24 May 2022

A strategic view on the war in Ukraine

The war is in full swing and looks set to last for a while. The outcome is uncertain, but Russia has certainly failed in its main goal: to deprive the invaded country of the ability to manage its own identity. Nonetheless, it may still be able to occupy slices of Ukrainian territory permanently, enough to be able to declare victory. Be that as it may, now the time has come, after overcoming the initial shock and the immediate response measures in terms of economic sanctions on Russia and aid to Ukraine, to think about the long term.

Three strategic issues are of primary importance in light of the ongoing tragedy: the consequences for the European Union, the repercussions on the role of nuclear weapons and the future of relations with Russia. On these issues a reflection is urgently needed for the long term, beyond current events, in order to be ready to act deliberately, and not emotionally, when the conflict ends. This reflection is lacking so far.

European Union

What are the strategic implications of the conflict for the EU? The first is that security in Europe can no longer be taken for granted, as too many thought after the end of the Cold War, and that we must return to focus our attention on it. One cannot think only of trade and cultural exchanges, because, sos did common wisdom suggest, the time of wars had passed.

In the first place, therefore, when the guns are silent we will not be able to go back to doing everything as before. For decades we have believed, I for one, that creating interdependence with potential adversaries would foster mutual interest in peace: my first research work after university, in 1982, was on the Urengoy pipeline that was being built to bring gas from the USSR to Western Europe, "piercing" the Iron Curtain. Europe built it against the opinion of the Reagan administration which instead claimed it was dangerous to create this dependence on Soviet supplies. (The Americans, however, were very ready to sell their raw materials to Moscow, starting with food.) Since then, the gas pipelines from the USSR / Russia to Europe have multiplied. I still believe that interdependence is the right, and perhaps obligatory, path for the future, but it seems obvious to me that it needs to be rethought through a greater diversification of energy sources and suppliers.

The second is that security costs money, which we have always known but which we have ignored in recent decades. In my opinion, Europe does not spend so little (the debate has been going on for decades, I will not get into it here) and in any case it can afford to do more. But it certainly spends unwisely because the economic effort is distributed in an inefficient way among 27 different armed forces, with obvious waste for fixed costs, imperfect standardization and interoperability, duplications, which could be eliminated if you had a European army, a European navy and a European aviation. Spending more without improving how you spend would not be an efficient use of resources. And I come to the third point.

The third strategic consequence of the Ukrainian conflict for Europe is that from a political, economic and military point of view the current conflict affects the Union as a whole. The pipelines all start from Russia but, apart from Nord Stream which goes straight to Germany, the others supply various member states. And in any case, gas is a fungible resource. If France is more protected by its nuclear power plants, while Italy and Germany remain more dependent on gas pipelines with Russia, all countries are suffering from the upheavals and inflationary effects of the current crisis on the energy market. There are no safe member states. More generally, if Poland and Romania are on the border of the armed confrontation, the repercussions clearly affect even more distant states such as Portugal and Ireland.

And therefore it is the Union as a whole that must take charge of the defense of the member states, always in coordination with the transatlantic allies in NATO but with autonomous capabilities. Two events of last year, the creation of the AUKUS and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, decided unilaterally by the USA, make this conclusion even more evident.

Brexit has removed one of the main obstacles to the creation of a common European defense, as the British were always opposed to any initiative that could create even the impression of a European defense capability independent of the USA. Besides, for the United Kingdom and the United States the link among the Five Eyes (USA, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) has always been more important than that with NATO allies.

The war in Ukraine should remind us of the urgency of proceeding with the institutionalization of European security. It's obvious, at least it is to me, that the European link with the US in NATO should remain, but on a more balanced if not exactly equal level. A bit like today's relationship between the euro and the dollar, the the European Central Bank vis-à-vis the Federal Reserve.

The history of the euro gives us a useful trace: some countries start, others follow and those that do not follow remain outside, marginalized. Today the governments of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which happen to be in political sync on the subject, could create the core of the common defense. Perhaps, after his re-election, Macron, free from constraints during his last term, will be more active.

This must also be true in the field of nuclear deterrence: Macron's France is pro-European, but it stops when we talk seriously about common defense and in particular about nuclear arms. In reality, there is no conceivable scenario in which France is threatened to the point that the national deterrent would become relevant without the other countries of the Union being threatened at the same time. It will be said that no country, and in particular France, an EU nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, would give up national sovereignty in the matter, to pool it into European sovereignty. But it was also accepted wisdom for years that Germany would never give up the Deutsche Mark. Germany did, and France should.

Nuclear weapons

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Kremlin has launched not so veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, although statements have remained predictably vague as to how, against which targets and why. Assuming that this use does not occur, we should still rethink the role of nuclear weapons for the future. It could be argued that the rationale for owning a nuclear arsenal is strengthened: Western countries have gone to great pains since before the invasion to make it clear that they would not go to war with Russia over Ukraine. Biden almost shouted at the press conference: "We will not fight Russia over Ukraine." And this, it is not difficult to deduce, is because Russia, even if its armed forces are looking rather shambolic, is a nuclear superpower. And by the same reasoning it is likely that, if Russia had not had a nuclear arsenal in reserve, it would not have even attempted the Ukrainian adventure.

Perhaps someone in Ukraine regretted having renounced the nuclear weapons that the dissolving USSR had left on Ukrainian territory: if Kyiv had kept them perhaps today there would be no war in the country. It is a false question: those weapons were indeed on Ukrainian territory, but always under strict control of the Russians, and the KGB in particular. But the Ukrainians could have built their own, and they didn't. In return, they received empty promises of support for their independence and territorial integrity from Russia, the US and the UK.

What if Russia, humiliated on the ground by the Ukrainian army rearmed by the West, finally decides to launch some nuclear weapons against the Ukrainians? It would be a bizarre decision, given that Putin keeps saying on TV that Ukrainians are brothers who need to be freed from a ruling Nazi clique, but Putin has accustomed us to bizarre decisions. At that point what to do? A Western nuclear response, which could only be an American retaliation, would not be rational.

If the US responded with nuclear weapons, it would create a completely new situation: a NATO country that uses the extreme weapon not to protect its own survival, and not even that of an allied country, but of a third country, even if a friendly one. And what could these weapons be used against? Presumably not against Ukrainian territory, since the aim is to defend Ukraine, not destroy it. Maybe against Russian ships bombarding from the Black Sea? Perhaps, even if given the humiliating end of the Moskva it doesn't seem it would be necessary. Maybe then against targets on Russian territory? And if so, what would stop the Russians from responding against the Americans, perhaps first against US bases in Europe, as a foretaste and harbinger of an attack on US territory? Those who think they can control this type of escalation are deluding themselves, illustrious experts have tried for decades and never came up with a plausible scenario.

I am not in favor of NATO's nuclear disarmament, but in this Ukrainian crisis I see no conceivable scenarios that make a rationally useful use of these weapons conceivable. So we might as well say it right away, maybe it could help lower the tension. There is always time to change our mind, if the situation changes.

Another point is the impact of the ongoing war on nuclear proliferation (the spread of nuclear weapons to additional new countries): a potentially proliferating country right now sees that owning nuclear weapons pays off, so it has more incentives to get them. Instead, defeating Russia without using these weapons, even if Russia uses them, would be the best way to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

Relations with Russia

At the cost of looking inappropriate, given the tragic nature of the moment, I think it is not premature to start thinking about how to set up relations between the West and Russia at the end of the war. All wars end and then one has to think about how to build peace. Better to think about it before and be ready when the time comes.

At the end of the war, Russia will still be there, even if I don't think Putin will stay at the helm for long. We are talking about 145 million people, the largest country in the world, full of raw materials of all kinds and an important market for our products. A nation of great culture that perhaps suffers from the fact it did not participate in either the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation, two elements of great progress and emancipation in Central and Western Europe. Thinking of isolating Russia in the long run would certainly be counterproductive and probably impossible, especially for Europe.

