Vital Questions on the 1st Anniversary of the war in Ukraine

1. How do you evaluate the EU’s support to Ukraine since the outbreak of the war? What were the most and least effective aspects of the EU’s action? 

José María Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain: Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the political, economic, and military support of the 27 EU member countries to Ukraine has been growing in volume and importance. The EU, in coordination with the USA, has implemented a wide range of policy responses to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Among these responses, the most significant were economic sanctions, military assistance, and financial and humanitarian aid. Given that imposing sanctions requires unanimity among EU members states, the EU has been making huge efforts to maintain unity in its support to Ukraine. EU energy dependence on Russia has made targeting its energy sector challenging, but the EU has approved progressively tougher sanctions in the energy sector. Especially noteworthy is the extraordinary solidarity shown by European citizens in welcoming more than seven million refugees from Ukraine.

The main objective of economic sanctions and “restrictive measures” on Russia’s government and its financial, business, defence, technology, and media sectors is to cripple Russia’s ability to finance the war against Ukraine, create costs for Russia’s elites, and diminish Russia’s economic base. In this sense they are effective, even if sanctions have not changed Russia’s imperialist ambitions in Ukraine. Sanctions have meant the end of Ostpolitik, which was born during the Cold War in Germany and is the consideration that economic ties would improve political relations between Russia and the EU. We do not yet know what the full consequences of this rupture are, but it is clear that it is a turning point in relations between the EU and Russia, and above all between Germany and Russia.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, former Prime Minister of Poland: The EU’s response to this war has not been free from mistakes, but by and large I must say that I have been positively surprised by the EU’s reaction. Most importantly, the EU has finally become realistic about Russia, and it has started treating Ukraine and other post-Soviet European-minded countries as true partners. The decision to offer Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia candidate status was long in the making, but it was taken in critical circumstances. The EU and especially Commission President Ursula van der Leyen have shown true leadership on the matter. As the recent EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv demonstrated, the EU’s commitment to sustain Ukraine’s European vocation is strong. The EU has also shown leadership in providing Ukraine with military aid via the Peace Facility. The same can be said about the 9 packages of sanctions, the most thorough in EU history. I believe that the resilience shown by the EU’s attitude towards this war was also prompted by the strong voice of civil society, such as GLOBSEC, where I have the privilege of chairing the Ukraine Support Council.

Where I am less positive in my assessment is the timing and the scope of the various EU actions, including sanctions, which should have been applied sooner and without giving Russia time to adapt to them. The EU has reacted to the war with a stronger sense of leadership than many expected but it is time for the EU to switch into a proactive mode. We should not be simply reacting to the aggressive and illegal actions of Russia. The EU should demonstrate more initiative now.

2. Unfortunately, we do not yet see any light at the end of the tunnel and the war does not appear to be nearing its end. What should be the long-term strategy of the EU in this conflict and towards Russia? What do you see as the most serious threats to a united European approach going forward?

José María Aznar: The long-term strategy of the EU in this conflict should be to support Ukraine to defend and conserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Russia is trying to reverse the international order created after World War II and the Cold War, and, above all, it intends to change the European security and defence order, so the EU’s main strategy should be to prevent Russia from succeeding in this task. Supporting Ukraine means not allowing any power to become a hegemonic power and change international borders by military force.

The biggest threat to the EU’s strategy in supporting Ukraine is its internal vulnerabilities, its citizenry becoming war-weary, and populism and authoritarianism flourishing because of rising energy costs which in turn increase the cost of living. An even greater crisis in liberal democratic political systems could lead to a decline in support for Ukraine.

Another danger is that the West has not clearly and unambiguously defined to what extent we want to defeat Russia. There are different definitions of what Ukrainian victory means: expelling Russia from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, or returning to the pre-invasion borders. It is obvious that if we do not have a common vision of the end of the war, we do not share a common goal.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: I don’t entirely agree with the question’s premise. First of all, it is remarkable that a year into the invasion, Ukraine is still standing, its institutions are functioning. I can vouch from my own experience as I visited Kyiv in December 2022, when GLOBSEC opened its office there, the first think-tank in the world to do so since the Russian invasion. I found the Ukrainian state perfectly functional. Moreover, Ukraine regained some of the territory that it lost in the initial weeks of the invasion. Russia is not winning on the battlefield, although it outnumbers and outguns Ukrainian armed forces many times over. The Ukrainians have something which the Russians lack: they know what they are fighting for, and they are determined. I recommend the reading of the report by Nico Lange, published by GLOBSEC, on what we as the West can learn from Ukraine. Most importantly, what we as the West must do is to remain resilient and united in supporting Ukraine. If Putin prevails, he won’t stop in Ukraine, and he would threaten the European order directly. Ukraine is not only defending itself, but it is also defending us, the EU and the West. 

3. What are the fundamental geopolitical consequences of Russia’s war? Is this crisis helping the EU to develop real defence and strategic capabilities or is it making us more dependent on the US?  

José María Aznar: The main geopolitical consequence is the division of the world between the West (liberal democracies) and the rest (countries that have condemned the invasion of Ukraine but have not imposed economic sanctions on Russia), and the very likely further rapprochement between the revisionist powers (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea).

The war in Ukraine has shown that the EU’s security and defence depends on the Atlantic Alliance. It has also shown that U.S. leadership has been the key to the West’s coordinated response, because, as during the Cold War, Europe’s eastern border is the United States’ first line of defence. Therefore, it is obvious that the EU’s dependence on the US in security and defence is complete and that it is possible to speak of strategic autonomy in other areas (technological, energy, economic…), but not in security and defence. The EU must develop its defensive capabilities, but always in close coordination with NATO and within the framework of the transatlantic relationship, because it is the only guarantee for the successful defence of the international liberal order.

Jan Krzysztof Bielecki: Russia’s unprovoked war against the EU’s direct neighbour and its associated partners has profound geopolitical consequences for the EU and the rest of the West. By invading Ukraine, Russia made it clear that it wants to destroy the European order, that it seeks to destabilise NATO and challenge the role of the US in European security. The Russian narrative on this matter has been fully supported by another authoritarian state – China. This effectively means that the world of democracies is challenged now by powerful and resentful autocrats. Sadly, other emerging powers, such as India, South Africa or Brazil are either oblivious to the fate of Ukraine or are in fact sympathetic to the Russian narrative. At this time, Western unity is imperative. The EU would be naturally well-advised to boost its defence capabilities but do so to complement rather than compete with NATO. By invading Ukraine, the Russians are not just threatening the geopolitical balance of power, but they are also challenging our values of democracy and liberty. To prevail, we must stay united.