24 February 2022

Russian aggression in Ukraine from a European point of view

On the night between 23 and 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine: the most feared outcome for those who were watching with growing concern the past weeks’ tensions. At the dawn of this event, we invited two geopolitical experts to give their comments. 

During a meeting of Ambrosetti Club, we discussed about the role of NATO in European Defence with Stefano Pontecorvo, former Senior Civilian Representative of NATO in Afghanistan, and about the Russia-US relationships with Lucio Caracciolo, Director of the geopolitical magazine Limes, during a meeting of our Permanent Update Service.

While commenting a map of Limes, Caracciolo stressed that, despite its considerable size, Russia feels surrounded: it is subjected to the pressure of jihadists from the southwest; China from the southeast;  Japan, which contends for the archipelago of the Kuril islands; and of course the NATO, which has members on the European and North American front. NATO's  eastwards expantion, which has gradually garnered support from almost all former Soviet republics, has always been viewed with hostility by the Kremlin, particularly as it began to affect its last buffer state, Ukraine, although no official proposal has been made in this regard.

Pontecorvo has instead asserted that «Europe is in fact divided in blocks». Geopolitical analysts often criticize this approach, which implies a serious lack of analysis and shared intelligence. The common denominator of European foreign policy is the inability to take a cohesive position. In the crisis in Ukraine, the disagreements in foreign and energy policy play a relevant role; an example is the clash between Macron’s ambitions for strategic autonomy and the more cautious approach of German Chancellor Scholz. For this reason, no preventive action to achieve energy autonomy from Russia has been made in the last ten years, although it has been clear that this would have kept affecting international political moves.

NATO is one of the bodies the EU collaborates with. The EU intervenes directly in several countries of the world, with both civilian and military missions. For example, the European Advisory Mission (EUAM) has been active in Ukraine since 2014, while the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) was launched in 2005. 

Occasionally, the issue of a European Defence emerges at EU summits, but the calls for a common strategy have so far fallen on deaf ears: this issue is strictly related to national policies and the sovereignty of the Member States. Current geopolitical tensions, of which the Ukrainian crisis is only the latest manifestation, are, however, reorienting political decision-makers towards the need of greater collaboration.

According to Pontecorvo, «NATO-EU collaboration is not easy to be made», but in this new context it has a great relevance. He added that «if NATO continues to be the reference in the military area, the European Union will be able to play a leading role on the other components of security», through its various bodies, such as the European Defence Agency (EDA).

He added that «the crisis that arose in Ukraine will be transformative for the EU, having established a political awareness and a sense of urgency hitherto latent». The «barbaric attack» condemned by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, could contribute to the creation of a real European Defence.

Pontecorvo concluded by observing that warfare has changed. «The threat is no more conventional, it has become hybrid and wars are no longer limited to military confrontation». Since the capture of Crimea in 2014, Russian actions have been those of a hybrid warfare, leveraging economy, politics, information and technological tools to destabilize a country or region. «A hybrid threat must be faced with a hybrid response», the expert reiterated, and this requires a shared effort from all EU Member States and their allies.

In the past hours, European leaders have been discussing a package of massive sanctions that would target the nerve points of Russian economy. The EU’s intention is to block access to technologies and markets that are fundamental to Russia, to undermine the Kremlin’s ability to finance war. This will be achieved, for example, by freezing Russian assets on European territory and blocking Russian banks' access to European financial markets. «As with the first package of sanctions – commented President von der Leyen – we are aligned with our partners and allies: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, but also, for example, Japan and Australia.» 

66% of the participants in the meeting with Lucio Caracciolo approve the choice to sanction Russia, deemed «a matter of principle», while 23% think that in this case «sanctions are not needed» and the remaining claim that it is not yet necessary. Among the worries that emerged through the poll delivered during the meeting, the major concern was related to the impact on European economies and energy supply (72%). 16% fear Italy’s involvement in a war, since the country hosts several US-NATO bases, and 6% worry about a new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. With regards to Ukraine, most respondents are certain that it will remain a ground of indirect conflict between the United States and Russia, while the others believe that it will eventually return to the role of a "neutral buffer state". Moreover, the majority agrees that the chances of Ukraine joining NATO after this escalation are very low.