Article by Evangelos Venizelos in [8.3.2022]


The Nuclear Threat and the Limits of European Defence Policy


The European Union has suffered two major shocks over the last two and a half years; the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These two extreme developments have forced the Union to mobilise and sharpen its reflexes. The preparation was made during the decade of the economic crisis - mainly in the ‘workshop’ that is Greece- in order to gradually develop the ability to react to crises. For decades, the EU believed that we had witnessed the end of History and that everything could have operated “under normal conditions of temperature and pressure”.

On the other hand, Europe has handed over the matter of European security, to a very large extent, to the United States for almost a century, from 1916-1917 and the epoch of President Wilson and the last phase of the First World War.  A major discussion theme before the Russian invasion of Ukraine was how the European Union could gain political substance, possibly emancipating itself from the United States in the field of foreign policy and security and defence policy. While this debate is taking place, while the impression is still fresh from the unilateral American initiatives for an immediate and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and for the formation of AUKUS, which is directed against China, the US is back in Europe, the security of which is decided between Russia and the United States, while the European leaders de facto suffice to a procedural-mediating role, essentially pushing for a new American-Russian agreement.

President Putin 's decision to set the war machine in motion against Ukraine mobilised the European Union. Not only ever-active France, but also Germany, which seized the opportunity to try to overcome the guilt complex related to Nazism, the Holocaust and its historical responsibilities concerning WWII. Chancellor Scholz's speech in the Bundestag, the 100 bn. euros on a new defence programme, the new outward-looking German foreign policy, which feels that it has to shed its hesitations and be more active and more militant, may mark a new era for Europe as well. What is certain is that it marks a new era for German-Russian relations in the field of energy, economy, as well as in foreign policy and defence and security policy.

 The USA and the EU understand that they have to work together to address the new challenges. The West is therefore undergoing a process of strategic reconstruction, despite a few awkward moments during the first year of the Biden administration. This is an important achievement, largely owing to V.Putin’s choice to take things to the extreme, to the origins of the Cold War, to the correlation of nuclear power and to nuclear threat and deterrence. As a nuclear power though, the European Union is rather small. The European nuclear powers are the United Kingdom (which is now outside the European Union, although British nuclear power is part of NATO’s planning) and France (which, when it returned to the military part of NATO, did not become part of the nuclear planning). We must therefore analyse in this context the cause behind the ease with which the debate on the nuclear threat and nuclear deterrence is being conducted, even though the US is displaying remarkable composure.

In 2010, following the 2008 events in Georgia, with the focal point being Ossetia and Abkhazia, I attended the NATO Summit in Lisbon with President Medvedev as the main guest- that was the period of very amicable relations between NATO and Russia, and the “Partnership for Peace”. In 2014, I attended the NATO summit in Cardiff under Cold War conditions once more, in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, political change in Ukraine and the uprising in the eastern provinces of Donbas.

Therefore, the war in Ukraine is not something out of the blue. The Russian Federation is shaping correlations and has a very, very firm security projection. It raises issues in a blunt way, in fact it does not recognise the right to sovereignty and independence of the countries that were once members of the Soviet Union. That is why Putin's attitude towards Ukraine is extremely hard-line and sets as its objectives the "demilitarisation" and "denazification", as he says, of Ukraine, i.e. full political and military control of Ukraine, as a state entity, by Russia. Moreover, he challenges its national identity. He considers its language, culture, religion and memories to be Russian.

To be pragmatic and specific, what all this means is that the issues raised by the war in Ukraine cannot be answered only or mainly by the European Union, because these issues are now linked to the nuclear balance of power and to deterrence. Europe is not in a position to provide an anti-missile umbrella and deterrence to itself (mainly), to Ukraine or to other non-NATO countries. The US is therefore absolutely necessary in order to achieve this.

An almost romantic view of the European Union prevails. How do we perceive the European Union, though? With its inability to offer a real prospect of membership to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia or even the countries of the Western Balkans? For obvious historical reasons, Europe cannot constitute a military and defence entity without the United Kingdom being part of it and without deep strategic cooperation with the United States. In my view, anything other than that would create an incomplete or even false perception of the real balance of power. A European entity that does not meet the above conditions, does not offer security in the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.

