1st Jun 2023


How Ukraine made the case anew for an EU army

  • Nato soliders on exercise - will they ever be replicated by an EU army? (Photo: NATO)
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People are asking and will continue to ask with increased urgency: when will the war in Ukraine end? Will the barbarism inflicted by Vladimir Putin ever end?

The answer lies primarily in the hands of Ukraine. But ultimately also in those of the rest of us: the EU, the United States, the UK and other democratic countries of the world.

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Among these external actors, the decisive answer to this question should be given by the EU, whose neighbourhood is the most affected by the Russian aggression against Ukraine; second to the Ukrainians themselves, naturally.

The Kremlin attacked Ukraine because it believed it could afford to do it.

It perceived nuclear deterrence between Russia and the West as reciprocal, and therefore almost a non-issue. It also saw that, in military terms, Europe is disappearing from the world map.

Russia saw a declining America and a rising China; and knew that the US would be increasingly preoccupied with developments in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Putin was undoubtedly amused but also encouraged by the American retreat from Afghanistan. In short — the Kremlin's respect for the West had substantially fallen and, as for the EU, it had completely vanished.

Military developments in Ukraine indicate that we are facing a frozen conflict of unprecedented proportions, with consequences which will be hard to bear.

'Black Swan' scenario

Just recently, I was listening to a leading European political scientist speak when he voiced his concern that Ukraine will suffer the fate of Korea, a divided nation with two vastly different outcomes. This "black swan" scenario is easy to imagine.

Especially with the awareness of how long Transnistria has survived, how the Russians solidified Abkhazia and Ossetia, how quickly Moscow conquered Crimea, how we have struggled for almost half a century with the issue of Cyprus (although Turkey is a member of Nato and a candidate country for EU accession... ).

But will it be possible to somehow rise up to the "black swan" challenge in Ukraine?

If there is any kind of meaningful solution at the West's disposal, it is resurrecting the authority and respect that the West enjoyed during the Cold War. With the difference that, this time, the key role of safeguarding democracy in Europe with Ukraine as one of its integral parts, must be played by the EU through effective cooperation with the UK and the United States.

To put it plainly, if we seek to avert the 'Korean-isation' of Ukraine, if we wish to return some degree of sanity to the Kremlin, the EU must start building effective military deterrence.

The time of declarations, global strategies, or "strategic compasses" has passed.

Either we start building European armed forces with effective action power, or Putin's gang and his "disciples" will continue choosing — not for years but for decades — which Ukrainian city to bomb next.

And we in Europe will continue comforting ourselves with the thought that this disaster is still taking place only in Ukraine, praying that Nato's Article 5 is not just a paper tiger.

A sceptic or a "European realist" would argue that increased European military strength will not necessarily stop or deter Putin.

Certainly, a Europe with a strong military is not in itself a sufficient precondition for ending the war in Ukraine.

Yet, there is no doubt that it is an essential precondition. Putin must be made to understand that the EU is capable of not only disconnecting itself from Russian energy, but also of defending itself and its allies when this becomes necessary.

It is also clear that our political leaders' negotiating position is different if they are not only backed by bags of money, but also by a competent, strong, combat-ready military.

The US has and will continue to have its hands full with the Indo-Pacific, and also with North Korea and Iran. We will be grateful if they manage these challenges on their own. As for the challenges affecting our immediate neighbourhood, it will be our responsibility to deal with them, first and foremost on our own.

It is not easy, albeit tempting, to model the developments in Ukraine when beefing up the strength of Europe's military. But we should leave that to the soldiers.

What we should do is ask politicians to make bold, principled, responsible, forward-looking decisions. Among the most pressing decisions is the need to start shaping European defence capabilities.

We may not like this idea; but if we reject it, we have the obligation to immediately answer the question: what is the alternative? What is in store for Ukraine, but also for us, EU inhabitants, if we continue with the current state of defencelessness?

We expect political leaders to be able to speak nicely. But today, this is no longer sufficient.

They must also be capable of bold action. The first step in Europe rising up to the challenge could be France allowing Germany to place its finger on the French nuclear briefcase.

And Germany, in turn, allocating one half of its annual military budget increase, or €50bn, to the creation of the European Armed Forces.

Author bio

Mikuláš Dzurinda is a former prime minister of Slovakia, and president of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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