A European future in peace is at stake

By Prof Dr Wolfgang Ischinger

It is now almost exactly two years since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched a major military attack on Ukraine. Three observations can already be made:

1. Putin has not only failed to achieve his original war aim, the subjugation of Ukraine and the removal of the elected Ukrainian leadership. On the contrary: Ukraine has been able to significantly strengthen its national identity as a result of the Russian interventions since 2014 and has since been resolutely seeking a path towards the West, the EU and NATO.

Moreover, contrary to Russian objectives, Putin has managed to ensure that traditionally neutral European states such as Sweden and Finland have joined NATO and that defence budgets have been increasing everywhere in the West for years. So, 1-0 in favour of Ukraine and the West?

2. Not quite. Because the Ukrainian counter-offensive in 2023, which was praised in the media in advance, has stalled, even fizzled out. Military experts are now talking of an agonising trench warfare with unspeakable high losses in men and materiel. No breakthrough is in sight. At the same time, Western sanctions have not weakened Russian industry and economic power as much as some had predicted.

Once again, sanctions are not a panacea. They have side effects and can be circumvented. Russia continues to make a lot of money from energy exports and, for the time being, is able to deliver arms and ammunition to the front line faster than the West: this is the worrying current finding.

3. The additional uncertainties resulting from the US presidential election have led to a bitter realisation: Ukraine may not be able to hold out for much longer, as it has already switched from attack to defence due to a lack of ammunition supplies. If nothing changes, Russia will gradually and increasingly make territorial gains along sections of the front.

In plain English, this means that Ukraine will be forced to retreat – the worst possible precondition for serious negotiations on a ceasefire or even peace. And, of course, any future negotiations should not simply be a continuation of the failed Minsk process: Ukraine needs firm guarantees for the future, preferably in the form of NATO membership.

To avoid fuelling illusions, we can only expect a genuine willingness to negotiate from Moscow once it is clear in the Kremlin that the continued use of Russian military means will no longer bring any discernible benefits. Unfortunately, the Kremlin is probably further away from realising this than at any time in the past 24 months.

So what needs to happen? Five suggestions:
1. The West needs to provide even more intensive military support to Ukraine in 2024 than it has so far. This war is already asymmetrically skewed: the Russian Federation can continue to arm itself freely in at least ten of its eleven time zones, while claiming the right to regularly bomb all of Ukraine’s territory, including civilian targets.

The West is being bought off by Russia, which is drawing red lines: woe betide if Russian territory is attacked by Western missiles! Why doesn’t the West simply turn the tables, from passive-reactive to proactive: one more bombing of civilian targets in Ukraine and Ukraine would get more far-reaching systems like Taurus. It would then be up to Russia to cross the West’s red lines or not.

2. The European Union must finally move away from the 19th-century defence policy of small states. This is not about the much-vaunted vision of an EU army, but about practical issues. If not now, when will the heads of state and government realise that 27 separate defence authorities make no sense? That we – all small European states – have to organise research, development, construction, purchase, training and maintenance together?

Many billions are wasted unnecessarily every year because every European state buys its few aircraft separately, along with expensive maintenance and spare parts packages. And that we’re absurdly allowing ourselves small-scale European armour or aircraft rivalries when the big picture is at stake? If not now, when will the European Defence Agency be expanded accordingly? And if we are structurally incapable of fulfilling the EU’s promise of one million artillery shells, then we need a special envoy with powers of intervention, an arms czar, as they would say in the US. The situation is serious!

3. The economic power of the West is more than 20 times greater than that of Russia. Russia has long since switched to a war economy. In the West, on the other hand, many have not yet grasped the dimensions of the “Zeitenwende” and want to carry on with business as usual. But the whole of Europe is under existential threat, not just Ukraine, and perhaps for decades to come. Only recently, Putin has again explicitly put the Baltic states in his crosshairs. He must learn to understand that we can and will outpace him in arms production if necessary, and that he cannot and will not win this war.

By the way, how was the Second World War won? Yes, also in Stalingrad or Hiroshima. But the decisive factor for the Allied victory was that, from 1943 onwards, the USA produced more armaments than all the other belligerents on both sides put together. Can we draw any conclusions from this?

4. The situation is so serious that we need to think strategically, not just tactically. Confidential European talks with Paris, perhaps also with London, on how to strengthen our continent’s nuclear deterrent are long overdue – not against the US, of course, but in close coordination with it.

Dreams of an EU nuclear capability are permissible, but absurdly unrealistic, as every expert knows. Credible deterrence does not work by committee, but requires the decision-making monopoly of one person. Just as absurd are the rumours of a German nuclear armament, when Germany is doubly bound by international law to remain permanently non-nuclear.

5. And if a Europe capable of acting in defence and foreign policy cannot be achieved today with all 27 EU states, then Berlin should join Paris, Warsaw, Italy, the Benelux countries and others in remembering the core European ideas, such as those developed by Wolfgang Schäuble decades ago.

The last major European policy initiative from Germany was 34 years ago – that was the euro. Might now be a good, even overdue, time to take the initiative again? To provide the impetus for a Europe that not only integrates but also protects us all?

Ukraine must not and will not lose, but will continue to assert itself successfully: It belongs to Europe and must be allowed to be a free country. And Europe must prove its will to prevail, Donald Trump or no Donald Trump.

Prof Dr Wolfgang Ischinger is a former chairman of the Munich Security Conference, former German ambassador to London and Washington, and a member of the advisory board of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium.

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