Australian Outlook

In this section

Is Europe Sleepwalking Into a Long Conflict?

04 Apr 2022
By Heribert Dieter
Ursula von der Leyen, elected President of the European Commission in 2019, speaks with Jean-Yves Le Drian then French Minister of Defence at a Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in June 2014. Source: NATO, Flickr, .

Despite some initial hiccups, Europe has firmly supported Kyiv in the Ukraine conflict. While the further development of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unclear, it may well ensnare Europe in a prolonged conflict.

European countries have chosen to participate indirectly in the Ukrainian conflict. Rather than commit troops, they have sent weapons and started an unprecedented and comprehensive economic conflict. However, if Vladimir Putin does not back off, the fight may escalate to a disastrous scenario — the sustained participation of many European countries in the fight between Russia and Ukraine.

The European Response

The initial reactions of European countries to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have been powerful, but at the same time, clearly lack strategy. Some of the economic and financial measures utilised by Europe have been harsh. Freezing the assets of Russia’s central bank has deprived Moscow access to its savings abroad. That measure is of course undermining the West’s financial system, too — China and other potential adversaries will be cautious when using Western banks in the future. The financial sanctions will result in strengthening what former US Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson has dubbed the new “economic iron curtain.” Ironically, there is a historical parallel — the young USSR stopped servicing the foreign debt of Tsarist Russia in February 1918. The controversy over those bonds was only solved after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But what do the current sanctions aim at? Of course, Putin’s withdrawal of troops from Ukrainian territory. However, there is little evidence that he is willing to do so. In previous conflicts, his only response has been escalation. The British economic historian Robert Skidelsky has asked the appropriate question — are the sanctions supposed to end the war, or are simply an expression of moral outrage? Considering European countries lack any medium-term strategy, they may well be the latter.

Developing a European Strategy

While there is a lot of speculation about Putin’s military goals, he may not want to conquer and occupy the whole country, but rather make Ukraine dysfunctional — Putin may be hoping for regime destruction and a subsequent simmering war. Russia is apparently unwilling to tolerate the Ukrainian government’s goal to make the country a member of both NATO and the EU.

Assuming that a lasting conflict is possible, the countries of the EU ought to have a plan. What will European countries do if the sanctions don’t work and Putin is not withdrawing? Rather than asking why the previous sanctions, implemented after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, have not led to the expected outcome, the West is escalating, thus becoming a party to the conflict. Sanctions have not led to policy change in North Korea, Cuba, or Iran. The earlier sanctions against Moscow have resulted in Russia reducing its ties with the West, thus making new conflict more, not less, likely. Pinelopi Goldberg, former chief economist at the World Bank, has warned that weaponising trade will not end the conflict, but will hammer the last nail into the coffin of multilateralism.

At the same time, the participation of European countries and the US is probably prolonging the war. By making Ukraine stronger and Russia weaker, a potential Russian military victory is postponed. After the bloody interventions of Western countries in the Balkans, Edward Luttwak reminded us in 1999 of the cost of well-intended participation in conflicts and suggested we sometimes “give war a chance.” Sending equipment and money will lead to more, not less suffering, Luttwak argued. The defining characteristic, then and now, is that foreign countries and organisations insert themselves in situations of war while refusing to engage in combat. European societies cannot bear to watch the shocking pictures from the Russian invasion, but there is little appetite for sending their own troops.

Bluntly speaking, there are two options for European countries, both radical. The first is to declare war on Russia. The second is to do nothing apart from provide support for Ukrainian refugees. Of course, the first option is suicidal. Russia possesses enough nuclear arms to wipe out the European continent and is led by a politician who is willing to escalate. No responsible government in the European Union should take that risk. The second option is currently impossible too. European societies are outraged about the Russian invasion and are eager to demonstrate both their anger and their willingness to counter the Russian aggression.

In many, if not most, European societies, a degree of 1914, combined with some McCarthyism, is in the air. While there is no enthusiasm for war yet, Europeans show a surprising willingness to support Ukraine in many ways. French Minister for Economics Bruno Le Maire promised that the West will pursue “a total economic and financial war against Russia,” a comment he subsequently withdrew. In early March, some junior German politicians called for direct military support of Ukraine if Russia crossed certain red lines, one of them being attacks on civilians. Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition in Germany, demanded that NATO would have to intervene if Russia continues to attack nuclear power plants. All over the world, Russians have to publicly declare that they condemn the invasion – or else be sacked. German retailer Aldi has delisted vodka made in Russia. Most European companies have stopped doing business in Russia.

At the same time, there is very little debate on the causes of the conflict. The Ukrainian government and its leader are adored. Potential policy errors of the West are not considered. The warnings of both former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and of John Mearsheimer, an American scholar belonging to the realist school of thought, are not even considered. Both have warned after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that there needs to be a discussion of the security architecture in Europe, and those talks must include Russia.

Today, it is much easier to envisage Europe sliding into a prolonged conflict than identifying a way out of it. After sending “defensive weapons,” it is a small step to the provision of military advisors. A few horrific attacks by Russian troops could well ignite the call for active participation. Today, Western countries have once again chosen to participate in a conflict without a clear strategy. The parallels with Vietnam are obvious — when Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy expanded support for South Vietnam in the 1950s and early 1960s, they certainly hoped that US engagement would be limited, both in time and in scope.

The enthusiasm in Germany, where a massive expansion of expenditure for the Armed Forces has enjoyed support by all parties with the exception of the far left and the far right, is particularly surprising. The Economist has quipped that Germans have once again reversed their position on international conflict and are wishing to turn ploughshares to swords. Even the Greens have postponed their fight for climate neutrality and are willing to tolerate an arms race. They have even been considering the extension of the use of civilian nuclear power. Considering that both Putin and his enemies in the West are yet to formulate even the faintest idea of how the conflict could be solved, Europe is rapidly running out of options and is sliding towards participation in a potentially prolonged war.

Heribert Dieter is a Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and a Visiting Professor at Zeppelin University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.