Russia’s war on Ukraine presents an epochal challenge to the beliefs that have shaped Europeans’ approach to international security since 1991. In chancelleries throughout Europe, leaders are now faced with critical but unavoidable questions of high-intensity warfare, defence, and deterrence.
The time when Europeans could remain vegetarians in a world of carnivores, to borrow an analogy, is over. To learn how to eat meat, or at least to keep the wolf at bay, they will need to adapt in three main ways: devise a new strategic approach to defence and security; obtain the military capabilities necessary to prosecute that strategic approach; and stay ahead in the technology stakes. Core to all three efforts will be how well Europeans absorb the lessons from Ukrainians’ bloody first-hand experience on the battlefield; and how well they lay to rest decades-old, intra-European institutional squabbles.
Taken together, these three parts constitute a manifesto for change whose implementation can protect Europeans, particularly in the face of Russian aggression. Achieving each of the three will be simultaneously simple and difficult: the goals are clear and defined, and potent in terms of their pay-off for Europe’s defence, but realising them requires Europeans to overcome numerous obstacles that have long slowed progress. This will demand considerable investment on the part of European states and leaders. Governments will need to fundamentally revisit the way they approach defence policy and planning at a national level and with others in NATO and EU frameworks.
They should approach each part in the following ways.
The conflict in Ukraine has provided strategic and operational lessons about 21st century warfare for European governments. They need to use this knowledge to adapt their militaries to this new environment, including making greater contributions to transatlantic burden sharing.
For three decades, a combination of the US security blanket and a relatively benign geopolitical environment on the continent, notwithstanding the conflicts in the Balkans, have largely shielded Europeans from difficult defence choices. Russia is set to remain a long-term security challenge with undiminished naval, air, missile, nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities, and could become dangerously unstable domestically. Meanwhile, the United States is increasingly focused on its own domestic problems and its strategic competition with China.
European states are now faced with rebuilding solid militaries after decades of “peace dividends” in many countries, during which time armed forces hollowed out as Europeans assumed collective defence had become a remote risk. This remained the case even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when European governments reluctantly began to raise military spending under pressure from the US, committing to at least 2 per cent of GDP through the NATO defence investment pledge. Now the full-scale invasion of Ukraine means Europeans need an entirely new framework.
To agree a new framework, Europeans must move beyond pointless institutional disputes such as those between the European Union and NATO, as well as the crippling political disagreements between EU and non-EU Europeans, sub-regions, and key member states such as Germany and Poland. They should also look beyond the traditional negotiated documents – NATO’s Strategic Concept and the EU’s Strategic Compass – to focus on concrete outputs, overcome competing industrial agendas, and address some of the hard challenges ahead when it comes to reconfiguring transatlantic burden sharing. In the new world of geopolitical competition and proximate security threats, Europeans can no longer avoid these essential strategic decisions. The choices will be painful and politically fraught. European states will need to think collectively about the requirements of defence in the 21st century rather than applying 20th century recipes or hoping for some magical return to “business as usual”.
European countries must rethink the way they approach defence planning and procurement. They will have to deliver the equipment they need in a timely fashion, building on the EU’s existing efforts to increase defence cooperation among member states.
The equation is simple: no capabilities, no defence. Addressing the priorities of defence investment and obtaining the right capabilities is critical. Some European states still see their defence budgets as a means to implement their industrial policy and promote employment rather than build defence capabilities; others see them as a mechanism to ensure a strong link with the US. NATO has well-established processes for defence planning and the EU is increasingly supporting capability delivery through its own toolbox and by promoting cooperation among EU member states. European countries now need decision and scale to address military shortfalls and capability deficits. The EU and its member states need to work with NATO to coordinate defence investment processes in ways that can address gaps and shortfalls, allow for dialogue and decisions among key stakeholders – including ministries of defence, NATO, EU institutions, and the defence industry – and support European efforts to efficiently deliver military capabilities.
Europeans need to be able to preserve their technological edge. They should therefore fully embrace defence innovation and new defence technologies.
Images of the war in Ukraine painfully echo memories of past conflicts. But despite the trenches, the battlefields of Bakhmut are not like those of Passchendaele; the battles for Kharkiv or Kherson have little in common with the eastern front in the second world war despite the artillery volleys and the tank battles. Russia, and even more so Ukraine, has made extensive and innovative use of 21st century technology ranging from cyberwarfare and space-based systems to unmanned aerial vehicles and modern long-range artillery and targeting tools. Europeans should draw several lessons from this experience. One is that European militaries have dramatically underinvested in their inventories, both in terms of size and technology. In 2020, US spending on new defence research and development was more than seven times that of all EU member states combined. If Europeans intend to remain in the premier league of defence players, continued investment in technology by both traditional defence companies and disrupting tech companies is critical. The various stakeholders, including NATO, the European Commission, the European Defence Agency, the European External Action Service, defence firms, and national governments all agree that defence innovation is critical. But they have different views about which technologies to invest in and how to use them. Worse, institutional struggles – between the EU and NATO, and between national governments and multinational organisations – continue over who should control the direction and allocation of funding for this innovation. None of this is new, but increased geopolitical competition makes it ever more vital for European governments to collectively identify and pursue the right technologies and deliver them in a timely manner. Moreover, as innovation is not only about technology, but also about people, doctrines, and processes, European states should learn from the innovative ways of fighting that have been displayed on the Ukrainian battlefield. To do so, they should gather relevant expert advice from doctrinal and innovation hubs within national militaries, relevant NATO command structures such as the Allied Command for Transformation, EU bodies supporting innovation, industry, academia, and the think tank community.
In this new era, shared security must become the priority for planning the defence of Europe. European states need to become more agile and efficient in addressing their defence requirements. They need to resolve traditional institutional disputes and competition to focus on addressing their capability shortfalls, to innovate, and to respond in a comprehensive and timely manner to the challenges of the new security environment. If they do not, circumstances will dictate their choices.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.