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Europe and the Ukraine War’s Challenges

Europe and the Ukraine War’s Challenges

Saturday, 26 March, 2022 - 11:45
Dr. Nassif Hitti
Former Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs

After the Cold War, the feeling in Europe was that war ended would mean the end of the division that had split the continent between East and West, symbolized by the Berlin Wall, too. The victorious West, it had been assumed, would expand to reach Russia’s borders. This sentiment was, of course, fortified by NATO’s expansion, which saw many countries (14) that had been part of the Soviet Union or in its sphere of influence join the alliance.

Similarly, the European Union’s expansion, through its policy of integrating new members in stages, saw several Eastern European countries join. However, the first signs of a clash were seen in the summer of 2008 with the Russo-Georgian War, as Russia was retrieving what it considers its historic place in the world as a great power, regardless of the type of regime governing in Moscow or the heading it gives this rule in its direct sphere of influence. This war introduced Russia’s “stop” policy vis a vis the “strategic West.” Russia was back to playing the role of a great power and felt ready for everything this role implies. Crises recurred, and Russia flexed its military muscle in the European strategic theater, especially in Eastern Europe.

The French Minister of Economy summed up the economic repercussions of the first phase of the Ukrainian war with a warning that European countries, including his, are facing stagflation, albeit to divergent degrees. He pointed out that the current energy crisis “is as grave as the oil shock of 1973.”

The sanctions being imposed on Russia by Europe today have left the Europeans asking themselves: Should we continue to depend on Russia for energy supply in the future? Regardless of the answer, which has not yet matured, the search for alternatives to Russian energy, especially gas, is underway in the United States and in Western Europe. The search has begun in the Gulf with a focus on Qatar, one of the largest natural gas producers in the globe, and the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as other places around the world, are envisaged as potential suppliers in the future. Meanwhile, despite the sanctions, Germany warns that it cannot do without oil imports from Russia.

Europe is providing Ukraine militarily “support-” financial assistance allocated mainly for the purchase of weapons, in addition to military aid from European countries. NATO does not want to implicate itself in the Ukrainian war. Nonetheless, on the other hand, the European position, like that of NATO, is to refuse to impose a no-fly zone in the theater of war because it would inevitably lead to a clash with Russia and dangerous escalation, possibly even a direct war with the latter.

As well as the ongoing efforts to engage with Russia, especially by France and Germany, to compel it to de-escalate and search for solutions, Europe continues to warn Moscow, regardless of the effect these threats have on Russia’s stance. For its part, Russia sees this war as a way to negotiate on the ground, not with Ukraine per se, but the “West” as a whole, with the aim of advancing its vital national security interests.

One of the messages Europe is sending was conveyed in the Informal Meeting of the Heads of State or Government held in Versaille between March 10 and 11. At the Meeting, the need to enhance Europe’s defensive capabilities was emphasized- a strategy that falls within the framework of an objective that France had always supported but never managed to make a reality, building a European defense force.

The summit also called for enhancing economic cooperation within Europe and building a strong economic base. Such calls are not new to Europe, but in light of the war in Ukraine, they have become particularly significant. Another development is that the leaders of neutral countries like Sweden and Finland, which have adopted a form of neutrality particular to them, have been calling for their countries to join NATO and the provision of robust and broad military and non-military support to Ukraine.

One thing worth paying attention to is the prospect of new conflict zones in Europe that replicate the Ukrainian model in one way or another. Calls for secession- and eventually becoming part of Serbia, of course- by the Serbian minority in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina- have been growing louder. The same thing is happening in Georgia, where the region of South Ossetia, which Moscow recognizes as an independent state, is moving in the direction of actually splitting from Georgia. Other projects for war in Eastern Europe over varying disputes contribute to creating more open-ended conflicts that raise the specter of wars and foreign interventions of varying pretexts in what used to be the Soviet sphere of influence.

Ukraine declaring its neutrality, following the Finnish Cold War neutrality model or maybe even the Swedish model, which goes further, has almost certainly become a requisite for any political solution. Given its strategic military significance, Russia also wants to retrieve the Crimean peninsula, which it controls de facto. Indeed, the Russians consider it to have been a “gift” given by the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who transferred it from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine in 1954 as part of his effort to get the Soviet house in order…

The North Atlantic- US- European West and Russia’s struggle to rearrange or re-divide spheres of influence in Eastern Europe will shape the global agenda. That has an array of implications for the “European strategic theater,” and these repercussions will continue to be felt until the big players come to an understanding. Until then, the ramifications of this war will continue to pile up, as will the crises it has created around the world.

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