Political Volatility is Disrupting European Security
Political instability is harming the West’s ability to strategise. For the good of Ukraine and Europe it needs to be actively mitigated.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically shifted the European security order. European countries, under significant political and societal pressures, have broadly done well to adapt to the pace of change and deal with the secondary and tertiary effects of the war. Countries have delivered extraordinary military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Russia has been extensively sanctioned and significant steps have been taken to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. NATO has invited two new members to join the alliance and has significantly strengthened its defence and deterrence posture.
This increased resolve was the opposite of President Vladimir Putin’s desired outcome – he likely thought that the West had become too decadent to defend its interests and values. While this assumption was mistaken, it might gain greater salience as the war drags on. Europe’s politicians and societies may lose interest in Ukraine’s plight, making it easier for Russia to sow division and discord. The continent faces many domestic challenges, such as rising living costs, inflation, pandemic recovery, supply chain issues, and climate change with all its cascade effects. Given these problems – and the need to build resilience and prepare for an uncertain future – international affairs are unlikely to be prioritised except where they play well domestically.
As the international system becomes increasingly multipolar, with the fluidity and danger that this entails, strategic foresight will be more essential than ever. The competition for power and influence with China and Russia will require NATO and EU countries to develop resilience against hybrid threats, prepare for state-on-state warfighting and leverage their soft power to attract partners and build a favourable security environment. Long-term strategic coherence and implementation matter more than longwinded policy documents and, where possible, this process must be isolated from political volatility and myopia.
Transatlantic Political Shifts
If the war in Ukraine grinds on for years, political stability, solidarity and cohesion among NATO and EU countries will be crucial. Despite current unity towards Ukraine, European and US domestic political issues threaten to disrupt bilateral and multilateral coordination.
Due to their proximity to Russia and Ukraine – and a traditionally hawkish stance towards Moscow – the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), alongside the Baltic states, have led the European response to Ukraine. In terms of foreign policy, the European centre of gravity has shifted eastwards. Decisions are being made in Warsaw, not Berlin, Paris or London. These states have been at the forefront of absorbing Ukrainian refugees and providing humanitarian and military support to Ukraine, with Poland acting as the logistics hub for Western military aid flowing into Ukraine. This leadership role has appeared as traditional European leaders have become consumed by political disruption.
The ‘peace dividend’ since the end of the Cold War has hollowed out the levers of state, such as the civil service and militaries, weakening them as sources of stability and continuity and further amplifying the consequences of volatility in the political class
Following 16 years of political stability under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s new coalition government has abdicated its European, and EU, leadership role in a confused response to the war in Ukraine and relations with Russia. Indeed, Berlin’s poor strategic foresight and miscalculations on Russia are casting a long shadow over German policymaking. This is causing significant reputational damage which will outlast the Ukraine crisis. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has faced numerous foreign policy failures, including the AUKUS deal, Russian involvement in Mali and an intelligence and diplomatic failure in reading Russia’s intentions. Domestically, while he secured a second five-year term, he subsequently lost his parliamentary majority, making significant policymaking difficult in his ‘legacy term’. These foreign policy failings in the EU’s two most powerful countries mean Baltic and CEE states no longer fully trust the Franco-German axis to come to their aid. This mistrust between key parties is likely to create barriers to deepened European strategic autonomy.
The UK is navigating a period of domestic instability which will likely last the remainder of the decade. This includes the ‘Scottish question’ and the possibility of a second referendum in October 2023, and political deadlock in Northern Ireland. Despite an electoral system designed to create strong governments, the UK will soon have its fourth prime minister in six years. However, the UK’s foreign policy is relatively settled, and support for Ukraine enjoys bipartisan and public backing for now.
In Italy, Mario Draghi advocated for Ukraine’s EU candidate status and significantly reduced Italy’s dependence on Russian gas. However, his recent resignation has created a high likelihood of a far-right coalition, led by Brothers of Italy, coming to power following an election on 25 September. This has raised doubts about the future reliability of Italy as an ally. While there are signs of possible continuity towards Ukraine, the League and Forza Italia’s past statements and relationships with the Kremlin could prove concerning as a long, hard winter hits Europe.
The upcoming US midterm elections in November will be keenly watched in Europe. They are likely to indicate whether there is a real risk of Donald Trump or a Trumpian candidate running in 2024. This follows Trump’s claim last week that he told NATO members he would not protect them from Russia. This is now a far greater threat to Europeans, as Ukraine has shown the heavy reliance on the US for security on the European continent, which will only become riskier as more US resources are devoted to Asia.
Institutionally, the EU has real unresolved political tensions regarding the rule of law in both Poland and Hungary. Turkey’s transactional approach to NATO membership – temporarily impeding Finland and Sweden’s accession – and its maintenance of strong ties to Russia also make it a difficult partner and a potential source of division. Despite a strong political showing for the Madrid summit, tensions are likely to rise in NATO as delivery of the new strategic concept hits operational and financial realities.
The transatlantic community has enjoyed a period of political stability since the end of the Cold War where military operations have been discretionary. But the ‘peace dividend’ has hollowed out the levers of state, such as the civil service and militaries, weakening them as sources of stability and continuity and further amplifying the consequences of volatility in the political class. This has created a perpetual state of crisis management where European governments are constantly reacting – whether to the coronavirus pandemic, the fall of Afghanistan or the Russian invasion.
Figure 1: Elections in EU and NATO Member States, 2022–2030
The scale and frequency of these crises mean that individual countries cannot deal with them alone. Governments also need the consent and understanding of their citizens to secure sustained senior engagement on strategic investment decisions. Agreements for bold reforms or policies, such as securing long-term investment for activities that cannot be touched, will require consensus and the devotion of personal political capital by leaders to drive them through. Yet getting leaders around the table is hard, as Figure 1 illustrates. For the remainder of the decade, there is little opportunity for political alignment to design and deliver the required change, with each six-month period due to hold at least one national election; the West is in a near-perpetual state of election campaigning. However, 2025–2026 seems the most opportune time for political convergence. Governments need to realise this and set the conditions now by strengthening relationships not just with governments but opposition parties too.
Harnessing the Power of Democracy
Countries that do not hold elections, or that tightly control them, clearly have greater scope for political continuity and stability. However, this can result in stagnation and a lack of accountability and oversight, leading to strategic errors – as Russia’s miscalculations in Ukraine demonstrate. For example, key figures in Putin’s inner circle have been in position far longer than their Western counterparts – Sergei Lavrov (since 2004), Alexander Bortnikov and Nikolai Patrushev (2008), and Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov (2012). Similarly, Xi Jinping has been in power for nearly a decade, while five UK foreign secretaries have been and gone during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tenure.
Western countries need to prioritise stability as a foundation for maximising their systemic advantages – transparency, accountability, agility and innovation. Navigating the contemporary security environment requires tough choices, with the rationale clearly and honestly communicated to electorates. In the immediate term, this means that European governments need to properly elucidate the threat Russia poses and the necessity of sanctions, and the resulting costs ahead of winter.
It also means investing in unity by strengthening strategic partnerships, diplomatic relationships, intelligence sharing and military interoperability for long-term cohesion. Having diplomats, soldiers and spies who know and trust each other can help mitigate political volatility and improve both crisis response and long-term policy formulation. Political disruption is an unavoidable feature of democratic systems, but it can be mitigated. The current European political setup can still function with a few countries being in crisis at any one time, but it will struggle to cope if instability becomes endemic.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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