Summarizing the conclusions of the European Union’s foreign ministers’ meeting at the end of January, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell was adamant about Europe’s “strong unity and our united approach on the challenges of European security.” In his words, the European Union’s governments “reaffirmed our full and unquestionable support to Ukraine and that any military aggression against Ukraine will have serious consequences and massive costs for the perpetrator.”
What consequences, and what costs, you ask? Germany’s foreign minister has already downplayed the prospect of disconnecting Russia from SWIFT, the global bank clearing system, while Germany’s defense minister warned against “dragging Nord Stream 2” into the conflict. Sweden joined Germany in preventing re-exports of its military equipment to Ukraine as aid to the country under attack from Putin. German press also reported that the new chancellor decided against a trip to Washington to coordinate plans with the Biden Administration (vehemently denied by the White House and the Federal Chancellery). Adding insult to injury, Germany announced it was sending 5,000 helmets as aid to Ukraine’s military (a move that was already criticized as “saber rattling” by the far-left opposition).
France may be stationing additional troops in Romania, and the Balts, Poles, and Czechs are trying to help Ukrainians in their own, limited ways. Yet the picture of division and paralysis in face of an obvious threat to the security of Eastern Europe belies Brussels’ rhetoric of unity. “If we get out of this without a war, NATO as well as the allies individually, at least will have clarity,” the former president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweeted, “who is who, who aligns with whom, whom you can trust and count on when the sh*t hits the fan, who not.”
For East Europeans, the situation is indeed clarifying, if not outright scary. With the focus of U.S. foreign policy shifting further to the Indo Pacific, the United States does not have and “won't have a military big enough to increase commitments in Europe and have a chance of restoring (U.S.) edge in Asia against China,” as Elbridge Colby—the architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, heavily focused on China—put it recently.
Article V might remain sacrosanct, but what about Russian gray zone warfare that does not quite meet the threshold? Recent years have witnessed a parade of state-sponsored terror attacks, cyberattacks, and a manufactured border crisis targeting NATO countries—all of which were met only with the most timid of responses. Putin’s success in Ukraine is bound to encourage him to do more. At what point will it become clear that deterrence of a conventional military attack on the alliance may not be enough? And if that insight sinks in, who will step up?
West Europeans, for one, appear unlikely to do so, as they do not necessarily share the view that Russia is a threat that needs contained and deterred at every stage. European, particularly German, impotence and the disruptiveness of America’s “pivot to Asia” are connected. The less Europeans are willing to do, the harder it is to make the political case to American voters for a stronger NATO deterrent posture.
That fact that a large part of the European Union is only marginally concerned with developments in Ukraine alone should put to rest any delusions of European “strategic autonomy” or “sovereignty.” That is not because Europeans should not do more to provide for their own security, irrespective of the vagaries of U.S. politics—of course they should. Rather, it is because the EU-27 provides a very poor platform for Europeans to play a larger role on the global stage. The need to find lowest common-denominator compromises means that the European Union will always be slow to respond to events, and that its responses will be heavy on rhetorical flourishes and aspirations but necessarily light on concrete deliverables. It is all well and good if France’s President Emmanuel Macron urges Europeans to draw together joint proposals for Europe’s security architecture that they would present to the United States and Russia. Yet, given available experience with Paris’ and Berlin’s strategic thinking—including their manifestation in the form of the Minsk agreements—can Eastern Europeans be blamed for seeing that as an effort to go over their heads, marginalize the U.S. role on the Continent, and ultimately sacrifice their interests for some cynical bargain between the great European powers?
After all, that is precisely what Macron’s previous attempt at bilateral outreach to Russia looked like in 2019. It is telling that there appears to be more grumbling in Germany over Lithuania’s deepening of diplomatic ties with Taiwan than about China’s bullying of the tiny Baltic state. As long as East Europeans have more trust in decisions coming out of Washington than in those of German and French governments, they are bound to oppose any efforts at EU-wide “strategic autonomy” that risks leaving them at the mercy of their European partners.
What is the alternative to seeking an EU-wide consensus? An increased reliance on the informal, ad hoc partnerships between countries that do see eye-to-eye on Russia. In practice, one can imagine an alliance of most—though not all—East Europeans and the United Kingdom, which have done most of the heavy lifting in the current situation, and possibly also the Nordic countries. Deepening military ties, possibly under the European Union’s PESCO framework, should be paramount, as should a deepening of energy infrastructure, helping to bring Sweden and Finland into the alliance’s fold, and showing that (some) Europeans can do more than just talk and puff their chests.
The emerging picture, in contrast with the impotence displayed by Brussels and Berlin, ought to be reassuring to Washington. The United States is likely to continue being increasingly pre-occupied with China, but the presence of a tightly knit, likeminded group of allies who are stepping up in tangible ways to provide for their own security would make it less likely for a future U.S. administration abruptly to pull out the carpet from under them in a fit of frustration.
Here is one practical way forward. It is time to reframe the Three Seas Initiative as a project aiming to make NATO’s Eastern flank more secure, thus downplaying the traditional economic themes. At the upcoming June summit in Riga, the British, the Americans, and the Nordic countries should be invited to participate with the aim of committing real resources to joint defense projects, energy infrastructure, and building resilience against Russian and Chinese gray-zone activities. It should also be made clear that some countries—Hungary and Croatia—will have to choose between being Putin’s pawns in Europe and being responsible stakeholders in Eastern Europe’s security architecture.
Demonstrating that “new Europe” can be more than a Bush-era buzzword is not going to be frictionless. However, the intergovernmental, ad hoc initiative must be judged against its most plausible alternative, namely EU-level paralysis accompanied by a gradual dissipation of America’s patience with Europe. For better and worse, the grand plans of turning the European Union into a superpower, so resonant in a simpler, more peaceful era, are not on the menu. Eastern Europeans and their closest partners ought to plan accordingly and do everything they can to help the alliance fulfill its main mission: to keep the Americans in and the Russians out.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe