Ideas on Europe

Two years of war in Ukraine : lessons learnt

© Ukraine Presidency/Ukrainian Pre/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire Two years of war in Ukraine : lessons learnt
© Ukraine Presidency/Ukrainian Pre/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

It must be the first time we have you speaking in English in our programmes! 

That’s right, but I’ve been a member of your partner UACES for almost twenty years! That should be enough to authorize me to share some “Ideas on Europe” of my own.

We certainly agree. This week, It’s already two years since Russia’s aggression of Ukraine sent a shockwave across the continent. What has Europe learnt about war, about peace, and about itself, over these two years?

It has learnt some painful lessons, but I also think there is hope in this learning process.

To start with, it was forced to rediscover that war is not a faint memory or a minor disturbance that happens in some distant countries on other continents. And the war that has been raging for two years now in its immediate neighbourhood brought with it a whole list of other very unpleasant truths. 

It had to realize that its member-states were neither mentally, nor materially, nor industrially prepared for the sudden necessity to support a concrete war effort in defence of a neighbouring country that was aspiring to improve its democracy and even become a member one day.

In other words : it had to acknowledge that the time has come where it will be forced to change its software. European integration is by definition a “post-war project”. The new geopolitical order that is coming around the corner rather looks like a permanent “inter-war” period, where capabilities of dissuasion and deterrence are prerequisites for living in a fragile peace.

Learning to live with the possibility of war again – that’s a challenge that seemed absurd only a few years ago, and that has become an obligation today. 

Do you think the EU’s vision of peace itself has also been upset?

Definitely. On the one hand, the EU was forced to recognize that its belief in peace through international trade and economic ties did no longer hold when confronted with irrational hostility firmly anchored in ideological constructs. Peace simply is no longer a given, but something that has to be defended. With increasing political and economic costs.

Moreover, Europeans are learning that peace is more than just the absence of armed conflict and gunfire. They are starting to understand that their democracy and the values that underpin it, is not only suffering from war, but is actually the target of it. Everything that democracy represents is the very object of what must well be called “hatred” from an increasingly assertive group of authoritarian regimes.

As Bob Dylan once put it, very prophetically: “We live in a political world, where peace is not welcome at all.” It’s a difficult conclusion to draw for the European Union, but it’s a lesson that needs to be assimilated quickly.

Let me ask a provocative question: is the EU a good learner?

Very surprisingly : yes, it is! 

I am of course aware that whatever it does, there will always be voices that criticize its action : too little, too late, too much hesitation, not enough reactivity.

I think they are wrong. The EU has been on a remarkably steep learning curve. In its reaction to the Russian aggression, it has shown the same unexpected level of unity and cohesion as in its reaction to Brexit a few years ago. Even the Western European member states, spoilt by decades of security provided by the Iron Curtain and the American umbrella, have been rather quick to recognize that their major Eastern partners in Poland, the Baltics, or Romania had been right in their assessment of the existential threat posed by Russia. 

I also think that there is a growing awareness – especially with the spectre of Donald Trump’s re-election – of Europe’s own responsibilities in terms of defence and security capabilities. The most difficult task ahead is the translation of this awareness into concrete measures. There will be tremendous political costs in the reorientation of budget lines towards investment into military purposes, both within the member-states, and – increasingly – on EU level. But what the last two years have shown is that we are living in a different world, which will require a different Europe.

Many thanks, Albrecht Sonntag, for this recapitulation of the European Union’s learning process over the last two years. I recall you are professor at ESSCA School of Management, based in Angers.

An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.