The speed and scope of the EU’s response to Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, despite some disagreements among the members, has so far led to unprecedented coherent efforts to withstand Moscow. Without any delay, Europe paved the way for sending military items and equipment to Ukraine and imposed extensive sanctions on various sectors of the Russian economy. In addition, it provided the conditions for a global consensus to condemn Moscow’s invasion.
In the field of energy, Europe has developed a plan to reduce by two-thirds the level of its dependence on Russian gas by the end of this year and stop its dependence on fuel and energy imports from Russia by 2030. However, the scope is not limited to the field of energy, and Europe, seizing the opportunity, has been able to present and implement its plans in the defense and security sectors too. The EU Strategic Compass project, which is a European medium-term defense and security strategy, has been rapidly updated with the outbreak of the largest armed confrontation since World War II. Thanks to the geopolitical awakening, the EU can now make more apparent its determination to take the path to strategic autonomy.
The concept of European Strategic Autonomy has always been a central but controversial part of the policy-making process, especially in European defense and security policies in the post-Cold War era. The concept has been formed with the aim of enhancing capabilities in the face of emerging external crises and relies on equipping the EU with the tools and equipment necessary to make decisions and act independently based on the interests and values of Europe in a wide range of areas.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has revived debates over the concept of “Political Independence” and raised the fundamental question of whether the conflict will reduce European governments’ dependence on the United States and accelerate the achievement of the goal of strategic autonomy, or will the growing intensification of this dependence on Washington once again marginalize the strategy of strategic independence?
Europe has relied on the United States to maintain its security since 1945. During the Cold War, such a situation was understandable since Europeans saw the Soviet Union as an existential threat. With the end of the Cold War, there was a brief discussion about NATO’s future, but the Balkan tragedy quickly exposed Europe’s security weaknesses and it was ultimately the US military that ended the conflict and backed the Dayton Peace Accords.
Trump’s ascendance to power and his skepticism toward NATO were also a warning to European leaders to think of ways to achieve strategic autonomy. However, with the election of Biden, who had promised to restore transatlantic relations, the issue of strategic independence in Europe was largely sidelined. Even Biden’s irresponsible departure from Afghanistan and the issue of AUKUS failed to make Europe change its course and reconsider stopping transferring its strategic dependence to the United States.
One of the consequences of this deep and long-standing security dependence on the United States is the lack of genuine European strategic thinking, which has ultimately reduced Europe’s growing strategic weight in the US decision-making and policy-making processes. Washington’s disregard for its European allies in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, as well as the US wars against terrorism, is irrefutable evidence to support all of the aforementioned consequences.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has now led to a wider US presence in Europe, a strengthening of NATO’s position, especially on the eastern flank, and consolidation of Europe’s security dependence on the United States. In many ways, the Ukraine crisis reaffirmed the importance of NATO, gave a new impetus to the alliance, brought NATO back on the scene, and reaffirmed its prominent role in securing Europe. Nato was also able to ease tensions within the coalition and even pave the way for new members such as Finland and Sweden.
The Ukraine crisis was a confirmation that NATO is the only game in the city. The conflict also showed the level of European dependence and reliance on the United States, revitalized Atlanticism in Europe, and, by marginalizing the tendency toward European autonomy, placed emphasis on increasing the capabilities of the transcontinental alliance. Thanks to the re-establishment of the US-led NATO presence in Europe, the hopes of the proponents of strategic autonomy for the EU’s strategic Compass Project have been dashed; in addition, the current developments also show the lack of political will to seriously pursue the approach of strategic autonomy.
Contrary to Washington’s long-held concern about the possibility of a European security rival, the strategic compass does not seek to replace NATO or the United States, as the largest security player in Europe, and even emphasizes the need for continued strategic European cooperation with NATO. From now on, this military coalition will be considered the foundation of collective defense. It can be said that the level of Europe will be reduced to a lower position in the transatlantic relationship by recognizing the pivotal role of NATO in the process of joint collective defense. The strategic compass will also stimulate European investment in defense capabilities over the next decades in order to strengthen NATO; a fact denoting the marginalized role of Europe.
Eastern and central countries of Europe lying in proximity to Russia, consider Moscow as a greater threat and hope to maintain their security under the aegis of NATO. Thus, European countries are against any strategy which may lead to the weakening of NATO and the US’s presence in Europe. It can be said that the new perspective prevailing over Europe is against the concept of strategic autonomy. The opposition of the Eastern European member states is mainly rooted in their suspicion of the consequences that the pursuit of autonomy could have for transatlantic relations. They want the long-term presence of the US in Europe to be guaranteed. In addition, plans proposed up to now in order to fortress the defense policy of Europe have not had many things about Russia, as their main security concern.
If European Union is even struggling to define the concept of strategic autonomy for the future, there are some tensions among states which consider strategic autonomy as a tool in order to recapture lost independence assigned to the US. The number of European countries reckoning that insisting on the strategy leads to weakening and reducing the US security presence and thus creating insecurity in Europe, is not negligible. The Ukraine crisis has strengthened its position further.
In the wake of the Ukraine tragedy, the Eastern European member states are no longer likely to worry that pursuing an independent European defense policy would lead to the weakening of transatlantic ties and reducing NATO’s presence in Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the re-emergence of NATO, strengthening of US presence and influence in Europe, consolidating transatlantic relations in favor of the United States, and upsetting the balance to the detriment of states seeking strategic European independence within the EU; trends and consequences, each of which alone can make the dreams of European strategic autonomy vanish, if not forever, but at least for decades.
The Ukraine crisis has also posed a controversial challenge for countries supporting strategic European independence, such as France and Germany. Ever since President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, he has tirelessly promoted European strategic autonomy by insisting on the idea of the brain death of NATO, but the Ukraine crisis has also awakened his brain. Germany also hopes to increase its military capabilities by cooperating with NATO in developing military technology.