The new EU defense agenda and the dynamics in Eastern Europe. Analysis of Dionis Cenușa



The period in which Ukraine fights against Russian aggression must be used as intelligently as possible by the EU to reduce the zone of insecurity in its eastern neighborhood, where Russian influence is still present and will not be easily uprooted...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

Reassessing the European Union's (EU) ability to autonomously defend itself against military threats from the East is becoming an emergency, not just a simple strategic priority. Two years after the start of Russia's all-out war against Ukraine, it has become clear that both the EU and the United States are partners whose pro-Ukrainian consensus seems to reach limits when discussions touch on national interests in the electoral and/or financial sphere. fields. However, any major failure on Ukrainian soil could affect the progress of election campaigns in both the United States and Europe, making the issue indispensable.

From February 2022 to the end of 2023, tens of billions of dollars and euros from the national budgets of NATO and EU states were invested to support the Ukrainian state against Russian military aggression. Thus, in the period between February 2022 and January 2024, the EU allocated 77 billion euros of the total of 144 billion euros promised, and the US, 74.3 billion dollars. Therefore, the Ukrainian issue is not only one of security, but also has political connotations with electoral repercussions. The negative socio-economic implications of the war in Ukraine can be exploited by Eurosceptic forces (IPN, January 2024). The first test will be the European Parliament from June 6 to 9, where it is estimated that the balance will tilt to the right (ECFR, January 2024).

Political processes within the EU and NATO are important to revitalize solidarity around the Ukrainian cause. Both NATO and the EU, jointly or separately, could suffer more dire consequences for Europe's security architecture if anti-transatlantic geopolitical egocentrism emerges in the event of Donald Trump's victory. The dissonance at the Euro-Atlantic decision-making levels favors Russia, which is preparing for new offensives in Ukraine in May (Reuters, February 2024). Furthermore, Russia has already been practically invited by Trump to attack NATO States, which do not pay 2% of GDP on defense. The prospect of a US presidency under Trump that favors transactional relations within NATO is a worrying sign for EU states, which need renewed and strengthened security guarantees that currently do not exist under the EU umbrella. However, Article 42 of the EU Treaty requires military assistance in case of aggression ("mutual defense clause"), but cannot in any way activate any principle of collective defense (theoretically, under the auspices of the US), following the model provided for in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

Meanwhile, the EU's southern neighbors have not calmed down. The situation in the Middle East remains in serious condition due to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip (2.2 million people at risk of starvation), which the Israeli leaders ignore and the EU and the US tolerate, eroding its international credibility. On the other hand, outside Ukraine, other hotspots in the eastern neighborhood generate uncertainty, demonstrating a limited degree of anticipation and reaction to ad hoc events. This can be seen in the case of speculation about a possible "annexation" of the Transnistrian region in Moldova by Russia (EESC, February 2024). Although the latter was a false flag operation carried out by the separatist regime in territory not controlled by Moldova, with the authorization or coordination of the Russian intelligence, the West lost the opportunity to demonstrate that it can effectively discern and decodify Russian scenarios. Another weak point in the eastern neighborhood concerns existing tensions in Armenia's relations with Azerbaijan, where the EU mediation service is apparently on pause due to suspicions that Charles Michel and the EU respectively are benefiting Armenia. Germany has apparently decided to take on the role of (informal) mediator in the normalization process of dialogue between Yerevan and Baku (Reuters, February 2024), but the prospects for this effort are nebulous, including the fact that the assistance of Berlin in the context of the Transnistria conflict settlement has not led to viable compromises between the conflicting parties.

The Ukrainian element and the EU-NATO borders

Despite other geopolitical crises, Ukraine's is once again in the spotlight because the failure to manage it may result in strategic advantages for Russia and other geopolitical rivals of the US and the EU in the Middle East, Africa and/or Southeast Asia. The current White House administration is trying to unlock $60 billion in American financial aid for Ukraine's military needs, which remains highly politicized. Any delay in this assistance will serve as a reason to hold the US responsible for the advance of the Russian army in Ukraine, as already seen after the loss of Ukrainian control over the city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region (BBC, February 2024).

In parallel, the EU completed the decision-making procedures on the establishment of the new financing mechanism for Ukraine in the period 2024-27, with 50 billion euros (around 35% in the form of grants). However, it is lagging behind in the supply of ammunition, although Ukraine has tripled its domestic arms production, involving about 500 local companies active in the national defense sector (100 state-owned enterprises). Even if Germany plans to allocate around 7 billion euros to help the Ukrainian army this year, the problem is in the production and delivery of ammunition at the European level, which will be increased to meet European and Ukrainian demand no earlier than 2025.

