasize the need for transparent, partnerdriven, fair, and sustainable relations with the Global South.
  • Having said that, the EU must promote effective multilateralism for the peaceful and stable future of European integration. The EU’s renewed pursuit towards promotion of multilateral approach should rely on the strategy of interdependence, incorporating limitations to ensure that all participants adhere to shared rules. Leveraging the integration of non-democratic states, such as China, into the global economic order is essential to maintain their involvement in the system while averting their dominance in crucial areas of development. Conversely, the Global South should be presented with an enticing proposition that encourages exploring alternative partnerships, preventing conflicts over exclusive spheres of influence.
  • The EU’s current legal-institutional framework confines it to the reality of politico-economical polity. The war in Ukraine highlighted the challenges facing the EU in its potential transition towards a military power. To address security challenges and until treaty changes become a viable option for EU decision-makers, the implementation phase of the ambitious agenda outlined in the Strategic Compass must be adequately supported with financial and political backing. While Brussels should continue exploring complementarity with NATO, the capacity and agency to set priorities and make decisions autonomously in external action is crucial. Furthermore, the EU must confront its current dependencies and adopt a strategy of diversification. Additionally, the scope of the EU's strategic autonomy should not be confined solely to the military domain. Its unique contributions lie in areas such as conflict prevention, mediation, postconflict peacebuilding, and resilience-building13.
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine is expected to provide a strong stimulus for the development of Europe’s military-industrial complex. However, decades of underinvestment have taken its toll and the competition outside the EU is fierce. While supporting Ukraine’s military, the EU should continue replenishing and modernizing its own stocks. Furthermore, coordination, cooperation, and diversification are essential to avoid bottlenecks when it comes to infrastructure, personnel, and raw materials.
  • A comprehensive security strategy focused on bolstering the European defense complex should not undermine existing EU policies and programs, especially those dedicated to tackling major challenges such as climate change and post-pandemic recovery. This includes initiatives like EU Cohesion Policy and The National Recovery and Resilience Plan.
  • Off-budget instruments like the European Peace Facility may address ad hoc security needs. In the long-term, the EU requires a more robust system of decision-making in foreign and security policy arenas, as well as a defense budget to respond swiftly and effectively to modern challenges as they arise.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Foundation for European Progressive Studies

Dr. Andriy Korniychuk is a Policy Analyst on International Relations at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. He also worked as the Head of Europe & International Affairs and Baltic Dialogue programmes at Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and was responsible for Eastern Europe and Eurasia Programme at the largest peacebuilding organization in the Netherlands (PAX). Previously, he also worked on migration management within the UN system (IOM, UNHCR). Dr. Korniychuk is a member of the European Studies Unit at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the Polish Academy of Sciences and has contributed to over 40 publications.

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1 Biscop. S. (2023). War for Ukraine and the Rediscovery of Geopolitics Must the EU Draw New Battlelines or Keep an Open Door? Egmont Paper 123 https://www.egmontinstitute.be/war-for-ukraine-and-therediscovery-of-geopolitics/

2 https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2012/summary/

3 https://european-union.europa.eu/principles-countries-history/history-eu/1945-59/schuman-declaration-may-1950_en

4 Lack of firm response from Brussels to Russia’s war of aggression against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (since 2014), lack of tangible presence when it comes to the resolution Nagorno Karabakh conflict, restraint to act during crackdown on protester by the regime of Lukashenko in Belarus

5 https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2022/03/21/a-strategic-compass-for-a-stronger-eu-security-and-defence-in-the-next-decade/

6 Mößbauer, K. (2023). Das nächste Bundeswehr-Debakel. Oberster Heeres-General: Können „Aufgaben nicht glaubwürdig wahrnehmen“. Bild https://www.bild.de/bild-plus/politik/inland/politikinland/bundeswehr-general-heer-kann-aufgaben-nicht-glaubwuerdig-wahrnehmen-83509072.bild.html#fromWall

7 Fiot, D. (2022). A path to 2030: how can the 'Strategic Compass' help protect Europe? Progressive Post nr 18. The Foundation of the European Progressive Studies. https://progressivepost.eu/wpcontent/uploads/PP18.pdf

8 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-07/us-to-sell-poland-10-billion-in-himars-ammunition

9 Karnitschnig, M. (2023). America’s European burden: How the Continent still leans on the US for security. Politico. https://www.politico.eu/article/america-europe-burden-continent-leans-securitydefense-military-industry/

10 The National Security Strategy: providing guidance in the face of current and foreseeable security challenges https://www.bmvg.de/en/national-security-policy

11 Kayali, L. et al. (2023). Europe’s military buildup: More talk than action. Politico https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-military-industry-defense-buildup-war/

12 Ankara’s imposing additional conditions on Finland and Sweden to join NATO, its reluctance to side with the EU on sanctions against Russia, its importance for the Black Sea Grain Deal or the resolution of the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

13 Juncos, A. E. (2023). Elevating the EU’s added value as a security provider. European Strategic Autonomy series - Security & Defence. The Foundation of the European Progressive Studies. https://feps-europe. eu/publication/848-elevating-the-eus-added-value-as-a-security-provider/

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