CENUSA: Europe needs to reduce the risks of destabilisation in its eastern neighbourhood

CENUSA: Europe needs to reduce the risks of destabilisation in its eastern neighbourhood
It is important for the EU to use economic instruments to reduce the risks of destabilisation in its eastern neighbourhood, especially in the context of the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict and efforts to normalise relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. / bne IntelliNews
By Denis Cenusa in Giessen March 8, 2024

Reassessing the European Union's (EU) ability to autonomously defend itself against military threats from the east is becoming more and more urgent. Two years after the start of Russia's all-out war against Ukraine, it has become increasingly clear that both the EU and the United States are partners whose pro-Ukrainian consensus seems to reach limits when discussions touch on national interests in the electoral and/or financial sphere.

This dissonance at the Euro-Atlantic decision-making level favours Russia, which is preparing for new offensives in Ukraine in May. Any major setback for the Ukrainian defence effort this year would then affect the progress of election campaigns in both the United States and Europe.

The negative repercussions of the war in Ukraine are already and will be exploited by radical rightwing forces. The first test will be in the elections for the European Parliament from June 6 to 9, where it is estimated that the balance will tilt to the right .

The second test will be the US presidential elections, before which Russia has already been practically invited by Republican candidate Donald Trump to attack Nato states that do not pay 2% of GDP on defence. The prospect of a US presidency under Trump that favours transactional relations within Nato is a worrying sign for EU states, which need renewed and strengthened security guarantees that currently do not exist under the EU umbrella.

Meanwhile, the EU's southern neighbours have not calmed down. The situation in the Middle East remains in serious condition due to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip (2.2 million people at risk of starvation), which the Israeli leaders ignore and the EU and the US tolerate, eroding their international credibility.

Other hotspots in the eastern neighbourhood also generate uncertainty. This can be seen in the case of speculation about a possible "annexation" of the Transnistrian region in Moldova by Russia.

Another weak point in the eastern neighbourhood concerns existing tensions in Armenia's relations with Azerbaijan, where the EU mediation effort is apparently on pause due to Azerbaijan’s suspicions that that the EU is favouring Armenia. Germany has apparently decided to take on the role of (informal) mediator in the normalisation process of dialogue between Yerevan and Baku, but the prospects for this effort are as yet unclear.

In the central conflict in Ukraine, the current White House administration is still trying to unlock $60 billion in American financial aid for Kyiv's military needs, which remains highly politicised.

More positively, the EU completed the decision-making procedures on the establishment of the new financing mechanism for Ukraine in the period 2024-27, with €50 billion (around 35% in the form of grants).

However, it is lagging behind in the supply of ammunition. Ukraine has tripled its domestic arms production, involving about 500 local companies active in the national defence sector (100 state-owned enterprises). Yet even if Germany plans to allocate around €7 billion to help the Ukrainian army this year, the problem is in the production and delivery of ammunition at the European level, which will be increased to meet European and Ukrainian demand no earlier than 2025.

At the same time, the enlargement of Nato to include Finland and Sweden generates a positive perception for regional security, as long as it is reinforced with practical measures (military exercises, presence of Nato troops, etc.).

Ursula von der Leyen's proposal to create a "defence" portfolio in the future College of Commissioners of the European Commission is also a step in the right direction, including the idea of appointing a representative of EU states to this position from the Eastern Flank.

However, to talk about collective defence in the EU, a synchronisation of actions at the level of the state (political) and the private sector (military industry) is needed. Currently, there are around 2,000 European military companies, of which seven have registered total revenues of more than €40 billion in 2022, and four on this list are French. This explains why French President Emmanuel Macron for some time opposed the proposal to purchase ammunition for Ukraine from non-European third countries.

The latter showed that even in crisis situations, a country's individual economic interests can still replace strategic thinking for the benefit of the common European interest. Even if ammunition production within the EU increased by approximately 40% from 2021, this pace is insufficient to supply the EU and Ukraine.

Some positive trends in intra-European military cooperation emerge from the 236 proposals in the EU’s new defence plan.  The post-2023 funding of around €1.2 billion for the European Defence Fund (created in 2021) represents an increase of more than 70% in 2023 compared to 2022.

Nonetheless, the recent scandal related to the leak of sensitive information on assistance to Ukraine from within German military levels creates risks for future goals of greater intra-European military cooperation. For this reason, in addition to increasing military production power in the EU, it is imperative to combat mistrust between allies by identifying and eliminating integrity gaps within Nato and the EU military regarding enemy espionage attempts.

On the Eastern Flank, the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – demonstrate a higher level of awareness of Russian threats. If events in Ukraine lead to a "freeze" of the war or an "artificial peace" and Trump becomes the US president who disarms Nato, then the Baltic countries risk becoming targets of future eventual waves of Russian territorial revisionism.

The Eastern flank states consider that a greater Nato presence in the region is essential to avoid scenarios of invasion of the Baltic countries by Russia. The three Nato states and the EU are also determined to invest at least €60 million to build a line of fortifications against a possible ground attack initiated by Russia.

The thinking and strategic preparedness offered by the Baltic states must be applied and replicated on the EU's eastern border.

Outside the EU,  it is important for the EU to use economic instruments to reduce the risks of destabilisation in its eastern neighbourhood, especially in the context of the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict and efforts to normalise relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Although candidate states for EU accession (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) or countries from the region where EU missions are deployed (including Armenia) can develop defence cooperation with the EU, they remain in a zone of insecurity where Russia can intervene minimally in a hybrid way.

The least the EU can do is clarify its own potential to resolve the Transnistrian conflict, where separatist actors can be drawn into reintegration processes through a combination of incentives and constraints, capitalising on their current isolation caused by the war in Ukraine.

Additionally, the EU must use the lessons learned in Ukraine and Moldova to more effectively manage the situation in the separatist regions of Georgia. Security risks in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan must also be eliminated by involving both nations in investment projects related to the "Middle Corridor", which is possible in exchange for the definitive normalisation of relations, with mutual recognition of borders.

Denis Cenusa is an Associate Expert at Think-Tank EESC in Lithuania and Moldova, and a PhD candidate at Justus-Liebig-Universität in Germany. He tweets @DionisCenusa.