EU’s Response to Russian Aggression
The EU’s response to the war in Ukraine has defied its stereotypes as nothing but a stifling and cumbersome bureaucracy. With remarkable political unity among its 27 Member States, the EU has demonstrated that in moments of real crisis, it can become a significant actor (and US partner) with real impact in the security and defense space.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine played out on television and smartphone screens across the United States over the past two weeks, Americans may have been surprised to see which leaders were offering updates and statements to the press on the latest European decisions. Alongside more traditional security players such as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Union leaders, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel, and High Representative Josep Borrell, have been actively speaking for the 27 Member States, with good reason to do so.
The steps that the European Union has taken against Russia and to support Ukraine throughout this conflict should forever change Americans’ perceptions about the EU being simply an economic actor or trading bloc. Emmanuel Macron’s phone calls with Vladimir Putin and Olaf Scholz’s announcements on German defense policy and spending have occasionally pierced through the noise. But it has been the EU’s barrage of unprecedented punishing sanctions on Russia that have had the greatest impact and therefore attracted so much attention and interest.
In addition to sanctioning most members of the Russian Parliament (‘Duma’) and a host of oligarchs, the EU took significant measures to restrict trade with Russia and punish ~70% of the banking sector. The Russian Central Bank will not be able to access much of its reserves, seven banks have been taken off the SWIFT network, and three have had their assets frozen and financing suspended in the EU. Taken together, alongside other members of the G7, they have contributed to the near-collapse of the Russian rouble and massive pullback in Russian operations by Western companies across the energy, financial, and manufacturing sectors. As the EU was Russia’s largest trading partner until these sanctions were put into place, its efforts have had an outsized impact in delivering these significant blows to the Russian economy.
The steps the European Union has taken extend beyond the economic realm. The bloc suspended broadcasting licenses across all Member States for Russian state-sponsored news outlets (and sources of vast amounts of dis- and misinformation) RT and Sputnik. Most relevant to its immediate hard security and defense interests, the EU agreed to coordinate arms shipments by EU Member States to Ukraine via a hub in Poland set up via the EU Military Staff. In an unprecedented move, for the first time in its history, the EU institutions will supply lethal weapons to a third country (Ukraine). It will do so via a €450 million commitment from the European Peace Facility.
All of this has transpired over just a matter of two weeks, but it builds on years of greater EU efforts to build up its security and defense capabilities and institutions, from the 60 joint Member State projects that comprise Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to the €8 billion European Defense Fund (EDF) that supports defense technology and equipment R&D for the benefit of all Member States. (It’s worth noting the US was accepted to join a PESCO project on military mobility.) President Biden, in a readout from a call with President Macron over the AUKUS submarine deal fallout, said, “The United States also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.”
There is likely more to come, as EU leaders meet in France to debate using their collective borrowing capacity to finance greater defense cooperation. Watch this space.