international analysis and commentary

A Europe-led NATO to guarantee European security: the time has come


Since 2022, NATO has dealt with a novel phase in its history: a Russian war at its borders and the possibility of an attack on its members, while the future US trajectory oscillates between the Indo-Pacific and isolationism. On the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the Atlantic alliance should move towards a Europe-led approach, relying on tailored US support to ensure peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. This is, indeed, a much more viable option than boosting EU defense for political and military reasons.


The Russian threat in the medium term

During the Cold War, NATO witnessed Soviet armed repression in Eastern Europe, but not a large scale, high-intensity and prolonged war at it borders. In the 1990s, Moscow became a partner, until the 2022 invasion of Ukraine when the Alliance’s Strategic Concept assessed the Russia Federation as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” This novel situation is set to endure for a variety of reasons. After more than two years of war, leading to more than 355,000dead and wounded Russian soldiers, Putin’s regime looks politically solid, prone to continue the conflict, and able to draft tens of thousands of new conscripts and impose a war economy on the country. The domestic political opposition has been largely destroyed. Despite the huge human and material losses, due to the mobilization effort still underway, the Russian armed forces are now estimated to stand more or less at the pre-2022 status in terms of most capabilities. Furthermore, they have combat experience in peer-to-peer conventional war across the five operational domains that NATO militaries lack. As a result, Russia is able today, and will be able in the coming years, to threaten the security of at least some members of NATO.

However, is it willing to do so? In the West, there is a plurality of views in this regard. The most pacifist, optimistic or isolationist constituencies argue that all Moscow wanted was to prevent the transition of Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence, and that peace would come after a Russian victory. However, both Russian rhetoric and actions from 2007 onward have consistently aimed to reshape the European security architecture in favor of Russian interests, by breaking NATO and the EU, by pushing the US out of the Old Continent, and by returning to a sort of 19th century balance of power where Russia leverages continental power against single European countries. The invasions of Georgia and Ukraine are consistent with the Russian leadership’s declarations that the fall of Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster and Moscow should rebuild its great power status. The full integration of Belarus into the Russian military and industrial apparatus, culminated with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on Minsk’s territory, goes in the same direction.


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Against this backdrop, if Russia, in the coming months or years, will somehow break the Ukrainian frontline, primarily because of increasing shortages of Western military supplies to Kiev, and impose its direct or indirect control over Ukraine, the most likely scenario would not be lasting peace. The Republic of Moldova would be immediately at risk, since Russian troops already present in Transnistria would be joined by much larger forces and could then easily occupy Chisinau. Putin’s strategic calculus would be rather straightforward: If the West failed to support Ukraine’s defense, it would not even try to save Moldova. That would mean Russian troops on the fringes of NATO and the EU, from Scandinavia to the Balkans, along more than 2,500 kilometers of land border across nine countries from Norway to Romania, and the Black Sea would become a heavily contested basin.


The limited and decreasing importance of Europe for the leading NATO nation

While Russia wages a war against a NATO partner and threatens European allies, the US, already since the 2010s, has attached a limited and decreasing importance to Europe. On the one hand, the pivot to Asia initiated by the Obama administration has continued, albeit in different ways, by both Trump and Biden, up to the establishment of AUKUS with Australia and the UK, as well as the Camp David accords among Japan, South Korea and the US. The geopolitical concept of the Indo-Pacific gained traction in Washington to incapsulate in a regional dimension the key driver of the current and future US posture: the long-term, structural challenge posed by a rising China to the American interests and role at the global level, and to its allies in that region. In the US Congress, there is strong bipartisan consensus on the Chinese threat, as well as across government branches from the Department of State to the intelligence community. Several Pentagon strategic documents consistently and explicitly focus on the People’s Liberation Army as the main adversary, leading to adjustments to the military posture and capability development accordingly. As a result, China entered the NATO agenda in 2019 and is widely mentioned as a major concern in the 2022 Strategic Concept.

