Enabling victory in Ukraine – military assistance and the new role of the EU
Feb 22, 2023
• Can Ukraine win, and if so, what does victory mean? • When is it possible, and appropriate, for one or several actors to seek to enable a state to win in a military conflict? • Is the EU an international actor that can and should contribute to this in addition to extensive sanctions? • What does this mean for the security policy of EU member states?
Can Ukraine win, and if so, what does victory mean?
Ukraine may, at this point, be the West's second-strongest conventional military power after the United States. Therefore, according to several military experts, many of the necessary conditions in Ukraine as a recipient of military assistance may exist for restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity - as long as the war does not escalate to the level of weapons of mass destruction. But, as the NATO Secretary General has pointed out, this does not mean that the conditions are both necessary and sufficient. Ukraine needs extensive assistance.
At the same time, uncertain prospects in the war led Henry Kissinger to a fundamental and equally controversial observation in Davos in January 2023. He believed that Ukraine and the West had already achieved their strategic goals in the war and that it should soon be time for negotiations. Putin should have realized by now that an attack even on a state outside of alliances may lead to increased Western cohesion that prevents Russian victory.
At the same time, it is difficult to unambiguously define what would be required for a total Ukrainian victory. Many would probably argue that it is up to Ukraine, which is fighting for its survival, to define these requirements, which has partly already happened in a document published under the name The Kyiv Security Compact. For the time being, many observers and state leaders avoid taking a position on the matter but consider it their duty to assist Ukraine to victory – without further definition.
That this requires more than sanctions has become increasingly evident as sufficient, comprehensive effects of the sanctions still are not observed.
To help another state to victory in a military conflict
The historical record of attempts to influence the development of a regional conflict through military assistance is lined with failures. The Soviet Union saw 20,000 military advisers expelled from Egypt in 1972. Still, US aid to Israel could not prevent the October War one year later. US efforts to help the South Vietnamese government to victory failed. The efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union over many years to influence Afghanistan's future had, in both cases, a dismal net effect. Helping another state to victory requires - to be unproblematic - a fundamental consensus between donors and recipients. In addition, the recipient must be able to use the aid, which requires a significant basic capacity from the start.
Today, as mentioned above, Ukraine is perhaps the strongest Western conventional military power after the United States. That, combined with real heroism on the part of the Ukrainian leadership and population, gives the state a unique opportunity to use Western military aid effectively, despite clearly recognized problems of corruption still existing after the internal upheavals over many decades.
As for the issue of consensus with the rest of the West, it is limited by the fact that Ukraine is fighting for its survival, and most Western states are not – yet.
This has led to a caution on the part of several donors. But with each passing day, this caution diminishes, and options for action become possible, which at an earlier stage of the war were considered too challenging. To a certain extent – perhaps to a large extent – this is due to Putin's provocations against the West.
The US has gone the furthest in the direction of mobilizing significant resources in support of Ukraine, despite mixed experiences with past aid programs in regional conflicts. For the US, military aid aimed at enabling a recipient to achieve its military objectives has become a major focus of security policy with – in the case of Ukraine – a budget that may exceed $100 billion in the period 2022 to 2023. That this volume impacts US stocks of ammunition, etcetera, in a very significant way is now openly debated. A renewed debate about the end use of delivered weapons is also underway, bringing back unpleasant questions from the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars when weapons not seldom showed up in the hands of the enemy. The problem has again started to be studied, for instance, by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI.
A strategic balancing act
That the current phase of international development still requires a security policy and domestic policy balancing act of extraordinary difficulty is shown not least by the debate about tanks and fighter aircraft in Ukraine and the agony the German state leadership continues to experience. In this process, as witnessed during the Munich security conference, the German Chancellor moved from being a very hesitant leader to a proactive proponent of urgent delivery of tanks to the battlefield.
Both the US and Germany have decided to deliver their most advanced tanks to Ukraine in the coming months, and so have other states possessing Leopard 2 and other sophisticated major battle tanks.
