Closing ranks: Ukraine’s role in future European defence

European leaders should integrate Ukraine into common defence projects, where the country’s experience and knowledge of war-fighting will be invaluable

February 9, 2023, Brussels, Belgium: The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at a press conference with Charles Michel and Ursula Von Der Leyen in Brussels following his visit to the European Parliament. (Credit Image: © Nicolas Landemard/Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA Press
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at a press conference with Charles Michel and Ursula Von Der Leyen in Brussels following his visit to the European Parliament
Image by picture alliance / | Nicolas Landemard

Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine placed the question of Europe’s future defence and security architecture in the spotlight. As the European Union, NATO, and European governments reassess the structures, mechanisms, and opportunities to develop a shock-resistant European defence system, Ukraine’s experience, knowledge, and participation will be invaluable.

High-intensity war on the European continent has once again become a major concern for European governments. Even if the Kremlin loses the war against Ukraine, it would be naïve to expect that Europe’s eastern borders will not continue to require defending. Russia will remain a revisionist power that seeks to obtain its own ‘sphere of influence,’ which will include post-Soviet European countries.

NATO will remain the principal security actor for defending its members against Russia and ensuring that Kremlin policy does not undermine the security environment in Europe. The EU increasingly also has a role to play in securing and stabilising Europe and its periphery. The United States has played one of the most decisive roles in supporting Ukraine with weapons and other resources to ensure the war does not spread further into the European continent. US troops are stationed in multiple European countries, deterring any conventional army from engaging in operations on European soil, which would trigger a response from the US. However, China remains the primary concern for US security, and Russia and its sparse allies understand that. Europe needs to be able to defend its eastern borders without relying exclusively on US intervention.

Ukraine should not be left on the periphery of security alliances after the war. The country aspires to be a member of both NATO and the EU, but until that happens, it can be gradually integrated as a close ally by participating in joint projects. This will help Ukraine’s security, and that of NATO and the EU, but it will also bring Ukraine closer to membership of both organisations. Ukrainians have made great sacrifices to defend Europe, which cannot go unnoticed. However, for military and defence structures, arguments of justice and fairness are rarely persuasive. It is therefore more relevant to focus on why both organisations will benefit from having Ukraine as an ally and how they should involve the country in the future European defence configuration.

Ukraine has proved its ability to protect not only itself but the European continent from the invasion from the east. It has a unique experience of fighting a modern full-scale war unlike any other European country since the second world war. As a result, it has developed efficient lines of defence against the invasion and can mobilise its force and react quickly, including to the threat of invasion from Belarus in northern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian armed forces have also gained profound experience operating the Western weapons used in both European and NATO structures. Even before the war, Ukraine had participated in NATO military exercises for many years. Fighting against Russia, it has integrated air and missile defence systems, such as the US-Norwegian NASAMS and German Iris-T into its strategy – and will likely soon expand this list with other European and US systems, such as the Patriot and SAMP/T. The Ukrainian armed forces have also used other types of Western weapons that require less coordination, such as armoured vehicles and artillery. Their next counter-offensive will rely on different versions of Western tanks, including German Leopard and Leopard 2, US Abrams M1, and UK Challenger 2 tanks, and if they receive Western planes in the future – as President Volodymyr Zelensky is requesting – they will have profound experience operating all of the types of military equipment used by NATO and the EU.

Furthermore, as it is likely that the defence of the borders with Russia and Belarus will remain important after the end of active hostilities, Ukraine will continue to be an important actor on these eastern frontlines of European defence. The country may in the future remain responsible for high-intensity operations, with eastern European countries continuing to play an important role as a logistical and repair hub to secure the efficiency of the Ukrainian army. The efficiency of such a defence will be a primary concern for European countries, and will necessitate close cooperation.

As European countries work to configure new defence cooperation, Ukraine’s experience of fighting – both in terms of tactics and operating weapons – will be invaluable. Ukrainian military personnel can provide valuable advice and training for other Western armies based on their own experience. They should continue to be involved in military exercises and provide training through NATO formats in the future. This would be particularly useful given that many of the Soviet weapons used by the Russian armed forces are also used by a number of other states that might challenge European security in the future, including China.

Many of the Soviet weapons used by the Russian armed forces are also used by a number of other states that might challenge European security in the future, including China

The EU should also begin integrating Ukraine into some of its initiatives. It has already laid the foundations to do so: the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, signed in 2014, envisioned military-political integration of Ukraine with the EU. This has been developing since its signing, with notable progress in the areas of justice, security, national security, and defence, among others. In October 2022, the EU established a Military Assistance Mission to support the Ukrainian armed forces, as part of which the EU committed to training Ukrainian soldiers. European leaders should now build on this foundation to gradually incorporate Ukraine into other structures.

One opportunity to do this would be by integrating Ukraine into the European Sky Shield Initiative – a German-led project to coordinate air defence systems. But EU-Ukrainian defence cooperation should extend beyond this project. The EU has developed several initiatives to perform financial and logistical tasks as part of its security and defence cooperation, including the European Defence Fund, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). All of these initiatives could benefit from Ukraine’s participation, as well as experience and knowledge.

It is true that these structures are already hampered by a lack of coordination and cohesion. European governments may therefore deem it illogical to incorporate a new non-EU member into them. However, the EU has well-defined limits for defence cooperation with non-EU entities, and these initiatives include the possibility for third-party participation. For example, the US, Canada, and Norway became participants of the PESCO Military Mobility project in 2021, and the United Kingdom was invited to join it in November 2022. The European defence industry reinforcement through common procurement act (EDIRPA) allows the EU to fund  projects where at least 70 per cent of components originate in the EU. The EU will most definitely prioritise its own cohesion and internal cooperation, but Ukraine’s gradual involvement into the EU defence projects that are open to non-EU members should be considered more seriously both by the EU and Ukrainian defence institutions.

The Ukrainian armed forces rapidly became one of the largest in Europe. They operate hundreds of tanks and other heavy armoured vehicles. Almost one million Ukrainians have been mobilised to fight in the war and many of them already have combat experience. Ukraine has proved it can already wage a full-scale war against an aggressor which surpasses it in numbers of military equipment and personnel. Meanwhile, European armies will need some time to build up their military capacity – Europe lost roughly 35 per cent of its capabilities over the last two decades and only nine of 30 NATO member states are currently spending 2 per cent (or more) of their GDP on defence, as NATO requires. In the aftermath of the war, as the EU and NATO adjust their institutions to the new environment, they will benefit from expanding the links established with Ukraine during the war. Including Ukraine in the future configuration of European defence would enhance both European and transatlantic security, ensuring Europe’s security at its eastern borders and relieving some pressure from the US military.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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