Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has consolidated EU elite opinion along anti-Russia lines. The days when a plethora of European voices encouraged understanding and strategic empathy towards Russia’s declared security concerns are unlikely to return for the foreseeable future. The reduction of intra-EU divisions on Russia and the unprecedented level of sanctions adopted are certainly notable, even if questions remain over how long this cohesion can be sustained. Yet does cohesion alone necessarily imply that the EU will emerge from this conflict stronger?
The adoption of the EU’s Strategic Compass last month provides some indications. Admittedly, the document represents more of a roadmap to defense integration than a genuine ‘compass’ or grand strategy. Moreover, in surveying the EU’s strategic environment, great detail and attention are paid to the EU’s wider neighborhood, with only a passing thought devoted to the rising geo-strategic theater increasingly known as the ‘Indo-Pacific’. An EU that focuses on developing the instruments of geopolitical actorness in its own region may become stronger in a vertical sense, but horizontally (that is, geographically) it is likely a recipe for strategic shrinkage. Any strategy must take into account that with limited means, one cannot pursue all goals with the same priority. The EU’s ability to embody a ‘third way’ between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific faces obvious near- and even longer-term constraints.
Furthermore, becoming stronger does not necessarily imply becoming more secure. Even if arms control dialogue between the US and Russia resumes at some point due to sheer necessity, it has become impossible to imagine a return to anything resembling a European ‘security architecture’ so long as Vladimir Putin remains in the Kremlin. Instead, we have been left with a protracted rivalry with Russia (and likely China as well) featuring incompatible visions of world order, in which Europe is increasingly a mere regional theater. Yet given its relative weakness and its internal character, the EU has a higher stake than the US in the survival of some rules-based multilateralism. The consequences of the war in Ukraine will therefore raise difficult questions regarding how to ensure European security in the short term, as well as over the trajectory of the transatlantic partnership over the longer term.
The European Zeitenwende — turning point — has also, to date, not produced a fundamental shift in the EU’s mode of thinking about its neighborhood. Member states remain stuck in the lengthy and binary accession logic, torn between a desire to offer Ukraine (and other candidates) something concrete to underwrite its European future and the fear of undermining the bloc’s collective standards which might expose Brussels to further accusations of hypocrisy. As such, the EU has thus far demonstrated limits to which it is capable of even reacting decisively to events, to say nothing of developing the collective strategic approach necessary to behave proactively. One clear example of the limits of the EU’s reactive approach to the Ukraine war lies in the realm of energy, where a strong dependency on Russia was allowed to build up over decades under the assumption that this would promote interdependence. Putin’s aggression has now shown that the dependence runs only one way, at least in the short run.
The EU depends on Russia for between 30 and 40% of its needs in all three fossil fuels. Oil and coal do not pose a major problem, as these commodities can be easily sourced from a deep global market. It is thus likely that the EU will soon be able to halt imports of coal and oil from Russia. However, this will have only a moderately negative impact on Russia, since it can sell the supplies no longer destined for Europe to other customers, even if Moscow may have to offer these at a discount. The real problem is with gas, for which the existing pipelines linking the EU to Russia provide the cheapest mode of transport. Russian gas is particularly important for Germany and Italy and these countries fear very high costs if an immediate ban on Russian gas imports were to be imposed. Among member states, there is general agreement on the long-term goal of drastically reducing imports of gas from Russia, but little clarity on how quickly this can be achieved. A gradual reduction, aided by an import tariff on Russian gas is the most likely way out.
The EU remains a young foreign policy actor, its effectiveness and decisiveness constrained by internal divisions which themselves are rooted in differing interests and historical memories among its members. Irrespective of progress towards defense integration, weaning itself off Russian gas is a prerequisite for the EU to acquire real unity and a strong position vis-à-vis Russia. This must be the first — but not the only — step towards turning the Strategic Compass into a clear roadmap, if not into a fully-fledged strategy.
‘Will Putin’s War in Ukraine Make the EU Stronger?’ — Commentary by Zachary Paikin and Daniel Gros — Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.