European Security Transformed
Two years on from the launch of RUSI’s European Security in Transformation Programme, the continent’s security has changed profoundly. The pieces are starting to settle into new patterns, accelerated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, as new actors and groupings emerge. For the UK, this shifting landscape creates both challenges and leadership opportunities as it heads towards its next general election.
In autumn 2021 we argued that the continent’s security was at an inflection point. We foresaw a coming transformation, driven by either a strategic shock or an aggregation of more modest changes. In fact, both have happened simultaneously: the trauma of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has accelerated and deepened multiple other security developments.
The past two years have witnessed marked changes in the European security landscape. First, state-on-state war has returned on a scale that Europe has not experienced since 1945. Ukraine’s extraordinary resistance and resilience, backed by slow but increasingly steady support from the West, has made sure that it will survive, bloodied but unbowed. The war is also transforming Ukraine into a powerful regional security actor that is now central rather than peripheral to European security, and it is set to play a pivotal role in future Euro-Atlantic security arrangements.
Second, we have seen a re-focused NATO. Its 2022 Strategic Concept was clear, if late, in identifying Russia as ‘the most significant and direct threat’ to peace and security. NATO plans, deployments and exercises have pivoted towards addressing the Russian threat in all domains. Finland has become a NATO member in rapid time, and Sweden is now on the path to entry. Neither event was on anyone’s immediate radar in October 2021. These developments will have a positive impact on the Alliance, making it stronger, more coherent and more European.
Third, new actors and groups have emerged. In October 2021 we commented that European security was no longer driven only by the ’big three’ (France, Germany and the UK), and that other countries were growing in influence and in their willingness to set the agenda, with support for Ukraine already becoming a unifying factor. This trend has accelerated, encompassing not just Ukraine and Finland, but also Poland – now a US security partner of choice – and Turkey.
Moreover, it’s not just the big countries driving change. Denmark and the Netherlands have led on providing F-16 aircraft for Ukraine, while the former donated all its Caesar self-propelled howitzers. The Baltic states lead support for Ukraine when measured by percentage of GDP. And Lithuania has been vocal in calling out Chinese coercive practices, withdrawn from China’s ‘17+1’ arrangement with Central and Eastern Europe and published an independent Indo-Pacific strategy.
Fourth, the EU is assuming a more prominent role. Russia’s initial diplomatic focus on the US and NATO has had to pivot more towards the EU, with sanctions becoming a significant lever in responding to Russian aggression. The EU now provides military support to Ukraine via the EU Peace Facility, which has had to increase its financial ceiling to meet demand. This would have been totally inconceivable two years ago.
The US continues to underpin European security, providing the lion’s share of support to Ukraine and NATO as well as overall defence spending
Finally, the security focus has shifted north, south and east. Unresolved and frozen conflicts are thawing, including in the Western Balkans and the South Caucasus, with the capacity of NATO and the EU to project stability uncertain. The war in Israel and Gaza constitutes a security emergency on Europe’s doorstep with the potential to spread, sow dissension and give Russia an opportunity to meddle and distract from its disastrous war in Ukraine. The collapse of French-led military missions in the Sahel has offered another opportunity for Russia to extend its influence.
… and What’s Not Changed?
There are several continuities. First, Russian aggression. Russia’s 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine was not an isolated trauma but the most severe in a decades-long succession of Russian violence, including Chechnya in the early 2000s, Georgia in 2008, Crimea and Donbas in 2014, Syria in 2015, chemical weapons use on UK soil in 2006 and 2018, and the attack on the Vrbětice ammunition warehouse in Czechia in 2014.
Second, Western defence burden-sharing remains imbalanced. The US continues to underpin European security, providing the lion’s share of support to Ukraine and NATO as well as overall defence spending. Europe collectively has been catching up on military support to Ukraine, but the nature, volume and timing of US capabilities has made the greatest difference. Moreover, while European defence spending has increased at the highest rate since the end of the Cold War, there are still disagreements on what to spend it on. Therefore, the gap in overall numbers does not take into account the actual capability gap – especially on critical enablers, including intelligence, command and control, logistics and the adoption of new technologies.
Third, and closely linked, Western defence industrial production remains insufficient to match the threat. Even for those European countries where there has been some increase in defence spending, it has not yet made much impact on defence industrial production. Moreover, this is not just a European and Ukrainian challenge as global events increase the demand for higher and sustained industrial production.
Fourth, the existing cooperative Euro-Atlantic security structures are no longer fit for purpose, including a near-total erosion of arms control and confidence- and security-building measures that previously constrained Russia. The 7 November statement that NATO allies would suspend the operation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty following Russia’s withdrawal acknowledges the depressing reality. Western capitals need to think creatively about new arrangements, including how to keep the US engaged.
The Integrated Review Refresh (IRR) of March 2023 represented a sober update of UK strategy. Although it emphasised working alongside allies and partners in both the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions, it reaffirmed the primacy of the Euro-Atlantic area for the UK’s security interests, to be bolstered by a reinvigoration of its European relationships.
Two years ago, these were in a mess. Post-Brexit, UK ministers had opted not to pursue closer ties with EU external initiatives or operations. The announcement in September 2021 of the AUKUS (Australia–UK–US) defence pact had provoked an angry response from France, at the same time as allies were coming to terms with the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A potential future UK–EU defence and security deal could be far more ambitious than simple third-party UK participation in EU security initiatives
The UK has now inched towards a more pragmatic relationship with the EU. The February 2023 Windsor Framework unlocked the possibility of closer security and defence cooperation, initially in cyber security and counterterrorism, and the UK joined the EU military mobility project. These steps proceeded alongside close practical cooperation on Russia sanctions. In a worsening security environment, a potential future UK–EU defence and security deal could be far more ambitious than simple third-party UK participation in EU security initiatives.
New Opportunities and Challenges for the UK
The transformation of European security is still unfolding, but the current constellation creates special challenges for the UK, considering that it is a leading European member of NATO and the Joint Expeditionary Force but now sits outside the EU, and given how invested it is in its new defence partnership with Ukraine and its long-standing security relationship with the US. Each of these carries uncertainty.
First, and most importantly, there is the outcome of the war in Ukraine. The UK and other European states increased support to Ukraine in 2023 alongside rising expectations of a Ukrainian military breakthrough. But winter is now upon us, and the ground war is likely to slow ahead of fresh fighting in spring 2024. With a static strategic frontline, external calls for Ukraine to reach an accommodation with Russia may grow. Yet the UK committed itself in the IRR to ‘supporting Ukraine to reassert its sovereignty and denying Russia any strategic benefit from its invasion’. It therefore appears bound to continue to advocate the Ukrainian cause and ensure that it has the capabilities to sustain combat operations to liberate its territory.
Second, 2024 will be a decisive year for US focus and commitment. Washington will host the next NATO Summit in July, and the Alliance will mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty in April. These events will take place against a complex US domestic political background, including Congress’s uncertain appetite for support to Ukraine and the prospect of a second Trump presidency that could be even more challenging for US allies than the first one.
The current UK government and opposition both stress their Atlanticism. But, with the US having security priorities elsewhere and an unpredictable presidential election ahead, the UK must work harder, alongside European allies, to keep the Euro-Atlantic security community together. Such a leaning into Europe would be welcome in Washington. Strangely, therefore, the best way for the UK to sustain its Atlanticist objectives may be to do more with its European neighbours.
One thing is certain: Europe’s security transformation is far from over.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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