Disinhibiting EU strategic thinking under the pressure of Russian militarist revisionism: breaking European "taboos". Analysis by Dionis Cenusa



The security crisis caused by the Russian war against Ukraine contributes to the maturation of the EU as a geopolitical actor...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The critical juncture arising as a result of the Russian military aggression against Ukraine has radically changed the European perception of the "red lines" previously claimed by Russia. On the one hand, the new vision of the EU allows for a more ambitious geopolitical behavior regarding the complementary character of cooperation with NATO. At the same time, European strategic thinking is becoming more uninhibited regarding the use of military tools offered to third countries to combat security threats emanating from the Russian side. In January 2023, after almost 11 months of the war on the European continent, the EU and NATO reiterated the West's common security agenda. Through this intermediary, the EU tends to strengthen its aspirations in terms of strategic autonomy, emphasizing the deepening of the strategic partnership with NATO. Unlike other crises in the past, the one caused by the war in Ukraine tests the quality of EU-NATO security cooperation and points to the need to expand and deepen mutual compatibility.

Both the security crisis triggered by Russia and the conventional security model already developed and applied by NATO encourage the EU to invest in its own defense capabilities, prioritizing resilience against malign external influences (EU-NATO Statement, January 2022). Consequently, the uninhibited approach to threats of Russian origin is normalized at the level of European decision-makers. So far, Western unity has materialized in the area of coordinating the sanctions regime and ensuring European energy security. Currently, the breaking of taboos related to the delivery of military offensive equipment to Ukraine is under pressure. Germany's reluctance to allow the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine is the only major source of dissent within NATO-EU (TheGuardian, January 2023). But the reputational costs for the German government will require a qualitative review of the position in the coming days or weeks. Previously, Ukraine managed to stimulate Western political decision-makers to increase military assistance through the liberation of its territories (in the Kharkiv region, the right bank of the Kherson region) and the continued defeat of Russian forces. To resolve the German blockade, it is imperative to apply a "sandwich" tactic, which requires the synchronization of internal and external pressure. For now, only external pressure from NATO-EU allies is visible, with no major action visible within the ruling coalition (the Greens) or the systemic parliamentary opposition (CDU/CSU). The German resistance generates friction within the EU-NATO, generating certain uncertainties and military planning difficulties in the process of organizing the Ukrainian counteroffensive (scheduled for this spring).

In terms of achieving comprehensive Western synchronization in the field of security, with the creation of a common front against Russia, the EU is rapidly getting rid of at least three geopolitical taboos: 1) the fear of challenging Russian geopolitical hegemony in Eastern Europe; 2) strategic disinterest in entering Russia's "intimate" geopolitical zone of influence (the states that make up the Collective Security Treaty Organization); and 3) military non-participation in security crises directed at Russian geostrategic interests.

Taboo No. 1: Challenging Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe

The first taboo to be overcome by the EU involves reviewing the geopolitical status of the western extremity of the former Soviet space. Therefore, the EU no longer takes into account the Russian claims to the "common neighbourhood", which includes Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Until the outbreak of the war, Brussels was evasive and reluctant to the irreversible Europeanization of Eastern Europe, which allowed Russia to protect and maintain its geopolitical influence there.

The categorical revision of the political discourse and the application of the nine sanctions packages by the EU in 2022 started the process of de-Russification of the geopolitical space, which previously constituted the “Russian-European common neighbourhood”. The inclusion of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the EU enlargement package changes the dynamics of geopolitical competition between the EU and Russia. One of the main effects of the EU-initiated contestation is to cut out Eastern Europe's post-Soviet vulnerabilities in relation to Russian factors of influence and destabilization.

The European perspective offered for half of the Eastern Partnership states not only removes the "buffer zone" between the EU and Russia but also widens the future common Russian-European border. Therefore, inevitably, the discussion on the "common neighbourhood" moves to that of the management of bilateral borders. However, this implies the obligation of a successful Europeanization of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, whose reform is hampered by multiple internal deficiencies. The future ability of Russia to restore and infiltrate its sources of influence already within the European geopolitical borders depends on the quality of the Europeanization of the three states.

Taboo No. 2: Entering the "intimate" zone of Russian geopolitical influence

The second taboo regarding Russia, abolished by the EU, concerns the European intention to provide alternative security to states within the inner circle of Russia's allies. The EU's decision to launch an observation mission in Armenia, which is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), can only be perceived by Moscow as a major strategic risk. Armenia represents the only way for Russia to be effectively present in the South Caucasus. The socialization of Armenian decision-makers with European practices in the field of security could have ripple effects, intensifying the steps, already taken by the Armenian public, regarding the abandonment of the CSTO.

