An Unprecedented Week for European Security

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President of the European Council Charles Michel at a joint EU-NATO press conference on 24 February 2022. Courtesy of NATO

With Western political responses to the invasion of Ukraine moving at a rapid pace, NATO and the EU now have a short window of opportunity to create a lasting strategy for the security of Europe.

European security has changed more in the past seven days than in the preceding 33 years. The unity and agency that the West has demonstrated is the complete antithesis of President Vladimir Putin’s intent. It represents a comprehensive failure of Russian strategy, which needs to be exploited by the West to build a more secure and prosperous Europe.

After just seven days of fighting between Russia and Ukraine, the national orientation and policy changes of European countries and institutions have been seismic. In some regards, policy evolution has skipped a decade or even a generation and is reforming the European security order at speed. Moreover, the Ukrainian will to fight has proved decisive in influencing changes in European policy. If the Ukrainian forces had capitulated in two or three days, these changes might not have occurred.

First, and perhaps most significantly, the German government declared an additional investment of 100 billion euros in defence and will send lethal aid to Ukraine. Remarkably, 78% of Germans approve of this increase in spending. This followed non-military measures, including the halting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial system. In doing so, the new government has reversed decades of consistent national policy. While this increase in spending could be considered as arrears for years of defence underspend, Western countries must now support and mentor Germany through this difficult process, which could dramatically change the European military balance.

Second, the EU has announced a 500 million euro military support package to Ukraine via the European Peace Facility, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described as a ‘watershed moment’. After a slow start in this crisis, EU defence, foreign and security policy just leapt forward a decade. In addition, all member states agreed to take in Ukrainian refugees for three years without asylum paperwork, demonstrating unequivocal support in a sensitive area for the Union. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy applied for EU membership and pleaded for the process to be expedited.

Third, Sweden and Finland have effectively ended their neutrality by sending military aid to Ukraine (lethal aid in the case of Sweden). Switzerland and Ireland have both shifted their neutrality and supported the sanctions targeting Russia. These all represent significant shifts of decades of national policy.

Fourth, Sweden and Finland are much closer to joining NATO, which would make seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council also NATO members. Kosovo has requested a permanent US military base and NATO membership. Furthermore, the Alliance is significantly reinforcing its Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics, has established a new French-led force in Romania, and has deployed elements of its Very High Readiness Task Force for the first time.

Finally, outside of gains within Ukraine, Russia’s only real strategic advantage has been the consolidation of its control over Belarus, presenting a further threat to Europe in terms of forward basing nuclear weapons and weaponising migration towards Europe.

The sea changes in policy and Europe’s newfound unity and agency must be harnessed to create a long-term collective strategy to deal with Putin’s Russia, and whatever might come next

These are early days, and it is easy for politicians to get carried away in the moment, but this crisis feels qualitatively and quantitatively different to previous false starts, including short-lived unity following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. These sea changes in policy and Europe’s newfound unity and agency must be harnessed to create a long-term collective strategy to deal with Putin’s Russia, and whatever might come next. This process begins with delaying both the imminent EU Strategic Compass and NATO’s New Strategic Concept.

The EU Strategic Compass

The EU Strategic Compass is the EU’s first defence white paper, to 2030, covering the four baskets of crisis management, defence capabilities, resilience and partnerships. However, the strategy is based on a threat analysis conducted in November 2020. Therefore, it does not reflect the withdrawal from Afghanistan, or the Russian private security group Wagner undercutting French and European security provision in the Sahel, significantly changing European ambitions in the region. Moreover, if the threat analysis was correct, it would have identified Russia’s current actions and prioritised and resourced accordingly. It did not.

Therefore, pushing ahead with the Strategic Compass on its original timeframe now is akin to starting a strategic programme of work in full knowledge that the business case is already out of date and thus fundamentally flawed. Moreover, the EU’s newfound agency makes the initial draft of the Strategic Compass not ambitious enough. The EU is not yet the geopolitical power it might want to be, but the prospect does not look as slim as it once did. The US should support the EU’s development in this area and shape a ‘European Strategic Autonomy’ that is complementary to NATO.