Even the reservations or historical fears about an armed and powerful Germany cannot be counterbalanced by France alone. Without Britain, without the United States, the required balance of power cannot be attained and the maximum global scope of the West is not secured in relation to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and especially India, to the extent that the new global balance of power is determined by whether India -the most populous country in the world- will be part of the West in the broadest strategic sense of the term.

Let us not forget that Russia is a European but also Asian power- it is also oriented towards Asia. The debate on sanctions is Western-centric and linked to the European Union's energy dependence on Russia. At the current time, when unexpectedly harsh sanctions have been imposed, Europe is still buying gas and oil from Russia. The war is raging in Ukraine, but gas flows through the Yamal–Europe pipeline via Ukraine have increased by 30%. Due to its urgent energy needs, the EU is arguably financing Russian military operations in Ukraine by buying fossil fuels.

Thus, we have to examine issues in their absolute and extreme form, because then we can answer the question on how to end the war and the drama of millions of people in Ukraine. If V. Putin accepts that the Zelenskyy government will remain in power, he will be symbolically defeated. If V.Putin accepts that Ukraine remains an entity with its own government and only raises the issue of demilitarisation under international guarantees, he will be defeated again in this sense. For this reason, he has already explicitly called into question the statehood of Ukraine, meaning that the Russian Federation will annex it as a whole, far beyond the initial goal of "demilitarisation" and "denazification". Therefore, I do not see that the extreme global dilemmas that V. Putin has posed will be met with an easy answer.

Deep down there is an ideological, political and value-based conflict, a conflict between democracy, the rule of law, and liberal democracy on the one side, and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes on the other. My great concern is what happens within Western societies, the quasi-civil war in the United States, "Trumpism" ceasing to be "Putinism". It is not difficult for one to imagine what will happen if after two and a half years we have a President in the United States who does not understand the issues we are facing in Ukraine or understands them in his own peculiar way.

In European societies -and Greece is no exception- we find political and intellectual forces which display a pro-Russian atavism, which believe that we should be lenient, that there Russia has “special rights to power” which NATO has not respected. According to this rationale, there are no international organizations, no international law. The very fact that a permanent member of the Security Council is doing this is in fact impairs the UN. Even the resolution of the General Assembly Special session has limited practical significance. This is why we need to take a look at the blunt and extreme way in which these issues are raised.

This is where the Turkey factor comes in . On 27/02, I proposed that there should be a meeting between Mitsotakis and Erdogan, between two NATO member states, on the war in Ukraine, on the effective functioning of the South-Eastern flank of NATO, on the protection of the Eastern Mediterranean from possible spill-overs of provocations and tensions. Turkey invokes the Montreux Convention and applies it -and rightfully so. The Montreux Convention however is a “twin” of the treaty of Lausanne, and in fact it is its continuation. I am content because it was announced that the meeting will take place on Sunday, 13/03.

Turkey, I suppose, will show off its “westernization”, but at the same time it will invoke its uniqueness, its exceptionalism. Russia, however, is well aware that Europe's nuclear forces are mainly in İncirlik and Aviano in Italy. It is well aware that historically the Ottoman Empire was the first defensive mound against the move of Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union, Putin's new Russia towards the Mediterranean, towards the warm seas. In Greece we have to adopt a position taking into account the historical path that shaped us as a country, the alliances and the choices that made us a Western country, an old NATO and EU member state.

The  war in Ukraine places the global balance of power under review. We now have to seek a new global security situation - not a new security system, because a long time will pass before there is a security system, there will be a global unstable security balance in the meantime. In this context, I fear that regional issues, such as the Cyprus issue and Greco-Turkish relations will take on a secondary character, that is, they will be influenced by wider correlations at higher levels and this should both worry us and incite our insightfulness.

Since all this is linked to power -absolute power to be precise, i.e. the correlation of nuclear forces and nuclear deterrence it will be detrimental to International Law and the rational international system of organisation of societies, of the subjects of International Law, and it will also be detrimental to the sovereignty and institutional equity among States.  I hope it will not be detrimental to liberal democracy, since it turns out that what we call the universality of democracy, the rule of law and human rights is our wish, our claim, but it is not a reality, and this must make us very careful so that we shape the balance of power in the most optimal way possible .


*Evangelos Venizelos is a former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and former Minister of National Defence .





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