Europe struggles to face a new reality

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Geopolitica, December 2022,  VoxEurop, December 29, 2022

Nine months after the start of the new Russian offensive in Ukraine, many citizens of old Europe still find it hard to grasp the full scope of the West’s involvement in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine. 1

This difficulty of understanding owes much to the ambiguous, vague and even contradictory rhetoric coming from the leaders of certain old European countries. These include, in particular, the two “heavyweights” of the European Union, Germany and France. Their attitude is politically damaging, being coupled with late, inadequate and insufficient responses in terms of political and military support to Ukraine. It also undermines the cohesion of the West and, at the same time, feeds the idea in Moscow that this cohesion can be broken sooner or later. At the same time, it is damaging for European citizens in that it leaves them believing that this war does not really concern them.

To better understand Western involvement in the war, Michel Goya’s distinction of “three levels of confrontation” seems particularly relevant. In the “quest to impose one’s will by force in modern international relations”, the military historian distinguishes “confrontation, where pressure is exerted on the other side in every conceivable way but without fighting; conventional warfare, which is the same as confrontation plus fighting; and nuclear warfare, which is the same as conventional warfare but with the actual use of atomic weapons.” 2

The NATO member states as well as the non-NATO states of the European Union are all, with the exception of Turkey, at the first level, that of confrontation. Not all imaginable means are being mobilised as they should be. For example, Russian oligarchs such as Vladimir Lisin are still not on the EU’s blacklists and certain economic sectors are still excluded from sanctions. Similarly, many types of armaments that have been given the green light by NATO remain in the arsenals of member states. 3 Not to mention the decommissioned armaments sitting in the warehouses of some national armies. 4

This favouring by Western countries of the confrontation option is the result of a political and military decision by the only actor in a position to prevent a Russian decision to move to level-3 confrontation, that of nuclear war. Only the United States can deter Russia from escalating to nuclear, chemical or biological warfare with its “horizontal” response capabilities, i.e. a conventional but devastating response. This would most likely destroy most of what remains of the Russian army’s conventional force after 9 months of war in Ukraine, estimated by British intelligence to be 50% of the initial strength.

As some US officials, including General Ben Hodge, have indicated, this conventional US response to a possible Russian use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons could result in the destruction of most Russian bases, command posts and armaments on occupied Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, as well as the destruction of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Without being overly imaginative, it cannot be ruled out that it could also target the Operational Group of the Russian Forces in Transnistria 5, i.e. the former 14th Russian Army stationed in Moldova; the Russian bases in Gudauta and Ochamchira in Abkhazia 6; those in South Ossetia; the Roki Tunnel linking North Ossetia in Russia to South Ossetia in Georgia; the Russian bases in Armenia, including Guymri; the Russian air base at Hmeimim (Latakia) and naval installations at Tartus in Syria, as well as the various bases of the SMP Wagner Company in Africa. 7

Faced with major military setbacks in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin continues to brandish the nuclear threat in his desperate attempts to break Western unity and placate Russian public opinion. However, there is little doubt that the possibility of a devastating conventional US response to the use of a weapon of mass destruction is duly considered in Moscow.

The governments of old Europe should draw a preliminary conclusion and communicate it unambiguously to their respective publics. In view of the extent of Russia’s violations of the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter, of the laws of war and of humanitarian law, and in the absence of its possession of nuclear weapons, all the conditions would have been met in the eyes of a number of Western countries for them to declare war on Russia and for their armies to be engaged in Ukraine alongside Kyiv’s army.

Thus, to state that Western countries are not “parties to the conflict” 8 between Russia and Ukraine or that they “have not entered a state of co-belligerence” 9 is to cloud the Western public’s perception of what is being “played out” in Ukraine today. Western countries are indeed at the heart of the conflict, in new ways imposed by the aggressor’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

It is the double capacity – nuclear and conventional – of the United States and the mastery of the political and military strategy that makes Washington the leader among Ukraine’s allies. Of course, each member of the ensemble can play their part with more or less energy, with more or less conviction, and even raise objections or make themself a nuisance. But the possession of nuclear weapons by one or other member of the orchestra – in this case the United Kingdom and France – has no bearing on their ability to influence the outcome of the conflict. The ability of each of the Western states to influence the outcome of the war lies entirely in the quality, quantity and speed of the political and military support they provide. From this point of view, the past months have shown that there is no correlation between the size of the country and the amount of support provided. The political support of the two largest EU countries – Germany and France – has been among the slowest and most erratic, and their military support has been and remains modest in relation to their demographic and economic weight. 10

Everything continues to unite Germany and France, from the multiple phone calls of Chancellor Scholz and President Macron 11 to Vladimir Putin, to the ambivalent declarations of both. A shared lack of strength, vision and impetus that is in line with the two decades of German-French condominium over the EU (Merkel/Sarkozy-Hollande-Macron I).

