Source: Andrezj Rostek/Shutterstock.com
The coming year will be critical for Ukrainians in their fight against Russian aggression. The Ukrainian people have undoubtedly shown their resilience and fortitude to fight for their sovereignty against Russian hostility. The question remains whether their fellow Europeans will continue to support them in this fight. So far, the U.K. has taken the lead among European countries in providing military aid, both quantitatively and symbolically. The U.K., with a GDP less than a quarter the size of the 27 EU member states combined, has pledged $1 billion more in military aid than the EU, and nearly as much as Germany and Poland combined. While the EU has pledged massive amounts of financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, this aid will have little effect if Ukraine is unable to defeat Russia on the battlefield. The U.K. has also taken the lead in providing Ukrainians with the advanced technology necessary to fight Russia and end the war on their own terms. The U.K. committed to sending Challenger 2 tanks on January 15th, ten days prior to German and U.S. commitments to send their respective tanks. The U.K. also took the lead in their announcement on February 8th, to train Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard aircraft, making it the first European country to do so. There are doubts, however, regarding the U.K.’s ability to continue this aid. According to the IMF, the U.K. will be the only Group of 7 country to enter a recession this year and the U.K. has a bleak economic outlook in 2024 as well. While Britons are more likely to favor continued support for Ukraine than almost any other country, it is reasonable to ask whether this level of enthusiasm for support can continue in the face of a worsening domestic economic environment.
Should the U.K.’s leadership role regarding military support for Ukraine falter, will France and Germany pick up the mantle? France and Germany, as the top two EU member states in both population and GDP, hold significant sway over EU institutions. While French President Macron stated at this year’s Munich Security Conference that France “absolutely” needs to intensify its support for Ukraine’s military, there is reason to be skeptical. France, a country with a $2.58 trillion GDP, has pledged only $500 million in military aid to date. Similarly, Germany, with a GDP $1 trillion larger than France’s, has only been a cautious supporter of Ukraine, as exemplified through the Leopard tank saga. Therefore, if the U.K.’s leadership in supporting Ukraine’s military diminishes it is questionable whether France and Germany will seize the leadership role and push the bounds of military support for Ukraine.
A leveling off or decrease in military support for Ukraine would be devastating. Ukraine has shown impressive success in reversing some of Russia’s gains from the initial large-scale invasion. They are now locked in a brutal and bloody fight along a lengthy front in the east and south of Ukraine. Continued materiel support including ammunition, body armor, and artillery pieces as well as providing increasingly sophisticated and capable western military hardware and materiel will be crucial for Ukraine to break through the front and push Russian forces out of Ukrainian territory. Additionally, while still positive, public support for providing weapons to Ukraine is starting to soften in the U.S. Europeans, and the EU as an institution, will have to pick up the leadership mantle to ensure continued robust western support for Ukraine.
On February 28, 2022, the EU took the historic step of providing lethal equipment to Ukraine utilizing the European Peace Facility (EPF), which is a fund created in March 2021 to allow the EU to finance operational activity to strengthen international security under the Common Foreign and Security Policy. On February 2, 2023, the EU increased support for Ukraine under the EPF to $3.8 billion. While this is a historic success for the EU, it is not enough. Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, states that are large contributors in either dollar amount or as a percentage of GDP, should use their collective influence within the EU to push for a greater leadership role from the EU in providing military assistance to Ukraine. They are likely to encounter some resistance from their French and German counterparts but should present a unified front to diplomatically coax France and Germany into supporting a greater EU role. Utilizing a united, public diplomacy push, coupled with active engagement of their French and German counterparts in EU institutions, should yield the desired results. If France truly wants to see “strategic autonomy” for Europe, this is their moment to seize the initiative. These countries, among others, should also push to reform the Council Common Position defining common rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment. Russia’s continually increasing aggression against Ukraine must be met with more flexible EU and country legislation for providing military equipment. Regarding the long-term, as has been noted in the European Defence Agency’s, Coordinated Annual Review on Defence Report for 2022, the EU and its member states must increase collaboration and coherence in their defense doctrines, while increasing collective, EU-based defense supplies and research and development. The war in Ukraine has already shown that the U.S. defense industrial base is strained and in its current form is not robust enough. The trans-Atlantic community needs a robust and innovative defense industrial base on both sides of the Atlantic if we are to defend the post-World War II liberal international order from growing threats across the globe.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is one of the most destabilizing events in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Thus far, leadership in military aid has largely come from the U.S. and the U.K. This support is not guaranteed to continue through 2023. This is the opportune moment for the EU and continental Europe to show their commitment to the post-WWII liberal international order and the territorial sovereignty of countries, one of the order’s most important pillars. The EU has the latent military and economic power to be a key force for stability in the European security architecture. It now needs leadership, ideally from France and Germany, to thrust it into that role. This article has focused on the current and future European military aid to Ukraine. However, I’d like to take a moment to address the tragic human cost borne by the Ukrainian people due to Russia’s large-scale invasion. Russia has completely destroyed cities, taken 6,000 Ukrainian children to re-education camps, destroyed day-to-day normalcy for Ukrainians, and killed thousands of men and women who will never come home to their families. This is a Security Studies publication and while it is important to view the war through an academic and policy lens, the human cost being borne by the Ukrainian people must be top of mind as we approach the one-year mark of Russia’s large-scale invasion. Ukrainians are fighting and dying for the principles that the EU is based upon; it is time for the EU to throw its full support behind that fight.