While the rationale for the US focus on the Indo-Pacific is deeply rooted in the international system and American national interests, there are also strong domestic reasons for a US military drawback from Europe, including: the overstretch that occurred in the two decades following the 9/11 attacks; the political skepticism of interventions abroad among both right-wing and left-wing constituencies; the reshaping of the Republican Party along Trump’s view on isolationism and transactionalism; the widespread frustration about Europeans’ sharing of the transatlantic security burden; demographic trends reducing the cultural and political links with Europe in comparison with, for instance, Latin America.

As a result, in the medium term, the US is likely to focus less on Europe, and more on the Indo-Pacific, as well as on domestic issues (and constraints) rather than on foreign policy. The tough and polarizing negotiations on the latest military aid package for Ukraine, and its six-month stalemate in Congress, already demonstrate that a lack of a solid, bipartisan consensus on the degree of support for Europe’s security, and this situation can only worsen during a Presidential campaign.

Against this backdrop, the 2024 elections represent an important crossroad for the US leadership within NATO. On the one hand, a second Biden administration would likely stay the course traced from 2021 onwards. Still, it would most likely have to face a Congress in which Republicans dominate the House of Representatives, remain largely against the American military commitment in Europe and perceive most European allies as free riders of the US security umbrella. Moreover, the presence of Joe Biden at the White House for his entire second term cannot be taken for granted because of health reasons, and his eventual replacement by sitting Vice President Kamala Harris would not be smooth.

On the other hand, a second Trump administration is set to abandon Ukraine regardless of its impact on Europe’s security, either because of an isolationist stance and/or with the hope to obtain some do ut des with Moscow on the priority dossier of China. In other words, the two aforementioned trends of isolationism and Indo-Pacific prioritization would be accelerated and fueled by a Trump presidency that has already proven keen to adopt a confrontational posture towards European allies. Last but not least, a scenario of legal and political contestation of the election results should not be ruled out, creating concerns at least in the short term on the effectiveness of the US administration, including with respect to Europe’s security. In other words, Europeans will need to take more responsibility for their own collective defense regardless of the election outcome, but a Trump presidency would make this much more urgent vis-à-vis an immediate and persistent Russia threat.


The inadequacy of EU defense vis-Ă -vis the Russian threat

Against this backdrop, a debate has revamped in Europe on EU strategic autonomy and European defense. However, in the plausible scenario of a steady Russian advance in Ukraine, the Union would simply lack the military infrastructure to organize an effective response, not only in terms of at least some key weaponry and ammunition, but even in terms of headquarters, command and control structures, bases and other facilities, doctrines, tactics, techniques and procedures. EU experience in crisis management operations has been limited in terms of scope and magnitude, and always took place in a permissive or semi-permissive environment: something far from the capacity to wage a high-intensity, large-scale conflict against a peer adversary like the Russian Federation. The recent enhancement of the EU military planning and operational capability and the launch of the naval defensive mission Aspides in the Red Sea are positive steps forward, but they do not substantially change the Union’s military inadequacy to withstand a Russian offensive.


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Efforts undertaken over the last decade, such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund, have a long-term horizon and limited economic resources. For sure, they should move forward with renewed impetus and be complemented by further instruments to deliver better defense capabilities through more cooperation and integration in military and industrial terms. However, all current and foreseen EU initiatives do not constitute a meaningful, well-organized European defense.

Moreover, at the political-strategic level, investing in EU defense means leaving out one of the two nuclear powers in Europe and the third largest military budget in the Old Continent – that is the UK. Capable and like-minded allies such as Canada and Norway would also be left outside this framework. Moreover, adopting an EU approach would cut the linkages with Turkey, which in NATO remains an important partner when it comes to containing Russia at least in the Black Sea. After the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, the overlapping membership of the EU and NATO makes, in terms of geography and national military capabilities, the former a subset of the latter.

