Vision quest: How Europe should safeguard its security

To prevent catastrophic wars, European states should concentrate on stabilising the West’s accomplishments and defending them against the revisionist policies of Russia in Europe and China in Asia

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meeting with heads of state
Image by NATO

It is impossible to separate the Russia-Ukraine crisis from Europe’s political development since the breakdown of the Soviet empire. For all those who longed for freedom and open societies, the Soviet collapse was a historic step forward. And it is easy to understand why countries once forced into Moscow’s orbit have aspired to join not only the EU but also NATO. Europeans should not reject these aspirations as some Russian leaders and ideologues have called for. The US military presence in Europe will continue to be indispensable even as the EU becomes a stronger defence actor.

Of course, from Moscow’s perspective, the advance of the EU and NATO reduces Russia’s strategic room for manoeuvre. The EU and NATO are no more of a threat to Russia than communist Cuba is to the United States. Both the US and Russia are particularly sensitive to security dangers in their own neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, Russia’s strategic interests mingle with policies specific to President Vladimir Putin –which, domestically and internationally, are defined by his desire to stay in power for as long as possible. A key part of his autocratic approach is to menace not only domestic opponents but also neighbouring countries. His recent threats against Ukraine are part of this policy – and have probably been triggered primarily by a decline in public support at home. In this, he is likely reassured by the fact that Russia’s large foreign exchange reserves would help it endure the immediate effects of further Western sanctions. In the short term, at least, it would be misguided to expect a major change in Russia’s approach to its relationship with its neighbours. 

Throughout the difficult years of the cold war, European politics was characterised by a strong, military-orientated defence of democracy and civil liberties, as well as a realistic foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union may have ushered in a new phase of global political development, but this did not mean the “end of history” with a permanent shift to liberal democracy worldwide. Unfortunately, European states will have to deal with authoritarian regimes for many years to come. To prevent catastrophic wars, they should concentrate on stabilising the West’s accomplishments and defending them against the revisionist policies of Russia in Europe and China in Asia. 

What does that mean for Ukraine? Firstly, Europe should let Ukrainians decide their own future and should prevent Russia from forcing anything on them. Putin is wrong to describe Ukrainians and Russians as one people. In an open referendum in 1991, Ukrainians chose independence. Today, despite what the polls say, it is unclear whether most of them favour NATO membership. But many Western politicians and commentators take it for granted that – sooner or later – Ukraine will join NATO. Those who act in this way risk widening divisions within Ukraine. The country is engaged in a difficult nation-building process. By exerting pressure on Ukraine, Russia has inadvertently made more Ukrainians want to join NATO.

Unfortunately, European states will have to deal with authoritarian regimes for many years to come

Ukraine is engaged in the important task of building a viable democracy and reducing oligarchic influence on its political system. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s use of treason charges against his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, reflects the political challenges the country faces. And Ukraine’s economic development has been weak in recent years, despite it receiving strong support from the EU. Even if there are arguments against implementing the Minsk agreement, Zelensky’s government has no clear strategy for uniting Ukraine and removing Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. In this respect, the EU must do a lot more to improve the country’s economic and political resilience. But Ukrainian politicians also have work to do. It will then be up to a united and cohesive Ukraine to decide whether it wants to join NATO.

More broadly, the EU should develop new ideas for honest cooperation with Russia – ones that account for Putin’s authoritarianism and his cynical approach to international politics. Europeans should not be naïve; they need to have a realistic vision of how to safeguard European security in the decades to come. Even a democratic and open-minded Russian leader would express some security concerns.

Europe’s security – or, better, the security of Europeans – calls for co-existence with Russia and new agreements on arms control and military manoeuvres. In this respect, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe should play a more active role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. At the same time, European diplomats should continue the ideological fight against nationalistic and anti-democratic tendencies outside and inside the EU.

History suggests that Europeans should have been surprised about how smoothly the enlargement of the EU and NATO seemed to be going. But, now, they should not allow the successes of EU and NATO enlargement to be endangered by new conflicts and another cold war. As difficult as it may be, Europe should ask Russia to play a constructive role in building a new security architecture. This would be in the interests of the Russian people.

One can only hope that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will have broad European support in trying to find solutions to the Russia-Ukraine crisis – and that they will not be seen as weak or unreliable NATO partners. It is lamentable that, today, discussions of the crisis in the EU are characterised neither by realism nor by a vision for European security.

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


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.