Europe lacks leverage in the face of rising tensions over Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols along a position on the front line with eastern rebels not far from Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine. Fears are growing of an escalation of conflict in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been fighting rebels since 2014. Photo: AFP

Last weekend, many people in the United States and Europe were worried that the “first war of 2022” would break out on the Russian-Ukrainian border. To make matters worse, the US State Department issued a travel warning to Americans, and the US and some European countries began supplying arms to Ukraine. Additionally, the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier strike group has planned to conduct a full-scale NATO naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, starting Jan. 24.

There remain differences between the United States and Europe on how to resolve the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine. US President Joe Biden has publicly admitted at a press conference on his administration’s first anniversary that there are differences within NATO over how to respond to the “minor incursion” of Russia.

Biden’s statement has been hotly debated because not only does it deeply hurt Ukraine, but it also exposes the rift within NATO, particularly between the United States and its European allies. The Biden administration, largely failing in domestic affairs, wanted to use its “success” in bringing together the transatlantic alliance as a culmination of its political achievements, but it ended up being botched.

To be sure, most European countries rely heavily on US-led NATO to provide security, which is unlikely to fundamentally change in the foreseeable future. As a result, Europe follows or submits to the United States in many ways, whether it likes it or not.

Europe is counting on the United States to take the initiative to solve the security problems it faces. Therefore, Europe is happy to see Biden come to power after the 2020 US election. After all, the four years under the Trump administration have been torment for Europe. A derailed United States, in any case, will be difficult to trust in Europe.

When Biden declared “America is back,” some Europeans, pro-American factions in particular, felt happy and transatlantic relations seemed to have warmed for a while. However, Europeans have always been a little nervous because no one knows if the Biden administration will become a “lame duck” after the midterm elections, or if Trump will make a comeback.

Although the United States and Europe share common interests, fundamental differences still exist in their strategic objectives. The hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last year and its betrayal of Europe by concluding an AUKUS security pact with the UK and Australia are still fresh in Europe’s memory. The United States wants to push Europe to the fore to contain Russia so that it can shift its focus and energy to the Asia-Pacific.

However, despite the contradictions with Russia, Europe, in general, does not want to have direct confrontations with Russia, nor does it want to become a victim of competition from the great world powers.

The Ukrainian crisis, which is increasingly becoming a hot potato, is on Europe’s doorstep. Europeans are right to be worried, but they have no say. This can be observed from the order of three security dialogues with Russia held this month. The first was between the United States and Russia, the second between NATO and Russia, and the last between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Russia. It seems that Europe is in a bit of a delicate position.

It is imperative for Europe to seek strategic autonomy, but it is quite difficult to obtain. It is debatable whether the United States will allow Europe to gain autonomy at the critical moment, or to what extent Europe’s strategic autonomy is allowed. After all, Europe has always been treated like a chess piece.

Of course, the biggest problem comes from inside Europe. EU members have different attitudes towards the Ukrainian crisis. How to achieve the autonomy of Europe if the European countries cannot even reach a consensus among themselves?

Judging by the current situation, Europe will continue to face a dilemma. And if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, Europe will be the first affected. So the Europeans have to take the initiative. A source told Reuters on Saturday that political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany will hold “Normandy format” talks in Paris on Tuesday.

If the “Normandy format” can be restarted successfully, the feeling of anxiety and internal conflict in Europe could be alleviated. But in the long term, Europeans must hold the key to the problem in their own hands.

The author is a professor at the School of International Relations of Beijing Foreign Studies University. [email protected]