Europe needs a new Ukraine strategy

The European Union’s decision to start accession talks with Ukraine represents a symbolic victory rather than a practical one. With Ukraine struggling to secure crucial aid, and its counter-offensive failing to achieve its objectives, it is time to redefine what constitutes a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat

December 19, 2023, Kyiv, Ukraine: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to a question during his annual end-of-year press conference, December 19, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Credit Image: © Ukraine Presidency/Ukraine Presi/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to a question during his annual end-of-year press conference, December 19, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine
Image by picture alliance / | Ukraine Presidency/Ukraine Presi

It took European Union leaders eight hours – a relatively short time, by EU standards – to agree to start accession negotiations with Ukraine. While this decision represents a major victory for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, it came at a high cost, as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban blocked the disbursement of €50 billion in aid that Ukraine desperately needs to defend itself. As the war approaches its second anniversary, Europe finds itself in a double bind.

While policymakers in the United States and Europe are wary of using confiscated Russian assets to support Ukraine’s war effort and reconstruction, their concerns are, at best, misguided. Ukraine urgently needs these funds to win the war, and failing to make these resources available now is unconscionable.

The EU’s Ukraine strategy rests on three main pillars. First, European leaders have committed to a definition of victory that implies the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and have pledged to support Ukraine until it reclaims all territory occupied by Russia during the war’s early stages.

Second, Europe’s Russia policy has been entirely focused on economic sanctions and international isolation. Western firms have fled Saint Petersburg and Moscow en masse, the G7 has imposed a price cap on Russian oil, and hundreds of Russian diplomats have been expelled from Western capitals.

Lastly, Europe’s reliance on American support has reached levels not seen since the cold war. Despite the United States’ escalating rivalry with China, President Joe Biden’s administration has committed substantial diplomatic, economic, and military resources to ensuring Europe’s security and stability.

Consequently, Ukraine has managed to retain roughly 82 per cent of its pre-invasion territory, while Russia has suffered significant losses in personnel and resources. Moreover, the transatlantic alliance – deemed all but dead during former US president Donald Trump’s term – is now stronger than it has been at any point since the end of the cold war.

But all three pillars have started to wobble. While procedural legerdemain thwarted Orban’s attempt to veto Ukraine’s EU accession, the decision is more a symbolic victory for Ukraine than a practical one, given that it does not address the ongoing delay in crucial financial aid. On the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, the war has reached a stalemate that favours Russia as the Ukrainian counter-offensive, burdened from the start by unrealistic expectations, has failed to achieve its stated objectives.

Moreover, the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed on Russia has been called into question after a recent Politico investigation revealed that Western restrictions have been far less devastating than initially anticipated. As Russian president Vladimir Putin tours the Middle East and threatens to open new European fronts, there is an emerging consensus in Washington that the US would need to engage with Moscow after the 2024 presidential election.

America’s waning interest in the Ukraine war poses the biggest threat to Europe’s stability. European leaders’ biggest concern is Trump’s potential return to the White House in 2025, as right-wing think-tanks have already begun drawing up plans for a “dormant NATO” and advocating a shift from burden-sharing to “burden-shifting.”

But the problem goes beyond Trump. Even the Biden administration, which has played an instrumental role in coordinating Ukraine’s defence, appears to have changed its tune. In a recent press conference with Zelensky, Biden introduced a new phrase, saying that the US will support Ukraine “for as long as we can,” which replaced “for as long as it takes.” Zelensky, who travelled to Washington to plead with Republican legislators to approve a major aid package and failed to achieve a breakthrough, was visibly disheartened.

Biden’s rhetorical shift highlights the dilemma facing Ukraine’s European allies and underscores the urgent need for Europe to rethink its strategy. For starters, the definition of a Ukrainian victory should not be limited to the territory regained from Russia. The character and identity of postwar Ukraine, particularly its commitment to democratic principles, are equally important. Should Ukraine emerge from this war as a vibrant democracy and become a member of NATO and the EU, it would be a spectacular victory, regardless of specific territorial gains.

Should Ukraine emerge from this war as a vibrant democracy and become a member of NATO and the EU, it would be a spectacular victory, regardless of specific territorial gains

Consequently, Western countries should focus on supporting Ukraine in realising this vision. Europeans should help Ukraine reform its economy and defence industry so that the country becomes less reliant on the vagaries of Western domestic politics. This would enable Ukraine to establish financially sustainable mechanisms to defend itself against Russian aggression. Instead of waiting for the war to end, Western governments must help Ukraine rebuild its economy and tax base while the conflict is still ongoing.

This redefinition of Ukrainian victory must go hand in hand with a new understanding of what constitutes a Russian defeat. Given that the war is unlikely to end with Putin and his cronies in the dock in the Hague, EU leaders must grapple with the long-term challenges posed by the multifaceted conflict between Russia and Europe, including an energy crisis, political upheaval, and geopolitical instability. A prolonged conflict with a rogue Russian regime requires a holistic strategy that involves establishing channels to understand and anticipate the Kremlin’s intentions and tactics.

Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office in January 2025, Europe must reduce its dependence on the US. This means spending more on defence and developing an effective common strategy. Allowing a single member state to hijack the bloc’s entire foreign-policy agenda, as Hungary has done, is unsustainable and incompatible with the EU’s ambition to assert its influence in a multipolar world.

Despite these challenges, December’s European Council meeting might have laid the groundwork for a new vision of Europe. The past two years have been marked by an unexpected alignment among EU member states, with France discovering a renewed enthusiasm for Eastern Europe and enlargement, and Germany showing a growing interest in defence. Even Italy appears to have moved on from its previous love affair with Russia, and the United Kingdom is slowly rekindling its relationship with the EU.

With crucial elections in Europe, the US, and the UK looming on the horizon, the future of the transatlantic alliance remains in flux. To survive amid regional and global transformations, the EU must use this period of uncertainty and change to develop a strategy that will enable both the bloc and Ukraine to weather the challenges of the coming years.

This article was first published in Project Syndicate on 21 December 2023.

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


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