If, even under the constraints of the nuclear issue, we are at war, then we must help the Ukrainians to win that war and we must win it with them. And, to this end, we must mobilise all the necessary means. In this case, by providing in quality and quantity everything that Kyiv needs to protect Ukraine’s civilian population and to defeat the Russian army as quickly as possible. This means supplying weapons such as F-16 fighters, Patriot anti-missile systems, long-range tactical missile systems (ATACMS), Abrams and Leopard tanks, and Himars capable of firing long-range rockets.

The war aims must be clarified. In addition to the liberation of the whole of Ukraine (including Crimea) and, by the same token, the neutralisation of any prospect of a return to real power status for Russia, with what this would also imply in terms of its capacity for food blackmail 12, the West must prepare for a more or less long-term coexistence with a Russian regime that may survive its defeat in Ukraine. It must anticipate the creation of a new iron curtain between Europe and Russia, impervious to any transfer of military and dual-use technology to Moscow and to any dependence on energy 13.

But, as demonstrated by its inability to enforce the embargo on arms exports to Russia that the EU adopted following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the European Commission is now too weak in the face of the member states and, in particular, France and Germany 14, to enforce such decisions. Pending a reform that would make the European Commission stronger, only a NATO body, on the model of the Cold War COCOM, might be able to enforce such embargoes on arms and dual-use technology exports to Russia – and to China.

As for the security guarantees for Russia, which seem to be much more central to President Macron’s concerns 15 than to those of Vladimir Putin, in order to be genuine they should also protect Russia and above all the Russians against any new tragic initiative such as that launched by the Kremlin on 24 February. Ukraine’s accession to NATO should be seen from this perspective. In the same vein, programmes for the deployment of OSCE peacekeeping forces in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh should be prepared as of now.

In this new moment of truth, the Russo-Ukrainian war is accelerating the emergence of new realities. The realisation by Eastern and Northern European countries of their weight in the European Union; the mirage that was President Macron’s initiatives for a European defence; the reassertion of the centrality of the transatlantic link and NATO; the death of illusions about the Russian and Chinese regimes; the end of the subjugation of the “small” EU member states by the “big” ones and of the stranglehold of the German-French condominium on the European Union.

The two European countries where these new realities are proving the hardest to get across are, not surprisingly, Germany and France: the two countries which bear a particularly heavy responsibility for the outbreak of this war, notably for having obstructed Ukraine’s NATO membership. Two countries where the strength of the pro-Putin lobbies remains considerable. Two countries hostage to the illusion of power – mercantilist for one, Gaullian for the other – even though neither of them has the weight necessary for their ambitions.

This continual prevarication, this restraint in their support for Kyiv, in the name of illusions that radically contradict the spirit of the European project, is a serious matter. First of all for the Ukrainians, both soldiers and civilians, who are paying a high price every day. But also for the future of a Union that ought rather, together with the Ukrainians, to be urgently reinventing itself.

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  1. This modus operandi is not new in Moscow. Already in 1939, on Stalin’s orders, the Russian army invaded Finland without a declaration of war.
  2. “Extension du problème de la lutte”, Michel Goya, La voie de l’Epée, 11 October 2022
  3. For example, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, made it clear to the German government that there was no obstacle to sending the Patriot anti-missile system to Ukraine. “[…] Germany should solve this issue on its own and does not need consultations with NATO member countries.” and the United States have stated that they support Germany’s delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
  4. The US recently decommissioned hundreds of M198 howitzers and replaced them with M777s, while France decommissioned 250 AMX-30 AuF1s and replaced them with Caesars.
  5. Approximately 1500 soldiers
  6. Approximately 1700 soldiers
  7. A Wagner Group base in the Central African Republic located in Bonsagoa was bombed on 28 November 2022 by an unidentified aircraft.
  8. Emmanuel Macron, interview, TF1, 3 December 2022
  9. “War in Ukraine: have the Westerners become co-belligerent?” Debate with Bruno Tertrais and Jean-Pierre Maulny, La Croix, 30 August 2022
  10. Smaller countries such as Belgium in particular have been and remain very timid and parsimonious.
  11. Laure Mandeville, “Emmanuel Macron boasting of having had 100 phone calls with Putin”, Live Figaro, 5 December 2022
  12. The combined grain exports of Ukraine and Russia account for almost 30% of the total.
  13. Imports of Russian gas and oil would still be possible, provided that they do not lead to dependency.
  14. More than 80% of exports came from France and Germany.
  15. Emmanuel Macron: “This means that one of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors, and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia”, Reuters, 4 December 2022

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