by Cezary Szczepaniuk
Over the past several years, the focus of U.S. foreign policy has been shifting towards the East Asia/Pacific region. Meanwhile, recent events on the eastern border of the EU have proven the necessity of tight cooperation on security matters between the U.S. and EU. With turmoil in Ukraine, the effectiveness of the EU Eastern Partnership (EaP) is under close scrutiny. NATO faces new security challenges, which have opened a debate on the alliance’s strategic architecture. Putin’s intervention in the ‘Near Abroad,” which sparked the disintegration of Ukraine, has changed the terms of the geopolitical game in Europe. The Ukrainian crisis has shown that the EU, after 25 years of economic, social and political integration, has consistently neglected to invest in military advancement, leaving the region defenseless.
The Eastern Partnership was launched during the European Council summit in Prague in 2009 and advocates for “the political association and further economic integration between the EU and its Eastern Neighbours”. The agreement specifically aims for the integration of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The bilateral political cooperation is based on the negotiation and conclusion of the Association Agreements, while the economic integration is formalised through the gradual implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the EU and a third country. The EaP is a geopolitical project with the objective of stabilizing the Eastern neighbourhood of the EU without any promise of further membership in the Union. Nonetheless, with the emergence of conflict in Ukraine, war in Georgia in 2008 and Armenia joining the Russia-led customs union earlier this year, the objectives of the European neighbourhood project appear to be falling apart. Leaders of the EU should recognize that Ukraine is not simply a potential flash-point in the East-West conflict and other unresolved frozen conflicts in the former Soviet sphere will remain – including the conflicts in Transnistria, Georgian-Ossetia/Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. On the other hand, recent events in its neighbourhood are the real test for European unity and the architecture of its security arrangement.
Since the year 2000, military expenditure per capita in NATO Europe has fallen by a fifth. In 2012, the EU spent 1.5% of GDP on security. US military spending is about 4 % of GDP, and American experts have accused Europeans of “free-riding and expecting that the US will handle any security challenge, as it used to be so far.” In contrast to NATO Europe, Russia’s 2013 defense spending reached 4% of GDP. Europe’s drawdown also runs against the trend further east, where Asian countries overtook NATO countries in military spending for the first time in modern history. Some scholars argue that the decline in significance of territory in conflict and the emergence of new and asymmetric challenges like terrorism have created a need for small, fast, well-trained and highly flexible units for use in remote missions. Furthermore, out of 28 NATO members, 23 have professional armies and 21 out of 27 EU member states abolished conscription. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West believed itself to be territorially secure. But with the return of 19th century geopolitical threats, revived in part by Russian president Vladimir Putin, the current trajectory of Western militaries is worrying. European states can no longer hope to defend their territory with professional small armies designed to operate in foreign peace-keeping missions. The turmoil in Ukraine will have a strong influence on defense strategy and military expenditure in NATO and Europe.
The Russian invasion of Crimea and the Russia-backed disintegration of the Eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine triggered a demand for action by the US and NATO. In March 2014, NATO sent patrol planes to Baltic countries, deploying spying aircraft over Poland and Romania as well as 300 troops to Poland. However, these actions amounted to NATO baring its teeth rather than serious proof of military bite. In July 2014, U.S. intelligence agencies said they would consider helping the Ukrainian army to identify surface-to-air missiles fired by Russia-backed terrorists. Most of the Eastern EU members unanimously appealed to the U.S. and NATO to increase the Alliance’s presence in the region. But as of today, all that has come from the west are declarations of NATO officials and independent experts. The Kremlin likely feels encouraged by the way it has played NATO and Euro-Atlantic community. There is no willingness on the part of NATO command to become militarily involved in defending Ukrainian territory, and Putin knows that. The British Parliament Defence Committee declared that the recent events in Ukraine should be “a wake-up call for NATO and the UK,” and MP Rory Stewart argues that NATO has deficiencies in its management and is neither well prepared for a potential attack nor politically capable of acting for the sake of deterring further conflict. The British are right to recommend the reform of NATO in order to enhance interoperability between eastern members and to be prepared for new threats such as cyber-attacks or small groups of separatists.
According to the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe formed by leaders of European think-tanks and former diplomats, “if Europeans [do] not begin pursuing a new, Greater European cooperative project, then divisions between the EU and Russia over Ukraine and between NATO and Russia on other issues could create a new period of confrontation in Europe.” Since the Ukrainian crisis, perception of Europe’s security has reached a nadir since 1989. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, the security situation there has considerably affected the way European leaders and elites think about European security. Europe chose the wrong path by decreasing military expenditure, abandoning popular conscription and professionalizing NATO armies. Sanctions imposed on aggressive Russia before the downing of flight MH17 were prudent, but it took the deaths of 300 people in a plane shot down by Russian-backed separatists to prompt the EU and the U.S. to start re-thinking their long-term defense strategies. Following the crisis in Ukraine, frozen conflicts in the Caucasus and clashes over Transnistria, the European Union should think about wholly revisiting the strategy behind the Eastern Partnership project. Focusing efforts on civil society, human rights protection and reforming the judicial system alone will not secure any member states in the long-term. The question remains whether Russia will go for compromise, as Putin appears to regard international relations as a zero-sum game. Nevertheless, Europeans, with the help of NATO, should rebuild channels of cooperation with Russia and find new ways of attracting EaP countries without antagonizing Moscow.