Armenia's decision to resort to EU help is due to the fact that Russia is rapidly losing its geopolitical relevance in the region. The effectiveness of the Ukrainian defense and counteroffensive undermined Russia's image. Consequently, the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers, deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh as of 2020, is openly contested by Azerbaijan. Diplomatically, the EU is actively involved in efforts to mediate the dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan on border demarcation and peace negotiations. However, the authoritarian nature of the political regime in Azerbaijan makes it incompatible with the European liberal agenda. In any case, Russia is aware that the Armenian government will take any opportunity to get closer to the EU and recover from the disastrous episode of 2013 when Armenia was pressured to leave the Association Agreement with the EU. Although the dependence on Russia remains strong, Armenia tries to balance its forces due to the presence of the EU in relation to both Russia and Azerbaijan.

For now, the duration of the EU mission that will be launched on the ground in Armenia already in February is planned for 2 years (the decision was taken on January 23). It will be operational throughout the territory of Armenia, with the mandate to contribute to the prevention of tensions on the border with Azerbaijan and the normalization of relations between the two countries. Over time, however, this mission could acquire expanded powers, becoming the basis for deepening sectoral cooperation with the EU. The mandate of the EU Mission in Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM), which has been extended several times since 2005, can serve as an example of the future role that can be assigned to the Monitoring Mission in Armenia in the field of administration of borders, migration management, etc. Although the mission does not have a military mandate per se, Russia may see a risk in using this experience to pave the way for international peacekeeping missions to replace Russian peacekeepers active in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Taboo No. 3: Military involvement against Russian geostrategic interests

The third taboo broken by the EU is of a military nature. The synergy created by the NATO member states, which are part of the EU, led Brussels to overcome its complexes related to the arming of third countries with lethal weapons. This premiere is unusual for the EU. Although not a military bloc, unlike NATO, the EU has agreed to provide military aid to Ukraine in 2022 and will continue to do so in 2023. Ukraine can count on EU military assistance both to defend and liberate Russia's occupied territories. in 2014-2022. The EU does not impose any conditions on the use of weapons purchased for the Ukrainian military as long as they are used within the internationally recognized national borders of Ukraine (which includes Crimea).

According to estimates for 2022, the military assistance Ukraine receives only from the US (about $22.8 billion), Great Britain (2.3 billion pounds), the EU (3.1 billion euros), Germany (2.2 billion euros), and Poland (1.8 billion euros) reaches $30 billion. Together with military support from other NATO states and the EU, the amount of assistance to the Ukrainian military exceeds 1/3 of Russia's military spending by 2022 ($77-82 billion). The new tranche of US$2.5 billion in military aid pledged by the US (in total $27.5 billion) raises expectations for the EU, which is currently discussing supplementing the initial budget of the European Peace Facility, accounting for 5 billion euros for the period 2021-27, with only 2 billion euros in 2023. In the context of the Russian military aggression, more than half of the funds of this instrument (3.1 billion euros) have as destination Ukraine.

Based on the costs generated so far by the war, but also on the strategic interest of accumulating military potential, the EU must urgently start discussions on increasing the budget for defense and security. This is imperative both for the EU and for the new candidate states, Ukraine and Moldova, which cannot rely on the "NATO umbrella" to fend off Russia. In other words, European financial resources are used by the EU's neighboring national armies to counter and/or prepare to retaliate against military threats of Russian origin.

In lieu of conclusions...

The security crisis caused by Russia's war against Ukraine contributes to the maturation of the EU as a geopolitical actor. Its strategic ambitions are increasingly aligned with those shared by NATO, which is a military alliance. The disinhibition of the EU is beneficial for the crystallization and future strengthening of European strategic autonomy. At the same time, this constitutes a real geopolitical challenge for Russia, weakened by Ukrainian resistance and pro-Ukrainian Western solidarity.

If the EU succeeds in the Europeanization of the new Eastern European candidate states, then the Russian-European borders will expand and the "buffer zone" will practically disappear. Russia will have to accept the new regional positioning of the EU, which provides financial assistance to neighboring states to the east to counter Russian threats. The most difficult aspect of the future geopolitical coexistence between the two regional players will be the presence of the EU in the geopolitical space, which Russia perceives as "intimate". The geopolitical parameters in which the EU wants to operate from now on are not yet guaranteed. The dynamics of military events in Ukraine will determine how effective Russia's revisionist attempts will be to counter the EU's geopolitical advance to the East.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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