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The Crisis over Ukraine Proves Europe’s Security Architecture Is Broken

Ukraine NATO Russia
Tankers with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, conducts platoon live-fire gunnery qualification Feb. 4, 2019, at the Orchard Combat Training Center. The Idaho Army National Guard Soldiers are preparing for the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team’s upcoming rotation at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., later this year.

No matter what happens in Ukraine during the coming weeks, one thing is clear: Europe needs a new security order. The division of the continent into two military camps – NATO on one side, Russia on the other, with a small number of non-aligned states in between – is no longer sustainable. At least, the existing security architecture has been insufficient to place Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity beyond question, a recent experience of insecurity and helplessness that all European states should find unacceptable.

Europe’s present security arrangements emerged gradually after the end of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact disappeared, the NATO alliance was faced with the vexing question of whether to expand beyond the western half and southern fringes of Europe to include the democratizing states of the former communist bloc.

Alternatives to enlargement included shutting the door to new members or else disbanding NATO altogether. The boldest scholars even advocated for Moscow to be made part of the NATO alliance so that the Cold War-era idea of “containment” could be replaced with a “concert” system that would include all of Europe’s greatest powers. Today, some still argue that Russia in the 1990s could and should have been cemented into “the West.”

In the end, however, NATO’s members opted for successive waves of expansion. They did so despite persistent objections from Russian leaders, who made it clear that they viewed NATO’s eastward march as a threat to Russia’s vital security interests. The result is a security order in Europe – a geographic distribution of alliances and power assets – to which the continent’s biggest military player has never consented.

Rightly or wrongly, Russia’s dissatisfaction with Europe’s security arrangements is a problem for everyone. So long as the threat of a major land war hangs over the continent, the capitals of Europe from Madrid to Minsk cannot deny that a reformed set of relationships is needed.

If it were to be designed from scratch, such a revised security order could do far worse than to adhere to four principles in particular.

First, European security must be underwritten by Europeans themselves. This means recognizing that the role of the United States in guaranteeing the security of its European allies must be greatly reduced if not ultimately removed altogether.

While it might seem unrealistic today to imagine that the United States could ever be excluded from Europe’s regional security apparatus, the crisis in Ukraine has revealed that Washington is already patently unable (or unwilling) to provide security in the part of Europe most likely to suffer the scourge of major interstate war – that is, Eastern Europe.

What good is the United States as a guarantor of European security if it cannot prevent conflict where prevention is needed most? After all, the western half of Europe might well be safe and sound sheltering under the US security umbrella, but these states would not be threatened by Russia even if NATO were to vanish tomorrow. It is in the east that the threat of war looms largest, yet it is here that America is most impotent. If Europeans want to establish a lasting settlement in this part of their continent, they will have to do it themselves.

The United States can always be expected to play a latent role in European security – as a balancer of last resort, for example – but it cannot be relied upon to lead Europe as a resident power.

Second, it will be essential for new, inclusive, and pan-European institutions to eventually supersede NATO as the foundation of European security. This is necessary for a simple reason: because Russia finds NATO to be threatening and intolerable in its current form, and there can be no long-term political settlement in Europe without Russia being made into a satisfied power.

Again, it would be unrealistic to assume that NATO will disappear any time soon. It will not. After all, NATO membership provides near-absolute security to most of its members (even if those on its eastern flank might be forgiven for doubting the sanctity of Article 5). But for those living on the outside of NATO, the alliance is often viewed as an impediment to regional security – a cause of discord rather than a way to forestall disputes. Only a common set of institutions stretching “from the Atlantic to the Urals” can hope to provide security to all European states.

Third, Europeans should recommit to the idea of economic integration across the continent. To be sure, interdependence can be a double-sided sword. Yet, it cannot be overlooked that the prospect of losing access to Europe’s lucrative gas markets seems to have been one factor staying in Vladimir Putin’s hand when it comes to Ukraine. If Moscow can be persuaded that war is costly while cooperation with Europe will reliably make Russians more secure and prosperous, then it stands to reason that Russia’s leaders will be less likely to contemplate wars of aggression in the future.

Fourth, principles of national self-determination and territorial integrity must be made central to any new security order in Europe—but they should be accompanied by a concrete recognition that all states have an obligation not to jeopardize the security of others.

Such a balance between rights and responsibilities was recently articulated by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who sought to explain why his government’s opposition to Ukraine’s membership of NATO finds support in international law.

“This principle is clearly stated” in agreements signed under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Lavrov argued. “It has two main interrelated approaches. First, the right of every state to freely choose military alliances is recognized. Second: the obligation of each state not to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of others.”

The bottom line is that, for Lavrov and other Russian leaders, “the right to choose alliances is clearly conditioned by the need to take into account the security interests of any other OSCE state, including the Russian Federation.”

Lavrov is not wrong on this point: members of the OSCE have indeed made formal undertakings “not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States.” It is just that there exists no credible multilateral mechanism for these interests to be reconciled, for disputes to be resolved peacefully, and for the states of Europe to find balance alongside one another.

Can such a set of multilateral institutions be built in Europe – the whole of Europe – such that every member of the European family can have its rights respected and its security upheld? It will not be easy. But Europeans have come together before at various points in their history to design an order under which to live, including in 1648, 1763, 1815, 1919, and 1975. When the dust has settled in Ukraine – hopefully, without a major war having been fought – they must eventually do so again.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.