The ongoing struggle in Ukraine and its resultant debate is merely an indicator of a larger question that Europe seems increasingly unable to answer.
Ukraine might seem important to European defence in itself but it is not, it is merely an indicator of this larger question.
The question of importance is;
Who provides a security guarantee for Europe
Is it the USA or Europe?
We should remind ourselves that the armed forces of Europe consist of more than a million and a half personnel, its defence industries produce equipment that is qualitatively as good as anyone else and includes a couple of nuclear powers sitting on the UN Security Council.
It is not to be trifled with.
Europe also has painful and searing recent memories of war, horrors that would make ISIS blush and that resulted in people having to eat grass to survive. Naturally, this colours a European worldview that does not want an encore. When American commenters are critical of the pursuit of the avoidance of war in the capitals of Europe they would do well to remember this.
We can have endless debates about US self interest and its desire to replace the old empire with the new, but let’s not forget, that the USA has earned the right to be critical, her soldiers died helping to liberate Europe and during the Cold War, she underpinned the defence of Europe. The intervention in Libya was a European idea and yet when push came to shove, it was the USA that did the heavy lifting. This is despite Europe having a combined GDP of a couple of trillion dollars north of the USA and being next door to the operational area.
Libya was supposed to usher in a new era of strategic self-reliance, it was Europe’s issue, not the USA’s. Yet for all the bluff and bluster it was the USA that underpinned, reluctantly, the whole operation. European powers could barely muster a handful of fast jets and precision munitions and this limitation, coupled with soundbite platitudes and an unwillingness to get involved beyond long-distance showboating has resulted in the chaos today on Europe’s southern border.
5 years ago (nearly) the message was clear, Europe wanted to do more on its periphery and the USA less, Russia was settled, they were becoming more like ‘us’ after all and the world was good.
What has happened since?
The European Union (EU) embarked on an arguably ill-advised eastward expansion, its members, an ill-advised reduction in defence spending and because of Europe’s goldfish like attention span, the ongoing chaos in Libya set in train a series of events that would lead to ISIS.
Then Ukraine happened.
An oversimplification, yes, of course, but it serves to illustrate the point.
The USA is quite correctly moving (however slowly) its geopolitical focus to the Pacific and Europe has to learn to stand on its own two feet.
Standing on its own two feet can mean one of two things.
Maintaining an effective defence against aggression within its borders and essentially, giving up any intervention on its periphery and future expansion into the East.
Or, maintaining the same effective defence against aggression within its borders but also taking some responsibility for its periphery and overseas interests.
The first is easily achievable, especially given the strength of the UK and France.
The second option needs the will and the wallet.
Without that, talk of alliances and treaty obligations is a sideshow, is Germany or the UK really going to go to war if Russia has one of those new-fangled ambiguous semi invasions in Latvia, is Belgium, France or Turkey, NATO members all?
Is the USA?
I have said this before but credibility and perceptions matter.
Right or wrong, the perception at the minute is one of a Europe cowering in the corner hoping the Russian Bear will leave us alone if only we buy some more gas and ignore murdering people with radiation in London and murdering innocent airline passengers in Ukraine.
It might do, but not for the long term.
This means Europe does have some notice, some breathing space, but not for the long term.
Ukraine is not a member of the EU or NATO, in reality, Old Europe does not owe any debt of collective defence. [Edit: Except for the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, good correction from MSR in the comments]
Russia’s economy is in a poor state, it’s military not as scary as they would have us believe and as a nation, unable to control its insecurities about encirclement and lost glories. That does not mean they are not dangerous though, Putin is trapped in a strategic context of his own ill-advised making, aided and abetted by a weak Europe
A trapped animal is a dangerous animal.
If Russian aggression in Ukraine is not a strategic shock then I am not sure what is and the penny has to drop some time.
Although Ukraine might feature heavily in the ‘now’ what is important is what comes after.
It is here where perception and credibility will matter most.
This is not to say Europe should discount or pull away from the USA, far from it. Putin is trying to drive a wedge between the US and Europe, it is the obvious strategy of ‘attacking alliances’ but an alliance of unequal’s where the disparity is so marked is a weak alliance.
It is time for the USA to make Europe stand more on its own two feet as it moves its geopolitical focus to the Pacific.
Europe has to wake up, it is not too late.