Paving the Way for a European Security Formula

Increased defense spending by European NATO countries and US leadership in ensuring a common NATO defense strategy in Europe are not new theses in geopolitical discourse. As early as the 1970s, Henry Kissinger actively reminded the US European partners in NATO of the need to increase their defense spending, emphasizing the role of the United States as the main strategist among NATO members. 

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Polish President Andrzej Duda added another component to this European security formula: Ukraine’s membership in NATO. 

Duda’s mention of this is not accidental, as his proposal to increase NATO’s minimum defense spending requirements to 3% of GDP is more about concern over the security situation in Europe as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a reason to rally European NATO members. At the same time, 3% of GDP still raises doubts as to whether it is enough to form a reliable conventional deterrence against Russia. It is worth recalling that during the Second World War, US defense spending (1944) amounted to 43% of GDP, and during the Korean War, about 13.8%

The mention of the United States as the main strategist and leader of the alliance is intended to remind some European leaders who have recently made statements hinting at their ability to perform leadership functions in the alliance, here we are talking about Macron, that it is the United States that has successfully provided nuclear deterrence to its main opponent, first the USSR and then Russia, since the creation of NATO in 1949. 

Can France replace the United States by offering nuclear deterrence to Russia with its own nuclear capabilities? This is doubtful, and it is unlikely that Macron is ready for an open dialogue as a nuclear deterrent to Russia, as France is ready to provide. Its nuclear weapons arsenal is far inferior to that of the United States. 

Duda probably also has doubts about France’s capability, otherwise, in the summer of 2023, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked France, not the United States, to deploy nuclear weapons, namely nuclear bombs, on Polish territory. Obviously, the question of France’s ability to replace the American nuclear umbrella in Europe with a French one has never been on the agenda of NATO partners.

It is also worth asking the residents of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey, where US nuclear bombs are deployed and serviced by US F35 aircraft, whether these countries are ready for a change of NATO’s strategist and leader, and thus the withdrawal of US nuclear bombs from their territory. Residents of Germany and the Netherlands answered this question in a 2022 survey: No, US nuclear bombs should remain in their countries because they are a reliable security tool. This means that the demand of European citizens for US strategic leadership in the alliance and the main security guarantor in Europe remains relevant today.

In 2023, Michal OndercoMichal Smetana, and Tom W. Etienne addressed attitudinal change in Europe through surveying the same respondents in both Germany and the Netherlands at two time points—one before the war, in September 2020, and one during the war, in June 2022. They compared how the public attitudes towards nuclear weapons changed in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The number of German respondents who are convinced of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons increased by 14 percentage points (from 40 per cent to 54 per cent) for deterrence against non-nuclear attacks, and by an even more substantial 23 percentage points (from 36 per cent to 59 per cent) for deterrence against nuclear attacks. In the Netherlands, the increase is much smaller, but still substantial, with an eight-percentage-point increase for both deterrence against non-nuclear attacks and deterrence against nuclear attacks. Importantly, more than half of the respondents in both the Netherlands and Germany are now convinced that the stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory deters nuclear attacks on other NATO countries.

President Duda was quite frank when he included Ukraine’s membership in NATO in the European security formula, probably hinting at the urgency of filling the security vacuum in Europe created by Ukraine’s “suspended” geopolitical status. “Over the 32 years of independence, the Ukrainian government has made many mistakes. This includes the long-standing pursuit of the idea of “neutrality” in relations between Western countries and Russia, which left Ukraine as a buffer zone and tempted Russia to commit aggression”, this point of view is already obvious to the leaders of many European countries. 

An article by Steven Pifer written in 2011 discloses the essence of the issue of Ukraine and NATO through the nuclear disarmarment of Ukraine in the 1990s: “After the Trilateral Statement and Budapest Memorandum were signed, implementation proceeded relatively smoothly. By June 1, 1996, Ukraine had transferred the last of the nuclear warheads on its territory to Russia for elimination, and the last START I-accountable strategic nuclear delivery vehicle, an SS-24 missile silo, was eliminated in 2001. More broadly, Ukraine’s denuclearization opened the way to an expanded US-Ukrainian bilateral relationship. Among other things, by the end of the 1990s, Ukraine was among the top recipients in the world of US assistance. Denuclearization also removed what would have been a major impediment to Ukraine’s development of relations with Europe. In 1997, NATO and Ukraine agreed to a “distinctive partnership” and established the NATO-Ukraine Council.” 

Recently, we see that Ukraine’s denuclearization, accompanied with the lack of a firm intention of NATO to invite Ukraine in a short-run, opened the way to the Russia invasion of Ukraine. Such sort of geopolitical experiment toward Ukraine in the 1990s just postponed, but not resolved the tragedy – the 2014 Russia annexation of Crimea and the 2022 Russia invasion of Ukraine. 

President Duda is making a statement about Ukraine’s NATO membership in unison with the Ukrainian population, whose attitude is clear: Ukrainians want to see Ukraine in NATO. Whereas in 1997 a minority (37 per cent) of Ukrainians supported Ukraine’s membership in NATO, in 2023 almost 90 percent of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine should be in NATO.

In August 2016, three months before the presidential elections, Vice President Biden published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration. At that time, Vice President Biden addressed his message to the US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Foreign policy, where the US faced the growing challenges, was the main component of that address.

In 2016 Vice President Biden advised to deter Russia but it’s absolutely not clear how this advice relates to Ukraine. It seems that he missed out on resolving the fundamental issues of regional security related to Ukraine, which had echoed from the early 90s. He described the role of two variables of European security formula – defense spending in Europe and the leadership role of the United States. The third variable – Ukraine’s perspective in NATO had not been mentioned by him at all.

President Duda’s mention of the United States is not accidental, as it is the United States that has the strategic initiative in NATO on the issue of enlargement, and thus the fate of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. So, now the responsibility for this issue is in the hands of President Biden. How does President Biden see the security architecture in Europe in 2024? When and under what circumstances will Ukraine join NATO and when and under what circumstances will it receive an invitation? Will it be during President Biden’s term, or will this issue be inherited by the next US president? The answers to these questions are not simple, but one thing is clear: the time for a public and certain answer to these questions has come.

[Photo by the White House, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Alexander Kostyuk serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Corporate Ownership and Control journal. He is also the Director of Virtus Interpress, based in Ukraine. In addition to his editorial roles, Dr. Kostyuk has held professorial positions at several esteemed institutions, including the Ukrainian Academy of Banking from 2009 to 2018, the Hanken School of Economics in 2011-2012, and the University of Nuremberg in 2013. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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