NATO’s New Strategic Concept

NATO’s last Strategic Concept, written in 2010, described wanting ‘to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia’. This was completely blown off course by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moreover, the Concept defined NATO’s core tasks as collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.

NATO’s ‘Afghanistan lessons learned process’ took just two months to cover both ‘operational-military’ and political reviews, spanning 20 years of activity, with the conclusion – despite comprehensive failure in Afghanistan – that ‘Crisis management should … remain a core Alliance task’. This is a mistake. NATO should now drop out of area crisis management operations and return to focusing on the collective defence of Europe via its New Strategic Concept, underpinned by the Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area and the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept. While cooperative security is not yet dead, it must take a back seat while Europe returns to balance-of-power politics, no matter how traumatic that might be.

Despite the collective might of NATO, it cannot do everything, and the commitment at the 2015 Warsaw Summit for a ‘360-degree approach’ to security – both thematically and geographically – risks overstretch. In a hardening world, the Alliance must take the opportunity to go back to its roots and seek support from other actors such as the EU.

Building a Strategic Division of Labour

The different geographical requirements of securing Europe have never been starker. Conflict in Ukraine will not be minimised for long and will have diplomatic and military spillover to other areas such as the Arctic, the High North, the Baltics, the Balkans, Moldova, Georgia, the Middle East, Africa and even as far afield as Venezuela.

There might be no better opportunity for NATO and the EU to create a strategy that secures Europe and allows the US to pursue its policy of focusing on Asia

In the north, countering Russian remilitarisation within the Arctic and High North is well-resourced by NATO, with the UK and Norway in particular having specialised capabilities to operate in these conditions. Exercises such as the Trident Juncture series and the imminent Cold Response are the largest NATO exercises since the end of the Cold War.

In the east, the ‘tripwire’ defences that have evolved since 2014 into NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics, Poland and soon Romania will have to be significantly reinforced for an indefinite duration. This will likely be far short of the standing forces in Europe during the Cold War, but the parallels with the Iron Curtain are clear. Russia’s consolidation of control over Belarus is a new challenge, and NATO should immediately request support from the EU’s border agency, Frontex, to help with the potential for increased refugee inflows that Belarus has previously weaponised.

In the south, Russian activity in multiple African states is increasing, with instability in Libya and the Sahel showing no sign of diminishing and presenting a terrorist, migration and organised crime threat to Europe. The EU is best placed to lead security in the south via its large member states of France, Italy and Spain. Half of the 300 billion euro EU Global Gateway initiative is earmarked for investment in Africa, and the EU and African Union have good relations, as evidenced by their recent summit. Moreover, 12 of the EU’s 19 current Common Foreign and Security Policy military and civilian missions and operations are in, or off the coast of, Africa. Therefore, the EU should focus its crisis management efforts on training, expeditionary and maritime missions, supported by US Africa Command military enablers and intelligence, while EU capability projects under Permanent Structured Cooperation mature, shoring up Europe’s southern flank.

Any security and diplomatic gaps can be plugged by extant mini-lateral formats, such as the E3 (the UK, France and Germany), Transatlantic Quad (E3 plus the US), Joint Expeditionary Force and Northern Group of Defence Ministers, or addressed through new bespoke formats.

Sustained Increased Defence Spending

Of course, these aspirations are theoretical, and significant financial investments will need to be made. More importantly, financial commitments will need to be sustained. At the 2014 Wales Summit, Alliance members recommitted to the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2024. Prior to the latest announcement, the estimated date for Germany, the largest economy in Europe, to meet this commitment was 2031. Europe does not have any wake-up calls left. There might be no better opportunity for NATO and the EU to create a strategy that secures Europe and allows the US to pursue its policy of focusing on Asia.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Ed Arnold

Senior Research Fellow, European Security

International Security

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