The war in Ukraine has already taken a terrible toll – on human life, on Ukraine’s cities, and on Europe’s sense of security. The one bright light in this sea of darkness has been a renewed sense of Western unity. Europeans and Americans have surprised both the Russians and themselves with the fierceness of their response and the solidarity they have shown the Ukrainians. But, as so often in previous eras, Western unity has required US leadership. In this sense, one of the more paradoxical casualties of war has been the concept of European sovereignty – that is, of the idea of building a European capacity to act independently of the United States.
Since the Russian troop build-up along the Ukrainian border began in October 2021, it has been the US that has provided intelligence on the Kremlin’s intentions and warned about the coming invasion, often meeting with a sceptical European response. It is the US that has shaped most Western sanctions on Russia, particularly the devastating measures targeting its central bank. And it is the US dollar and American control of the international financial system that have made the sanctions so effective. The US has outstripped all EU member states combined in providing military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and has also agreed to backfill many of the weapons systems that these allies have provided to Kyiv.
Of course, many European countries are making important contributions and providing essential assistance to Ukraine. But it seems that, in the crisis of the moment, everyone is reverting to their cold war habits in which the Americans lead while the western Europeans follow – with little room or appetite for independent European efforts. In any case, the immediate result of the crisis is to halt and even reverse the Biden administration’s stated intention to focus on Asia. In just a few months, US troop deployments in Europe have increased from a post-war historic low of around 65,000 to 100,000. In the past few weeks, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the secretary of state have both signalled that the US could establish permanent bases for American troops on the territory of eastern NATO allies.
For many countries in Europe, particularly those in the east, this is a welcome development. They never believed that Europeans would be able to collectively stand up to Russia without US leadership – and this crisis seems to confirm that view. The French, long the champions of a Europe that could manage its own security affairs, seem chastened. NATO is experiencing a renaissance, while some commentators describe the French concept of strategic autonomy as effectively “brain dead”. French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to negotiate with Russia have petered out. And, so far, France is not making new attempts to lead Europeans in their response to the war.
Germany is probably the most internally divided member state on this issue. It has strong impulses to both encourage US leadership of European defence and assert a more independent European role. Reconciling those contrary impulses has long proven difficult.
Just two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement of a so-called Zeitenwende (turning point) in German defence policy, accompanied by a pledge to spend an additional €100 billion on the German military, initially seemed an effort to assert a new form of German – and, therefore, European – leadership. But the first major decision Scholz made after his speech was to deepen defence cooperation with the US and replace Germany’s combat aircraft with the US-made F-35 jet rather than the Eurofighter.
There were many justifications for this decision, not least Germany’s need to fulfil its nuclear-sharing mission in NATO and shore up its capacity to defend against Russia. But, at the same time, the decision reinforced Germany’s dependence on the US by failing to shore up the European defence industrial base. In the long term, this will threaten European defence cooperation efforts such as that to develop the Future Combat Air System. As is well understood in Berlin, there can be no independent European military capability without a strong European defence industrial base.
More generally, the German government seems to be retreating to its traditional posture of lying low geopolitically and spending as little as possible. In the German press, there is a legitimate fear that Scholz will renege on his promise to ratchet up Germany’s military capabilities through a sustained increase in defence spending. Judging by his original announcement, one might be forgiven for assuming that Germany intended to finally reach and sustain its NATO commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Now, that seems uncertain. There is a lack of clarity not only about how much of the €100 billion “special fund” will be spent, but also about whether this special fund is part of a long-term increase in the German defence budget or just a one-off measure to meet the political needs of the moment.
Of course, even in the wildest dreams of French sovereigntists, an independent European capacity to act was always a generational project. In this sense, the war in Ukraine did not kill European sovereignty because it had not yet been born. But, paradoxically, the war means that Europeans’ need for independent military capabilities has never been greater.
Russia poses a threat to Europe’s stability that Europeans are clearly not equipped to address on their own. But the Americans, for all the forcefulness of their response to the current crisis, remain problematic security guarantors for Europe. The Ukraine crisis does not mean that the US regards China as any less of a problem – arguably, the opposite is true, as Russia has become more dependent on Chinese support. The US will once again seek to focus on the Asia-Pacific after this crisis subsides because, as the last three US presidents have articulated, they understand that China is the pre-eminent threat to US power. Russia, for all its capacity to cause trouble, is a sideshow in that hegemonic conflict. The limitations on America’s own resources mean that future US leaders will expect Europeans to take up most of the burden of dealing with Russia.
If Europeans fail to do so, US domestic politics will probably force the issue. The current US administration may talk about Asia a great deal, but it is deeply traditionalist in its foreign policy. In contrast, former president Donald Trump and his quasi-isolationist acolytes are waiting restively in the wings. They may not return to power in 2025, but they will do so eventually. They will bring with them a more accommodating attitude towards Russia, an even deeper hatred of China, and an ingrained sense that Europeans – especially Germans – are freeloaders.
The Russia-Ukraine war could seem to show that it is simply impossible for Europeans to take the lead in providing for their own security. But it appears equally impossible that the US will continue to do so for another generation. In this battle of the impossibles, something has to give. Europeans in the east and the west would be wise not to make assumptions about how this struggle will end.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.