There is another important political reason why EU defense is not going to stand a Russian offensive: mutual trust. Poland, the Baltic States and other frontline countries in Eastern Europe trust NATO primarily as guarantee for their national security. This is mainly due to the US, therefore a diminishing American commitment on the Alliance’s eastern flank would change the strategic calculus in several capitals. Still, there is no automatism between a decrease in trust in NATO and an increase in trust in the EU. Rather, Scandinavian and Eastern European countries would look to each other to frame bilateral and regional cooperation, as well as to the UK, which is the NATO framework nation for the joint expeditionary force including many allies from Norway to Poland. Finally, assuming that the EU could defend the Baltic States from a Russian attack would be an extremely risky bluff for the Union: If a member state were to activate the Lisbon Treaty solidarity and mutually assistance clauses – which are legally binding – to call for others’ military support vis-à-vis a Russian attack, the fact that such help cannot and will not be delivered in an effective way would question the very same political existence of the Union – something to bear in mind regarding the accession talks with Ukraine.


A Europe-led NATO as the only viable option for Europe’s collective defense

As the US leadership in NATO is diminishing because of structural changes in national priorities and/or spikes of isolationism, and EU defense in politico-military terms is not an option at least for the medium term, there is only a viable strategy to deter Russia and defend Europeans if deterrence fails: a Europe-led NATO.

The idea of a European pillar of NATO has already made traction in many European countries, in primis Germany and Italy, as a constructive way to balance two elements. On the one hand, this means greater investments, responsibilities and, thus, autonomy of European countries pooling their efforts on defense. On the other hand, it means transatlantic unity and cohesion, including transparency towards non-EU allies such as the US, the UK, Canada and Turkey. It somehow dates back to the 1990s idea of a European Security and Defense Identity within NATO, and mostly refers to a unified European voice in the Alliance. As a matter of fact, a European pillar is to a certain extent implemented on the Eastern flank whereby the framework nations for the allied multinational forward defense are mostly European: Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary and Italy – plus Canada and the US. The international security environment marked by the Russian threat and the limited US commitment in Europe requires a pivot from a European pillar towards a Europe-led NATO.


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Concretely, it entails devoting more European personnel and investments in NATO military infrastructures, allocating at the disposal the Alliance more capabilities by European allies, fulfilling the requirement of high-readiness forces under the new allied force model. Above all, it means a pro-active and timely political cooperation among European countries within NATO to forge a common line to be discussed with the US, rather than resorting to ad hoc, fragile, inconsistent groupings, meetings and declarations that risk increasing confusion. NATO is both a political and military alliance, and a European leadership should cover both dimensions. Obviously, a Europe-led NATO will in any case need a clear Washington commitment in those areas where Americans are irreplaceable, in primis extended nuclear deterrence, but it will necessitate more limited and, thus, more sustainable US conventional capabilities.

A Europe-led NATO would entail a number of key advantages. First, it is feasible in the short term because it relies on the existing integrated military command, with its own doctrine, plans and infrastructures, which should not be invented from scratch as in the EU case. Second, it would receive the robust political consensus of both Europeanist and Atlanticist EU members, from Spain to Poland, which would reconcile the trust in NATO with the need for more European leadership. Third, it would be inclusive towards the UK, Norway and Canada, while allowing some coordination with Turkey, leading to greater and more effective deterrence and defense. Fourth, it would work with the next US president, albeit in a different way. Biden would appreciate and support such European leadership, also because it reduces the political and economic burden on his administration and creates room for more acceptance from Congress on the American military presence in Europe. Trump would see the net transactional gain for the US budget and could present this outcome as a success of his previous calls for Europeans to pay the NATO bill. Last but not least, this option does not prevent the EU from further developing defense cooperation and integration, while avoiding placing unsustainable responsibility on Union’s shoulders.

In conclusion, the immediate and enduring Russian threat to Europe does no longer give the allies the option of setting against each other transatlantic cooperation and European strategic autonomy. Allies on this side of the Atlantic have to take the political and military lead of NATO collective deterrence and defense, by making the US indispensable support more sustainable over time, looking well beyond the 2024 presidential elections.