Furthermore, the competition for the position of future NATO Secretary General may generate some misunderstandings if the candidates proposed by the Eastern European member states - Estonia (Kaja Kallas) and Romania (Klaus Iohannis) - are ignored in favor of the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte (Reuters, February 2024). The Eastern flank states consider that a greater NATO presence in the region is essential to avoid scenarios of invasion of the Baltic countries by Russia. The enlargement of NATO, recently integra Sweden, generates a positive perception for regional security, as long as it is reinforced with practical measures (military exercises, presence of NATO troops, etc.). If the impossibility of providing sufficient weapons to Ukraine is not overcome and the new NATO leaders do not take into account the fears of the eastern allies, not only the reputation of the transatlantic alliance, but also the ability of the NATO-EU duo to project power beyond European borders, beyond Russia, could be undermined.

The particularities of the eastern flank: up to and beyond NATO borders

The doubts generated by Trump's statements about the reliability of NATO Article 5 call for serious concern on the part of the EU regarding its own security. Ursula von der Leyen's proposal to create a "defence" portfolio in the future College of Commissioners of the European Commission is a step in the right direction, including the idea of appointing a representative of EU states to this position of the eastern flank (Politico, February 2024). However, to talk about collective defense in the EU, regardless of the decisions of future American presidents within NATO, a synchronization of actions at the level of the state (political) and the private sector (military industry) is needed. Currently, European military companies number around 2,000 entities, of which 7 have registered total revenues of more than 40 billion euros in 2022, and four of this list are French. This explains why Emmanuel Macron for some time opposed the proposal to purchase ammunition for Ukraine from non-European third countries. The latter showed that even in crisis situations, a country's individual economic interests can still replace strategic thinking for the benefit of the common European interest.

However, the need to accelerate the EU's defense preparedness inevitably becomes a current of thought among European policymakers. This was listed by the current head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, as one of the great objectives at the moment, along with accelerating aid to Ukraine, intensifying contacts with the "Global South" and stopping violent events in Gaza. Even if ammunition production within the EU increased by approximately 40% from 2021, this pace does not allow to provide the EU and Ukraine with the necessary volume of military consumables. In any case, the ultimate goal is to create national defense capabilities that can be interoperable at the European level, not to create a "European army." Some positive trends in intra-European military cooperation emerge from the 236 proposals, representing an increase of more than 70% in 2023 compared to 2022, for post-2023 funding of around 1.2 billion euros from the European Defense Fund (created in 2021). Nonetheless, no investment in military production will compensate for the lack of integrity of intelligence related to military plans at the level of national structures in NATO and EU states. The recent scandal related to the leak of sensitive information on assistance to Ukraine from within German military levels creates risks for future goals of greater intra-European military cooperation (Deutsche Welle, February 2024). For this reason, in addition to increasing military production power in the EU, it is imperative to combat mistrust between allies by identifying and eliminating integrity gaps within NATO and the EU military regarding enemy espionage attempts.

On the eastern flank, the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – demonstrate a high level of awareness of Russian threats to the security of NATO's eastern borders. Taking into account the negative scenarios, the three NATO States and the EU are determined to invest at least 60 million euros to build a line of fortifications against a possible ground attack initiated by Russia (Politico, January 2024). If events in Ukraine lead to a "freeze" of the war or an "artificial peace" and Trump becomes the US president who disarms NATO, then the Baltic countries risk becoming targets of future o eventual waves of Russian territorial revisionism. The others who are one step closer to the EU, but very far from NATO, will be in a complicated situation. Although candidate states for EU accession (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) or countries from the region where EU missions are deployed (including Armenia) can develop defense cooperation with the EU, they remain in a zone of insecurity where Russia can intervene minimally in a hybrid way. The least the EU can do is clarify its own potential to resolve the Transnistrian conflict, where separatist actors can be drawn into reintegration processes through a combination of incentives and constraints, capitalizing on the isolation produced by events in Ukraine. On the other hand, the EU must use the lessons learned in Ukraine and Moldova to more effectively manage the situation in the separatist regions of Georgia. Furthermore, security risks in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan must be eliminated by involving both nations in investment projects related to the "Middle Corridor", possible in exchange for the definitive normalization of relations, with mutual recognition of borders.

In lieu of conclusions…

Given the high probability that the West will refuse to accommodate Russia's interests in Ukraine, proactive investments in peace maintaining efforts require revitalizing European military potential to deter hostile actions by anti-Western actors.

The EU must use as wisely as possible the period in which Ukraine is fighting Russian aggression to reduce the area of insecurity in its eastern neighborhood, where Russian influence is still present and will not be easily uprooted.

The thinking and strategic preparedness offered by the Baltic States must be applied and replicated on the EU's eastern border. Alternatively, it is important for the EU to use economic instruments to reduce the risks of destabilization in its eastern neighborhood, especially in the context of the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict and efforts to normalize relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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.
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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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