By Yoselina Guevara L. – Mar 19, 2022
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is making visible the lack of a solid strategy of its own within the European Union. The organization increasingly resembles a ship sailing between two waters but whose decisions are subordinated to the distant helmsman in Washington. However, all this stems from the lack of a concrete definition of the European interest, a union held together by weak strings and a clearly non-existent integration. The EU has not been able to develop a coherent foreign and defense policy, yet it is only now that it is feeling the threat of a war that may develop, not on another continent, but within its own borders. It is only now that countries are coming to perceive the shared danger and the necessity rather than desirability of coordinated action that is affected by the heterogeneity of member countries’ interests, especially in two aspects: energy; because of their dependence on Russia and defense, in turn; because of a subjection to NATO.
The energy the EU needs
One of the interesting issues brought up by the current Russia-Ukraine situation is the energy dependence of Europe on the Russian Federation, which does not allow the EU to develop unequivocal short-term diplomatic strategies for the conflict on the part of the European institutions. European Commission President Von Der Leyen has announced a long-term strategy to seek greater independence from Russian oil and gas in the coming years.
Already at the dawn of the escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, EU’s dependence on gas had become apparent when it began to think about possible actions to deter a Russian attack. By now the details of the level of need for Russian gas are well known, that according to Eurostat data in 2019 EU countries had imported up to 41% of their gas from Russia. But the impact of this supply is asymmetric, and among the countries most affected by a possible cut in Russian gas supplies would be Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, and Italy. In addition, Germany also seems reluctant at the moment to extend the exclusion from the SWIFT system to Sberbank PJSC, the largest bank closely linked to the Russian energy sector. Berlin has temporarily suspended the gas pipeline, but it did not go as far as a possible exclusion of Sberbank from the SWIFT system. On this energy issue, the European Union does not seem able to reach a unanimous agreement—Russia effectively has it on the ropes.
Security from the EU, not from NATO
In addition to the heterogeneity of national interests and the asymmetrical energy dependence associated with Russia, mention must also be made of a kind of security dependence that EU countries have developed with respect to NATO, whose majority shareholder is well known to be the United States. Consequently, Washington remains the main interlocutor, leaving little room for action to European countries such as France and Germany. However, European security remains a matter of cooperation between governments, which is regulated by the principle of unanimity and, above all, cannot do without the willingness of each of them to assume responsibilities on their own and to share the financial burden, even at the national level.
From this point of view, the intentions of French President Macron were made clearer when in January of this year he stressed the importance of holding dialogue with Moscow, freer from NATO. In practice, Macron’s proposal revealed the concern that the interests of the European states would be ignored, and that in the dialogues with the White House the views of the old continent would be marginalized or flattened into the same positions of Washington, which is what is practically happening today. Likewise, there is a latent concern in France that the EU might enter into a war with Moscow, and Macron is well aware of the consequences of this.
Among the many aspects that involve the economic havoc that a war conflict entails at all levels, let us not forget that despite the sanctions imposed by the EU, France continued to sell arms to Russia between 2014 and 2020. This fact was recently confirmed by the Ministry of the French Armed Forces, which claims that they acted within the framework of legality because the contracts had been signed before the imposition of sanctions. In this way, Paris has supplied Moscow with highly technological, state-of-the-art weaponry such as thermal cameras for armored vehicles, navigation systems, and infrared detectors for fighter planes and helicopters. This means that in a hypothetical surrealistic scenario of a war confrontation, France could face an army to which it supplied the weapons.
However, there is no doubt that Macron has always been one of the great advocates of a European defense system more autonomous from NATO, and, above all, at this juncture, the fragility of European countries with geographical and economic interests different from those of the United States is evident. Moreover, countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland interact directly with the United States, which makes it understandable that, firstly, the European Union cannot be considered as a true geopolitical actor at this time, and secondly, the dependence of European countries on overseas strategies from the security point of view.
This condition within the Atlantic Alliance does not allow, for the time being, Berlin and Paris to be decisive players in diplomatic strategies with Moscow, let alone the European Union, which has never developed a common security strategy among the various member states. Politically this has weakened internally the newly inaugurated German Chancellor Scholz, who has not been able to demonstrate the leadership and strength of his predecessor Angela Merkel. Similarly, Macron has not been able to win the necessary points to achieve a diplomatic triumph that would give him the political projection he needs for the upcoming French presidential elections.
In these circumstances, European countries find themselves crushed by Washington’s positions and with little room for diplomatic maneuver vis-à-vis Russia. Macron himself could try to raise the question of this strategic dependence on the United States, as has happened in the past, but the danger would be splitting the Atlantic Alliance, a risky step at this historic moment, if taken too suddenly. For its part, Berlin’s recent announcement to invest up to €100 billion in defense, in addition to being a turning point in Germany’s recent history, is a clear sign that security was previously a sector that was largely delegated to NATO. But it still seems an uphill struggle for the European Union to consolidate itself as a bloc independent of NATO in defense matters, there are many commitments that unite them, there are many military bases deployed throughout the continent.
Macron is still trying to play a leading role at the level of negotiations, as well as Sholtz, but Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also tried to fish in these muddy waters by trying to serve as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, through his Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, without considerable results. This is the game of politics, where there are no friends, only circumstantial allies. It only remains to be seen whether in the diplomatic field the European Union manages to free itself, at least partially, from the Atlantic Alliance, finding a key role in negotiations with Moscow. In the economic field, there is certainty that the sanctions imposed on Russia, if not acted upon promptly in the diplomatic field, will do more damage to the European continent than even the pandemic itself.
Featured image: EU leaders pose for a photograph at the Palace of Versailles near Paris on Thursday, March 10. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images.
Venezuelan professor. Correspondent for Correo del Alba Magazine in Europe. Her articles have been published in Spanish, Italian and English by different news outlets in Europe (Rebelión, Ideología Socialista, Libya 360, etc) as well as in Latin America (Cubadebate, Redh-Cuba, Redh-Argentina, Portal Alba, Transformar Argentina, Resumen latinoamericano in English, Orinoco Tribune, Quinto Poder Argentina, etc).