When the War in Ukraine Ends…
24 February 2023
A version of this text was originally published in French in Le Point.
The Russian war against Ukraine will end, as did every war before it. The current intensity of Russia’s war effort is not sustainable. About half of its heavy armaments have already been destroyed or captured by their Ukrainian adversary after the first year. Only North Korea and Iran are supporting Russia with ammunition and drones. Ukraine, on the other hand, is receiving increasingly sophisticated weapons from the entire West, including decisive assistance by the United States. Previous experience from the First and Second World War tells us that this can be crucial.
Escalation to nuclear war entails the risk of Russia’s self-destruction. Such a decision is not impossible, but unlikely. Putin designed the conflict to severely damage Ukraine with little effect on Russia itself, in order to preserve and potentially even shore up his own political support base. Russian military doctrine foresees nuclear arms to protect the very existence of Russia. But Russia’s very existence is not under threat, only its imperial and colonial ambitions are.
It is now reasonable and necessary to start reflecting about the day after.
The United States comes out of this conflict very much strengthened. Its credibility as a protective power is re-established. Weaknesses shown in the past are pushed into the background of our collective memory. Leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban and the passivity of the Obama administration after the use of chemical weapons by the Russian-allied Assad regime in Syria are no longer the last word. China has taken note, as have Pacific countries who feel threatened by Xi Jinping’s geopolitical ambitions. A military attack against Taiwan by China now seems like less of an easy undertaking or a foregone conclusion.
Joe Biden has proven to be an impressive leader and established the basis for a second mandate as President of the United States. Far from being “Sleepy Joe”, he provided serene leadership based on his decades of experience as a United States Senator, Vice President under Barack Obama, and his proven track record as a good friend of Europe.
NATO is not a direct party to the war, but has served as the forum for the coordination of unprecedented weapons deliveries. If it ever was brain dead, it has risen quite remarkably from its ashes. Central and Eastern European states, on the conflict’s borders, feel confirmed in their long-held convictions that in moments of real danger, NATO and the United States are essential. German and French hesitations have contributed to that.
And still, objective limitations have become obvious also for NATO. In an age where everything is being weaponised, the European Union has a toolkit that NATO does not have. The European Union took the decision to provide a home to millions of Ukrainian war refugees under especially privileged conditions. It passed sanctions on Russia of an intensity never seen before. It provides financial support similar to that of the United States of America. The European Union connected the Ukrainian electricity grid to its own in record time. And perhaps most important: it provides hope to Ukraine by opening up a perspective for membership. NATO and the European Union are obviously complementary, now with a growing role for the European Union.
But our shortcomings have equally become obvious. The neglect of our military is appalling, the loss of industrial base for armaments creates a near complete dependence on the United States and even South Korea for urgent deliveries. In the absence of a guaranteed demand, German Leopard tanks must now be built one by one and by hand, like in the pre-industrial age. We are paying the price of the European Union not having an internal market for armament products, no common technical standards, no common export policy for arms. The taxpayer is the first, but not the only victim of armaments nationalism. Will we learn?
The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated the critical role of transport and logistics. Russian tanks queuing for tens of kilometres outside of Kyiv, having run out of petrol and easy prey for Ukrainian anti-tank weapons, are still in our collective memory. All together, the member states of the European Union would probably be sufficiently equipped to defend against a conventionally much weaker Russia after this conflict. But would we be able to transport French and Spanish equipment in adequate time to where it is needed? Or would bridges be too weak and tunnels too small? This is exactly where the European Union can play a major role with its own infrastructure programmes.
The unprecedented regime of sanctions, cutting Russian goods, services and financial flows off from international exchanges, essentially in the space of a weekend also raise serious question marks for the future. What if China would indeed attack Taiwan? Sanctions would probably not fall very much behind what was agreed against Russia in order to uphold the international order. Except in that scenario, our economies are much more intertwined. Which risks are we ready to take and which ones need urgent reduction through friendshoring or homeshoring?
After the war in Ukraine, the United States will have to focus their military efforts on where they are challenged the most, i.e., China and the Pacific. The build-up of an American-led alliance system in Asia is already advancing quickly, involving Japan, Australia and India as key partners. Europeans will have to compensate conventionally in Europe as long as Russia does not give up its imperial ambitions. Poland has already taken major investment decisions, spending at least 3 percent of its GDP on the military. And yes, we do now have a European army: the army of Ukraine defending our freedom and security as well.
We are turning the page of a 30-year period since the end of the Soviet Union during which the lowest price was the lead paradigm. Companies relocated to wherever the workforce was available, also providing important technology transfers, with little regard for country or system. The access of hundreds of millions of new workers to the global labour market kept inflation low and consumers happy. The authoritarian hardening of both Russia and China, paired with an aggressive stand towards their neighbours, now brings this period to an end. Security has replaced the price paradigm.
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