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European Defence in a New Geopolitical Environment

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Until 24 February 2022, the EU in practice dealt with Ukraine as a buffer state: an independent state that should maintain constructive relations with both Russia and the Union. That was the purpose of the EU-mediated Minsk Agreements


European Defence in a New Geopolitical Environment

Until 24 February 2022, the EU in practice dealt with Ukraine as a buffer state: an independent state that should maintain constructive relations with both Russia and the Union. That was the purpose of the EU-mediated Minsk Agreements, after the first invasion in 2014. The EU certainly did not see Ukraine as a potential Member State. Though by signing an Association Agreement in spite of the invasion, the EU did, wittingly or unwittingly, commit to Ukraine’s survival no matter what the future would bring.

The new geopolitics of Europe

By invading Ukraine again, Russia has overturned the geopolitical situation, and forced the EU to live up to its commitment. De facto, the independent Ukraine that is fighting for survival, already today is a member of the Western security architecture. Instead of a buffer, Ukraine now is our border. The EU underscored that by according the country candidate status in June 2022, and together with the US is fully supporting the Ukrainian war effort short of becoming a belligerent itself.

It is an important EU interest now that Ukraine survives as the strongest possible border state, on as large a territory as possible, with access to the sea. For if Ukraine falls, the EU will share a long border with a second Belarus: a Russian satellite that no longer makes its own decisions, which would complicate our deterrence and defence. A victorious Russia might also see Ukraine as a springboard for further incursions into the Black Sea region and the wider Mediterranean area.

As a consequence of the war, the geopolitical dividing lines are hardening across Europe. All the grey areas or buffer zones are disappearing. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO, and Denmark has opted into the CSDP. Moldova also received EU candidate status, and its fate is now entwined with that of Ukraine: if the latter survives, both are set on the path to eventual EU membership; if it falls, Moldova likely is Russia’s next target. On the other side of the divide, Belarus has become entirely vassalized by Russia. Moscow has marched tens of thousands of troops into the country, and announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.

In fact, the consolidation of an enlarged EU had already produced an important change in the geopolitics of Europe long before the war. In the past, Russia was one of several European powers that fought each other in ever shifting coalitions, from Peter the Great to Stalin. Today, there no longer is a European system of states. The EU, which has ended the possibility of war among its Member States, is now in itself the core of the European security architecture (with the alliance with the US as a further guarantee against threats from outside the EU). Since Russia cannot join the EU, it will never be fully part of the European security architecture in the sense of having decision-making power over its members.

If a pragmatic Russian leadership emerges, which will likely remain authoritarian, but sincerely seeks a peace agreement with Ukraine, constructive relations may be restored, and sanctions phased out. But the economic decoupling from Russia, in the energy sector in particular, is structural, as is the distrust that Moscow has sowed. For a long time to come, therefore, relations between the West and Russia may well resemble a “mini–Cold War”: mini, as long as not the entire world is divided into two rival blocs. NATO’s New Force Model, a reorganisation of the Alliance’s conventional posture in Europe, reflects this. Once again, as during the Cold War, the border will be divided in sectors, each allotted to a group of Allies that will maintain a rotational military presence there.

Wider geopolitical ramifications

The geopolitical situation around Europe is shifting as well. To the South, Russia has built a military presence from the shores of the Mediterranean to Central Africa, and has supplanted the EU as the main security actor in Mali. Because this requires but limited resources, the war may have little impact. Furthermore, the Russian narrative of the war has swayed large parts of African public opinion. In the Gulf, Russia is deepening relations with Iran, while the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which they announced through Chinese mediation, shows that the countries of the region are hedging, seeking working relations with all great powers. The EU must make sure to maintain influence or risk being surrounded by states that are indifferent or even hostile to its interests. That would greatly complicate challenges such as energy supply, migration, and climate change.

In the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russia’s ability to continue to act as the security guarantor may be affected by the war. If that leaves a structural void, probably only China can fill it in Central Asia, but in the Caucasus, the EU is very present. A civilian mission has been deployed in Armenia, along the borders with Azerbaijan. Georgia, however, which was not accorded EU candidate status, feels vulnerable, and key political players have begun to hedge between the West and Russia. This is linked with the fact that Turkey is apparently doing the same, and without full Turkish cooperation, it would be very difficult to militarily support Georgia if ever it were to face a Ukraine-scenario. The EU must decide just how strong its commitment to the Caucasus is.

Implications for European defence

In this evolving geopolitical environment, the EU and its Member States must simultaneously undertake three major tasks.

In the immediate term, they must enhance their support for the Ukrainian war effort. Indeed, the EU should gradually take over the main effort from the US, because it’s the European interest that is most directly at stake, and because American domestic politics may well lead to a reduction of US support. So far, decision-making has been incremental, moving from one weapon system to another, in small numbers. The EU should sit together with the Ukrainian defence staff and elaborate a comprehensive plan for the next five years: which capabilities will Kyiv need, and how will the EU produce and procure them? However the war ends, or however long it lasts, Ukraine will require major military support over the long term.

At the same time, Europeans must recreate depth in their own armed forces, which have been proven to be hollow, with minimal stocks of ammunition and often not even enough platforms to equip themselves, let alone provide for losses in war. The NATO New Force Model rightly sets an ambitious target: 300,000 European troops in a high state of readiness. The risk is that this will fully absorb the attention of our defence establishments, and the important decisions in the EU’s Strategic Compass will be ignored. But the New Force Model also is an opportunity, because it pushes for cooperation: sectors will be allotted to clusters of Allies rather than individual states. If these clusters create permanent multinational divisions, in which they anchor national brigades, with harmonised equipment and doctrine, and consolidated combat (service) support, a coherent European force package could emerge – which was the original purpose of PESCO. Franco-Belgian and Dutch-German army-to-army cooperation, or Nordic air cooperation, show how far integration can go. Achieving the NFM should be a priority for the EU, which has precisely created the instruments for military integration (including the European Defence Fund). If the EU does not also put these instruments to use for what is today the defence priority of its Member States, they will become irrelevant.

Finally, the EU must create a credible capacity for expeditionary operations in its near abroad. Nobody will defend the EU interests in its place. The Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC) announced in the Strategic Compass envisages brigade-sized operations. For the EU to be able to launch and sustain several crisis management operations at the same time, which the security situation might well demand, it requires a pool of at least six brigades (rather than a single 5000-strong force). This cannot be achieved on the basis of the Battlegroups, which have long since become irrelevant. If the RDC will amount to nothing more than rebaptising the Battlegroups, therefore, it will remain an empty box.

EU Member States have shown a great willingness to organise collectively to support Ukraine, including joint procurement of ammunition. Surely, they can do the same for their own defence as well.


Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop lectures at Ghent University and heads the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels.


This article will also be published on the Impetus website.


Read Sven Biscop’s Egmont Paper on War for Ukraine and the Rediscovery of Geopolitics


(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)