European Defense and the Future of Ukraine

Debates on the Continent are heating up.

Antonia Colibasanu | 24 March 2024
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On Wednesday, European Union member states agreed to allocate an extra 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion) to the European Peace Facility by the end of the year, nearly matching the 6.1 billion euros Brussels has pledged since the beginning of 2022. The EPF had lost much of its momentum in 2023, when member states opted to support Ukraine on a bilateral rather than a collective basis, and when Hungary imposed an eventually rescinded veto after Kyiv classified one of its banks as an “international sponsor of war.” The back and forth has prompted new discussions over reforming the EPF to make it more effective, more predictable and better suited to Ukraine’s requirements.

While political factors may delay the reform or stop it entirely, the fact remains that the debate over European defense is heating up ahead of elections. In fact, the European Commission recently revealed its much-anticipated European Defense Industrial Strategy, which means to turn the Continent into a defense force, and Brussels is even debating whether the next European Commission should include a defense commissioner.

U.S. elections are also fueling the debate. For some, the fear that a Trump victory would lead to U.S. disengagement from Europe and a potential withdrawal from Ukraine has renewed interest in collective European security. This is especially so as the U.S. seems to be running out of money to restock Ukraine-bound weapons. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has proposed that allies send obsolete systems to Ukraine instead of decommissioning them, while Estonian Prime Minister KajaKallas has urged the EU to combine its resources to expedite the manufacturing and delivery of ammunition to Ukraine. The Czech private arms company Excalibur Army, supported by the Czech government, is now undertaking efforts to convert its Sternberk factory into a center for the provision of weaponry and ammunition to Ukraine.

For others, the cold math of the Ukraine war has nothing to do with the U.S. The European Commission anticipates that the overall yearly production of shells across the EU will reach 1.4 million by the end of 2024 to try to offset the reported five or six shells Russia fires for every one shell Ukraine fires along the front line. Russia has enhanced its arms manufacturing capabilities and prioritized production to sustain a far greater rate of firing compared to Ukraine.

How Europe pivots to defense – and the extent to which it does – depends on how the Ukraine war plays out. 2024 is considered a year of recovery and preparation for both sides as they try and fail to shape the outcome on the ground. Knowing that the other is in the same situation, both are trying to tip the balance of power in their favor as fast as they can. But ultimately, the fate of the war will be decided by two key factors: the limits of Russian socio-economic resilience and Western support for Ukraine.

Russia will pursue a three-pronged strategy over the next few months. First, it will maintain military pressure across the board. Largely this is because Moscow doesn’t have the resources for a decisive breakthrough. Keeping active along the entire front line is easier and allows the government to paint a picture of Russian dedication.

Second, it will try to procure more resources. Russia doesn’t have limitless funds, materials or people. Already it has called for more ammunition production. To offset the deficits, Moscow has bought ammunition and other materials from Iran and North Korea. The Russian army is getting by with its armored vehicles and tanks, but this is largely because it has pulled out old material from old stocks. In that sense, the outcome in Ukraine could be determined by the amenability of allies like Iran, China and North Korea to replenish and resupply Russian stocks.

Third, Russia will engage in information operations and psychological warfare to discourage the U.S. and its European allies from maintaining their support for Ukraine. This can be accomplished through direct operations against target nations as well as attempts to create a level of worldwide instability that diverts public attention and resources away from the situation in Eastern Europe. (Moscow excels at this: One of its strengths in this battle has been structuring and transmitting powerful communications, and thus shaping political will in a target nation. This is a remnant of the Soviet era.)

If things go as planned, political support for Ukraine will dwindle or disappear, creating windows of opportunity for Russia to strike a significant military blow – which, for Moscow, would also be a political blow. The bigger issue is that this is not a conflict that will end only in Ukraine; it will have consequences for the stability of the whole region and the world.

For Ukraine, things are more or less the same. It lacks Russia’s industrial mobilization capabilities. Kyiv must secure external backing. (Communication is important in this regard.) The government is also considering how it can improve its military. One of the most important components of its battle strategy is how frequently to deploy drones. Kyiv understands that supplies are dwindling, but drones can be at least partially manufactured at home. Indeed, Ukraine has broadly become less reliant on others and can sustain certain war efforts. It may even be able to refill shortages.

However, the most important factor for Ukraine is time. Whatever Kyiv does, it must do it quickly. It must sustain combat capabilities until Russia is forced to exert maximal effort, at which point Ukraine may attempt to recover terrain. But there is also the issue of contingency planning; at a time when Russia is advancing on all fronts, Ukraine must deepen its defensive lines, establishing a system of extensive defensive facilities similar to Russia’s – including mines, fortifications and reserves.

On the maritime front, Ukraine seems to have an advantage. Russia has never been a great naval power, but when it annexed Crimea in 2014, it got a forward base from which it could project force across the entire Black Sea. That force has continually lost ships and has now withdrawn from Sevastopol. Meanwhile, Ukraine has managed to guarantee a safe route for its commercial ships, recovering an important share of grain exports. Notably, this advantage must be kept. While Russia prepares its advancements on land, Ukraine could still lose its Black Sea coast.

Not to mention that Russia is threatening the international rules-based system. Consider the discussion around nuclear power. At the start of the conflict, Moscow constantly threatened the use of nuclear weapons. After backing off somewhat, the subject has returned – this time in space. (To be clear, the use of space-based nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict is dubious; in theory, Russia could take out satellites without nukes, and a nuclear explosion in orbit would hurt Russia and its allies as much as it would hurt Ukraine.)

Taken together, this increases the risk that the conflict will spread, particularly in the Black Sea region. In Russia’s best-case scenario, in which Western aid to Ukraine decreases and Russia achieves its maximalist objectives on the ground, it would still be worse off diplomatically, economically and strategically than before the war. Its aggression has already alarmed its neighbors, even ones that were neutral during the Cold War. Russia needs to discourage them from building coalitions against it – and especially from joining NATO.

With the strategic balance now tipped against it, Russia seriously needs to find ways to undermine NATO’s solidarity regardless of the outcome in Ukraine. One option could be a deliberate, small-scale Russian military attack on a NATO member. To maximize the strain on the alliance in such a scenario, Moscow would target something with minimal effect on the strategic interests of the rest of NATO. This would force the alliance to choose between retaliating against Russia and risking a major conflict, or downplaying the attack and destroying the credibility of the alliance’s commitment to collective security – potentially inviting more attacks as well.

For the West, the cohesion of both NATO and the EU is paramount. Elections, particularly in the U.S. but also in Europe, will give Moscow an opportunity to increase its influence and try to divide these organizations. They will also prod Western politicians to stake out clearer positions and highlight differences on contentious issues like Ukraine and national defense. Europe faces a particularly fierce debate on guns versus butter. Defense spending on the Continent will rise either way, boosting the European weapons industry and supporting jobs and growth, but many governments will be under public pressure to prioritize other parts of the economy and society. These debates and the risk of public protests will be fertile ground for the Kremlin’s information operations.

Antonia Colibasanu is Senior Geopolitical Analyst at Geopolitical Futures and Senior Fellow for Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

This article was originally published on Geopolitical Futures.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.