This speaks volumes for the strength of Ukrainian claims to sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom. Ukraine simply has international law on its side, and Western support for this is perceived as a duty already for Western self-defence.
Is the EU an international actor that can or should contribute to Ukrainian victory through military aid?
Sweden is currently in a unique situation as rotating chairman of an EU that has a far more important role for security in Europe than many could imagine before the aggression against Ukraine. This is not instead of NATO – through some form of strategic autonomy – but together with NATO and in close cooperation with the US.
The notion that Sweden, as the state holding the presidency of the EU, would have a role in designing and dimensioning the EU's military support to Ukraine is, from a historical perspective, remarkable.
But now we are there.
The EU's military aid to Ukraine exceeds 2.5 billion euros, still a small amount in comparison with, for instance, the flood of spending that the pandemic is causing – for Europe, in the long run, perhaps several thousand billion euros.
But the question still must be asked why the EU countries have taken the step to finance extensive military aid jointly.
The road to this point has been long. It began in the early 2000s when the Union established a so-called "African Peace Facility" to enable the African Union and regional cooperation organizations to carry out peacekeeping operations. It was obvious for a long time that this could not include weapons but had to be limited to training and aid other than weapons. Nevertheless, this policy was criticized for unduly influencing the African Union and contributing to repression that could lead to adverse side effects, such as radicalization into terrorism.
But as China and Russia increased their presence on the continent (for instance through the Wagnar Group in Mali) the resistance within the EU to establishing a more militarily oriented aid mechanism decreased. The new instrument was named the European Peace Facility. This instrument, with a budget exceeding EUR 5 billion for the current financial perspective, is now also used to finance EU military missions and some other common expenditure. The mechanism is administered by the EU Commission but is outside the actual EU budget and is governed by a member state committee.
This instrument has now gained significant principled and practical importance for several member states, for example, Poland. Poland has requested that the tanks it sends to Ukraine be partially financed by this mechanism. This broadens the responsibility for aid to all member states and the cost burden is distributed across the entire EU.
A method has thus been found to mobilize support for military action from across the EU in a way that can be considered highly innovative and, in the long run, significant for burden sharing in relation to NATO and the US. At the same time, one can expect many long and traumatic discussions in the European Council and the current committee before future unanimous decisions can be made.
It then remains to note that this development has led to a more visible role for the EU in military security policy that few could have imagined just a short while ago.
The development is not based on new treaty changes within the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon entered into force already in 2010. But the whole thing is an example that with political will and in a severe crisis, considerable efforts can be mobilized and financed within the EU system, even though this does not have a clear legal basis, according to some of the Union's lawyers.
The first step along this path was taken already in the beginning of the millennium when, against the opinion of the Council Secretariat's lawyers, it was decided that demining could be financed from the Union's community budget. In addition, the European Defence Agency was established in 2003, even though many believed that this would require a new treaty.
Over the years, the President of the European Commission has increasingly taken over the leadership in pushing forward more common EU policy in defense. The High Representative has increasingly come to be perceived as what he is, namely Vice President of the Commission.
It can be assumed that this process towards a more prominent role for the EU in security will continue but, at the same time, be hotly contested.
Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Internal Security, pointed out in a recent security policy conference at Sälen, a Swedish winter resort, noted that this partly follows on to the EU's efforts during the pandemic. Now Ukraine reinforces this trend, but without unrealistic overtones as regards the ambitions for European strategic autonomy. For the regional powers within the EU, it is an attractive prospect to mobilize support from the entire EU for efforts and for the financing of efforts that are in the self-interest of these great powers.
Consequences for Swedish security policy
The consequences of all this for Sweden's security policy within the framework of a new national security strategy are potentially significant. If the EU and NATO are to assist those who need help defending peace, freedom, and justice, it can lead to extensive, not only financial involvement but also a significant military and civilian presence abroad in the coming years. It will place considerable demands on interoperability in synergy with civil society and the business world.
(This article will later in a slightly different version be published in Swedish in the periodical Vårt Försvar)