Europe has been hitting ‘snooze’ on the reality of Russian aggression. It’s time to wake up

Europe can't afford to only weaken Russia's economy and industrial base. It must also build up its own defence capability. The time of taking out the peace dividend is over, argues Sven Mikser
Photo credit: Dino Fracchia | Alamy Stock Photo

By Sven Mikser

Sven Mikser (EE, S&D) sits on the AFET and SEDE committees and has served as Minister of Defence and as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.

15 Mar 2022

When the Russian army poured across Ukraine's border and the first Russian missiles rained down on Kyiv and Kharkiv in the early hours of 24 February, most western observers called it a horrific development that no one could have foreseen, let alone have predicted. This was, however, not exactly true. Canaries in the coal mine – the Balts, the Poles and a few western European Russia watchers – had been warning about exactly such a scenario for some time. 

So the horror unfolding in Ukraine is surely shocking, but it’s hardly surprising. Indeed, the current war is not the first time within the first quarter of this century that Putin has used military force against his neighbours. In 2008, he sent his troops to Georgia to seize control of part of its sovereign territory, and in 2014, he waged war against Ukraine, severing parts of two of its eastern-most regions and illegally annexing the Crimean peninsula. Yet after expressing outrage and calling the wars ‘wake-up calls’, Europe decided to push the snooze button and go back to sleep.  

Yet after expressing outrage and calling the wars ‘wake-up calls’, Europe decided to push the snooze button and go back to sleep. 

Meanwhile, the former KGB officers in the Kremlin grew ever bolder, sending their troops to butcher anti-Asad fighters in Syria, deploying their mercenaries to fight in African civil wars, poisoning Putin's political opponents with banned chemical agents, and interfering in elections in both Europe and North America.  

All of this proved insufficient to change the prevailing opinion in large European capitals. Opinion in such capitals was that there was no imminent external military threat to the European Union territory or to the post-Cold War European security architecture. 

The changes we have seen during the few weeks that have passed since the beginning of the war –namely, speedy passage of harsh sanctions packages against Russia, unanimous support for Ukraine and clear resolve to boost Europe's own defences – have been profound. Germany's decision to substantially increase its defence spending and donate lethal weaponry to the victim of an aggressor indeed represent a U-turn. Yet the change in Europe's posture looks slightly less impressive if one takes into account how slow and how late the continent was in waking up to Russian militant revanchism. 

The change in Europe's posture looks slightly less impressive if one takes into account how slow and how late the continent was waking up to Russian militant revanchism. 

The first conclusion of what has transpired in Ukraine has to be this: Putin's Russia still has both the ability and the will to challenge Europe's security and threaten European countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity. Putin will not shy away from using military power to achieve his objectives, and it may be impossible to deter him by diplomatic and political means alone. Any military threat consists of two vectors: the ability of one's adversary to do harm, and the intent to do so. It would be naive to expect us to be able to change Putin's evil intent, so we will have to deny him the ability to pose a threat to his neighbours, to Europe, and to the world.  

Alongside strategically weakening Russia's economy and industrial base, Europe must build up its own defence capability in order to rise to the existential challenge with which it is confronted. The time for taking out the peace dividend is over. Investing better and smarter is important, but we cannot expect to be able to build the defence posture we need at the current level of defence expenditure. We have to start spending more if indeed we intend to emerge victorious from this conflict. 

The existential nature of the standoff with Putin-led illiberal forces casts in a new light the discussions about Europe's strategic autonomy in the area of defence. Sanctions only have the desired effect if Europe, the United States and other democratic nations work in close coordination. Similarly, credible military deterrence and defence against Russia require the whole democratic world to act as a united front. We no longer have the luxury to choose the wars we fight, for the fight is for our own home and way of life, and this one Europe cannot win without allies. 

The time for taking out the peace dividend is over. Investing better and smarter is important, but we cannot expect to be able to build the defence posture we need at the current level of defence expenditure.

The war in Ukraine also puts into a new perspective the small-scale EU military operations in its neighbourhood. For some time, European observers have been raising alarm about Putin's malevolent activities in theatres of our peace-building or capacity-building missions, be it by way of direct Russian involvement or by deploying Wagner-type proxies. So far, however, we have failed to fully appreciate how systemically Russia has been undermining our operations and reaping the benefits of our investment in order to use them for its own sinister goals. Too often, what we took for a local or at worst a regional ethnic or religious conflict, the Kremlin had defined as a struggle for spheres of influence between global powers. If we want to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves, a fundamental reassessment and readjustment on our part is unavoidable. 

In short: when approaching its defence posture and capabilities, the EU needs to switch from a peace time mentality to one of war time. For years, we have discussed our military readiness and capability development as a theoretical intellectual exercise, or as a component of Europe's trade or industrial policies. Today, it must be redefined as race against the clock to be prepared for an imminent existential struggle against a capable and brutal adversary. Whatever the short-term outcome of the war in Ukraine might be, the threat that Putinist Russia poses for European security and liberal democracy is going to stay with us for a long time. 

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