Student report explores implications of the Russia-Ukraine War on Europe and EU strategic autonomy

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Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Brussels School of Governance M.A. Class of 2021-22
Brussels School of Governance M.A. Class of 2021-22

Brussels School of Governance M.A. Class of 2021-22

On a visit to Friends of Europe in July, students from Vesalius College Brussels presented a working report on the war in Ukraine. Entitled Two birds one stone: supporting Kyivs’s fight against Russian aggression and advancing EU strategic autonomy’, the final report has now been published as the result of a capstone project supervised by Elie Perot, Programme Director and PhD Researcher, and Jamie Shea, Distinguished Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

Strengthening Ukraine’s defence and utilising the European Union’s strategic autonomy will be of critical importance to bringing an end to the war, as outlined in the report’s introduction:

Six months from the Russian invasion in February, the European continent is undergoing waves of political shifts. In Ukraine, a war of attrition is dragging on longer and longer, while in the European Union, political decisions are being taken to aid Ukraine in its defence alongside taking economic actions against Russia. The EU is being tested on its ability to not only defend a democratic neighbour in a war of self defence, but also its ability to do so in a united and autonomous manner. With a difficult winter ahead as member states search for new energy sources and the Ukrainian resistance continues to fight, the EU should focus on continuing to aid the defence of Ukraine. At the same time, the Union must promote its own strategic autonomy in its ability to take its own political decisions on issues such as energy, sanctions, and humanitarian assistance, and lastly, on promoting liberal, democratic values in all of its actions.

EU strategic autonomy was first described by the Council of the European Union as the capacity “to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible” (Council of the EU, 2016). This is a concept with more implications than it might seem, as it does not only mean launching its own military and civilian operations (operational autonomy), but also being able to take its own security decisions (political autonomy) and building the capabilities for doing so (industrial autonomy) (Kempin and Kunz, 2017).

The rationale for prioritising the sanctioning of Russian gas and oil is due to the EU’s political autonomy. From this point on, the EU must not allow a single country, especially an aggressive one such as Russia, to ensure the plurality of its energy sources and must drastically abate the dependence on Russian gas and oil. Therefore, focusing on reducing EU dependency on Russian gas and oil is at the heart of EU strategic autonomy, as well as being a main tool of economically harming the Russian war machine.

“Any liberalism worth its name should support and defend individual dissent and resistance against oppressive and dictatorial governments, not punish those unfortunate enough to find themselves living under such regimes” (Mulder, 2022:18).

The EU must take such decisions while advocating for liberal, democratic values. These very values form the basis for the aid of Ukraine. The liberal obligation of the EU is to take a punitive stance towards the actions of the Russian government under Vladimir Putin, while not taking actions which will cause excessive suffering for Russian civilians. For this reason, sanctions should remain targeted with the main objective of bringing an end to the current war in Ukraine, but also hindering the Russian government’s ability to wage a war of this nature again.

Resulting from the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the European Peace Facility (EPF) instrument is being deployed to send lethal weapons and equipment to support Ukraine’s efforts in defending their homeland. This has been a united response by the EU in working together to ensure the ability of Ukraine to defend itself. As the war becomes a protracted war of attrition, the EU should continue to increase its military aid to Ukraine. The war in Ukraine threatens the democratic future of the country as well as the stability of the European continent. Therefore, ensuring Ukraine’s survival and maintaining its territorial sovereignty is the most important priority.

Military aid is not the only component to aiding the Ukrainian people, nor is it the only area in which the EU can act strategically. Multiple EU member states border the country and are receiving the first wave of refugees. The EU should ensure a steady, integrated plan for accepting, integrating, and protecting these refugees. This should also be an opportunity for the EU to extend this aid to ENP countries also accepting Ukrainians, such as Moldova and Georgia. Working with these partners further promotes the EU’s democratic and humanitarian values and norms within its neighbourhood.

The policy recommendations will thus focus on defending Ukraine and employing EU strategic autonomy in the areas of military aid, humanitarian aid, and implementing a targeted and effective sanctions regime.

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