On the economic side, giving up Russian raw materials would be very difficult. The Financial Times wonders if Europe can be weaned from Russian gas and concludes: "With the contents of the EU plans spanning from plausible to wildly unrealistic, many energy experts warn that painful last resorts - energy rationing and blackouts this winter - are a near inevitability if Europe is truly serious about kicking its Russian gas habit. "

And in any case, a literal cut of the Russian gas pipelines would only put Europe in the hands of other suppliers who are not necessarily more reliable. As we develop renewables and rethink nuclear power plants, caution would like us to be careful about cutting off with Russia altogether. Even Janet Yellen, Minister of the Treasury of Biden, told the Financial Times that "Medium term, Europe clearly needs to reduce its dependence on Russia with respect to energy, but we need to be careful when we think about a complete European ban on say, oil imports. "

Giving up the Russian market would also have a recessive economic effect, as Russia is a significant outlet for European products. And then we would risk alienating more than has already happened not so much the regime as the Russian people. In the past decades, western hostility towards Russia (partly real, partly amplified by the Moscow propaganda) has diminished the enthusiasm that the Russians had for the West immediately after the dissolution of the USSR. The consequences of this would hardly benefit the West, and in particular Europe, even after Putin. It would be a paradox if a more democratic Russia became more anti-European at the same time.

On the political side, if we look at the teaching of history, we should think of Germany, defeated in two world wars: after the first it was humiliated, mistreated, vilified, above all isolated, and the conditions were created for the rise of Nazism. After the second it was punished and even divided in two but immediately readmitted into the assembly of European and Western countries, suffice it to recall that West Germany was a founding member of the first European Community (Coal and Steel) in 1950, only 5 years after the defeat of Hitler, and after another 4 years she was admitted to NATO. East Germany, occupied by 22 divisions of the Red Army, was also included by the Soviets in the context of the Warsaw Pact and the Comecon. I think we need to think from today not so much whether, but how to integrate the future Russia in a context of European and international cooperation.

If we want to go a little further back in time, let's think of post-Napoleonic France: after Waterloo, once the aggressive dictator was sent to St. Helena and neutralized, France was immediately readmitted to the concert of nations and participated in the Congress of Vienna Congress in 1815, invited by Metternich and the other victors, and helped to create a new order in Europe which ensured, more or less, a century of peace. We can only hope that a new Talleyrand will emerge in Russia: first a priest, then a revolutionary, then Napoleon's right arm and finally minister of restoration. He was not a champion of consistency but he served the purpose of reintegrating France into Europe.

The global situation must also be taken into account. Bismarck used to say that when you have two adversaries, your relations with each of them must not be worse than those they have with each other. Simple political arithmetic. Today, China must be taken into account, and increasingly India. Nixon (skilfully led by Kissinger) understood this well, and went to Beijing to meet Mao and re-establish relations, despite the fact that the two were politically poles apart and Mao was guilty of horrendous crimes. And at the same time Nixon and Kissinger negotiated détente with the Soviets, over disarmament and trade, and the US and the USSR even sent the first astronauts together into space on a historic joint mission.

The US today does not apply Bismarck's teaching, nor does it follow Nixon's example. For thirty years, perhaps in an effort to remain the world's only superpower, as it actually was for a short time after the Cold War, it puts pressure on Russia and China simultaneously, with the result of pushing them into each other's arms. London will follow Washington, as it always does, but the European Union must be careful. As I said above, the fact of being divided weakens us, vis-à-vis the Russians and the Chinese but also in negotiating a common position with the Americans. Washington doesn't take Brussels seriously because, as Kissinger said decades ago, "if I want to talk to Europe, what telephone number should I call?" (The modest Borrel, who adorned with the pompous title of EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, has no influence, let alone power.)

It would be a colossal mistake to continue to help consolidate an axis between Moscow and Beijing. And to prevent this from happening, it will be necessary to make some compromises with both, while holding on to vital issues (Ukrainian sovereignty, Taiwan) and avoiding to embark on a counterproductive and futile campaign of isolation against both of them at the same time. Also, it will be necessary to diligently cultivate relations with India, a country in great economic and demographic growth, which is also democratic but which will certainly never be willing to slavishly follow the West.