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Russian military intervention in Ukraine. A turning point for European defence?

(B2) Faced with the Russian offensive, the European countries reacted, at first belatedly, somewhat erratically. But they reacted. And faster and faster. If we cannot say that there is a European defence, we can say that there is a European defense spirit which is being forged, under the pressure of the crisis.

Shooting exercise in Dnipro (Ukrainian Army - B2 Archives - February 2021)

The European reaction is exceptional

It is a fact. But the event is also exceptional. We are faced with an event that only occurs once every 30 or 40 years. The latest was the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s with the breakup of Yugoslavia. But Russia was not directly involved. The other precedent is older: the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 and before that the military intervention to silence the Hungarian revolution of 1956. But these facts date from another era, that of the Cold War. Where everyone was accustomed, after all, to a war of blocks.

Phenomenal speed

Faced with this, after a certain wait-and-see attitude (1), a logical astonishment given the sequence of events (2), Europe got under way, in a united, concerted and decisive way. The meetings follow one another at a frantic pace (even a little too much, one might say). The decisions are linked one by one, implacable. From my memory as a journalist covering European affairs, for 30 years, I have never seen such mobilization, in such a short time. The decisions are not announced as soon as they receive the political green light, the experts of the working groups and the ambassadors work immediately to formalize these decisions, and the translators of the official journal work almost day and night to transcribe in all the languages European all texts.

An ideological shift underway

Alongside the classic tools (humanitarian aid, financial assistance (3), individual and economic sectoral sanctions), Europe is unleashing a larger battery of sanctions targeting the heart of the Kremlin, the oligarchs, Swift and the central bank (4) . The Europeans made an ideological shift by quickly agreeing to deliver arms to Ukraine (5). A turning point operated together, in a coordinated way and with European funding (see below). It is important to point out.

A rare unit

Europeans are united against this war. Like they never have been. Of course, there remain certain nuances, due more to the history of each country. But we can no longer speak of division. On the contrary. The blockages and dissonant words fade in the face of the clash of arms. Even the countries reputed to be friends of Moscow (Cyprus, Bulgaria, Hungary) are silencing their opinion to come under the common banner (6).

The use of all instruments

It is a characteristic of this crisis. The European Union is determined to use all instruments. All ! The political pressure is real, with very close coordination with all the allies (USA, Canada, United Kingdom... but also Switzerland). The 'sanctions' instrument was taken to its extreme in just a few days. No matter the cost, as the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell has just warned: " We must be prepared to pay the price now, or the price will be much higher in the future. It has also decided to mobilize its military instruments (such as the Union's satellite analysis centre) alongside more traditional instruments (humanitarian aid, civil protection, financial aid).

The mobilization of the European Peace Facility: a radical change

It is above all the recourse to the European facility for peace for the purchase of lethal equipment which is notable. When we know all the pangs that preceded the birth of this new European capacity, intended to remedy a European shortcoming, we can measure the progress made. A decision all the more rare as the amount committed (half a billion €) is not negligible. This is 90% of the annual amount normally allocated (7) to the Facility.

The European Union on the front line

Of course, we can say that Europe does not commit any direct military means. But neither does the Atlantic Alliance. Nor any other Member State. Europe cannot do more than its own states. What is extraordinary, however, is the first place taken on all fronts by the European Union. Usually on an event, especially in terms of defence, the Atlantic Alliance takes its full place not only at the level of military technique, but also politically. Here it is the opposite.

A European defense spirit in the making

NATO appears to be in retreat. In the end, it only met a few times: an (ordinary) meeting of ministers and a summit — while the European Union is reaching its peak. Almost ten meetings according to our accounts: two summits, four Foreign Affairs meetings, one Defense ministerial, one Interior ministerial and one Energy ministerial. The EU wants to display a very clear military will (8). More than all fine words and fine strategies, Europe is thus forging, on the field of the crisis, its multiple defense strategy, integrating all the instruments.

An absence: diplomacy and the intervention

The only regret is that, paradoxically, despite all the efforts of each and every one, the European Union remains rather absent from what has been its strength: diplomacy. No special representative has been appointed. No team of negotiators has been formed. No minister or head of state has been clearly assigned. And, above all, no clear position for the settlement of the conflict has been formulated other than the usual calls for a ceasefire and a halt to the mission on the ground. Of course, we call each other regularly. And the French presidency of the Council of the EU has taken some initiatives, very media-friendly, but not very effective for the moment (see box). We can also be surprised that the European Union has not begun to offer the opposing forces its intermediary, in order to allow a ceasefire and teams of observers. It is probably too early. But maybe it will be too late then...

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Emanuel Macron. A noisy and muddled negotiation. French President Emmanuel Macron is making every effort to maintain dialogue with Vladimir Putin. It's a fact. And, above all, he makes it known loudly. So noisily that one wonders if it is the interest of the negotiation which controls or the electoral interest which predominates. One problem remains, the main one: so far, this has had no effect on the Russian side. On the contrary even. We have the impression that each time the Frenchman is delighted to have had his Russian counterpart on the phone, and to have obtained a micro-advance, the opposing camp takes pleasure in denying his words, either in words , or in the field. The reality is that a concrete, effective negotiation does not take place in the public square. And especially not alone. Is the French president automatically the best qualified to negotiate? Not sure even if France currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. He has never shown a talent in this area (cf. for Libya, Mali or Lebanon). It's not in his nature. The principle, historically European, of the couple of negotiators (Franco-German), of the negotiation troika (of the E3 type or trio of presidencies), or of a missi dominici reputation, has always been, and will undoubtedly remain, the best asset of European-style negotiations. No solitary fun. Or else you have to succeed on the first try (Sarkozy type in 2008 with Georgia). 
  1. The first reactions were rather soft (with just a few names added to a blacklist). Read : Europe is about to move to sanctions without passion.
  2. If we rely on the various scenarios envisaged internally, by EU defense analysts, we find ourselves in the worst of the worst scenarios. Read : The Russians as far as Mariupol, Odessa, or the left bank of the Dnieper and Kiev?
  3. Macro-financial aid in the form of a €1,2 billion loan was released in record time (a few days).
  4. Lire: Swift, Central Bank, Oligarchs. Europeans and Allies agree on a third wave of sanctions.
  5. Lire: War in Ukraine. The Europeans forget their principles and supply weapons. A little.
  6. Lire: European Peace Facility will fund lethal equipment for Ukrainian forces
  7. « I don't believe in the benefits of sanctions. [But] a war is going on. Now is not the time to be smart, but to be united said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday (February 28). Coming from a European troublemaker, these words are golden.
  8. Lire: War in Ukraine. EU defense ministers mobilize European defense instruments

Also read our file File No. 92. Europe and NATO facing the Russian military intervention in Ukraine

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).