22 February 2022

A Scottish Perspective on Ukraine and the Crisis in European Security

Anthony Salamone on the European security crisis generated by Russia, its implications for EU foreign policy and its impact on Scotland

Anthony Salamone

Here in Edinburgh, it is difficult to believe the tectonic shift in European security currently in progress, or to fathom all its resulting consequences. The spectre of a major war in Europe looms over Ukraine. The context for European defence today begins to look more like that of the previously fading past. On both fronts, zero doubt should be had: this crisis in European security has been manufactured by Russia. Not another nanosecond of attention should be given, whether in Scotland, the European Union or the United States, to the ludicrous premise that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, its obvious involvement in the War in Donbas or its provocative surrounding of Ukraine on three sides with well beyond one hundred thousand troops is the fault of anyone other than the Kremlin. Those who call themselves “progressives” yet declare geopolitical crises such as the current plight of Ukraine as no concern of their own country are in truth regressive isolationists.

Once a wider perspective is adopted, the values and interests of a democratic society usually align. In this case, the common view in Scotland is surely that Ukraine deserves to have its basic rights as a state – sovereignty, territorial integrity, freedom from coercion – respected by other states. That position accords with what I would contend to be the values of Scottish society. Such rights, which are tenets of the United Nations Charter, cannot be subordinated to circumstance or convenience, since doing so would contravene our principles. That position equally matches Scotland’s interests. The rules-based international system is the foundation of global affairs as we know them today. If international law is proven worthless through gross denial of Ukraine’s basic rights, the perpetual uncertainty that will follow will damage the Scottish economy and wider society. On the basis of both our values and interests, the collective position in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom must be resolute solidarity with Ukraine in this dark period – above all through practical means of support.

Ukraine’s relationships with NATO and the EU

As an independent state, Ukraine is responsible for determining and conducting its own foreign and defence policies. It has the cardinal right to undertake those tasks without coercion or intimidation. Through its actions since at least 2014, the Kremlin has sought to destabilise the Ukrainian state and to undermine its ability to exercise its own strategic choices. Ukraine must be free to pursue the relationships with the EU, NATO and Russia which its public and politics decide. Beyond the direct threat of further Russian aggression, however, Ukraine faces two difficult realities in that regard.

First, the present crisis extends far beyond relations between Ukraine and Russia. In its demands to NATO, the Kremlin has made clear its wider ambition for the Alliance to, in effect, largely dissolve itself. If the Ukrainian Government renounced its aspiration of NATO membership, or even adopted the “Finlandisation” model of delicate neutrality seemingly in regular discussion these days, it is far from clear that Russia would be satisfied and the crisis would end. Second, Russia has demonstrated a regrettable willingness to discard international agreements with Ukraine. In the Budapest Memorandum and other accords, Russia pledged to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity – yet the Kremlin has annexed Ukrainian territory and menaced the Ukrainian state. If a future deal were reached between Ukraine and Russia, to facilitate the end of the War in Donbas or to otherwise stabilise bilateral relations, its longevity would depend on mutual confidence that might be lacking.

At the centre of this grave crisis in European security, Ukraine faces remarkably challenging strategic circumstances. In the years since the 2014 revolution, the Ukrainian state has solidified its objectives to join both the EU and NATO. Those aims were incorporated into the constitution in 2019. Despite the differences within the transatlantic alliance on how to respond to Russia, the position that Ukraine has the right to choose its own foreign policy – and that NATO’s fabled “open door” for membership applications remains so – has been consistent. However, the right to apply is not the same as the right to join. The actual appetite for enlargement within the EU and NATO is minimal.

In respect of NATO, the persistent divergence in expectations between the United States and Europe on the enlargement of the Alliance has long been a source of bemusement. Beyond perhaps the Eastern flank states of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, many in Europe would exhibit great scepticism towards the notion that Ukraine should ever join NATO. While the Biden administration might well hold the same view privately, a plethora of voices in Washington has, perhaps until recently, argued that NATO membership for Ukraine is both feasible and desirable. Whether on NATO enlargement or other matters, too many in Washington continue to fail to appreciate that, for the EU and its other European partners, relations with Russia are an exercise in neighbourhood relations, not power projection. Such proximity is not cause to abandon principles. Yet, it can hardly be surprising that the various European views on Russia are shaped by more than geopolitical competition.

In turn, some in Washington less convinced on NATO enlargement seemed, in the past at least, to view a closer relationship between the EU and Ukraine as a convenient off-ramp. It should be obvious, however, that EU and NATO memberships are neither comparable nor interchangeable. Moreover, the EU retains full agency on which states join it or not, regardless of the opinions of the United States. While EU membership is an objective of the Ukrainian Government, the EU has not provided the country with a genuine membership perspective. The EU does not currently consider Ukraine as either a candidate (which would first require an application) or a potential candidate for membership.

In my assessment, the EU will seek to avoid the question of potential membership for Ukraine for many years to come. Generally speaking, enthusiasm within the EU for enlargement has waned. For better or worse, I suspect that, beyond the remaining Balkan states, EFTA states switching to membership or newly established Western European states (namely, Scotland), EU enlargement has reached its effective conclusion. In any event, the current state of affairs suggests that Ukraine will likely not join the EU for multiple decades, if ever. The middle of the present crisis would be a poor time for the EU to give the appearance of distancing itself from Ukraine. Nevertheless, both the EU and NATO have a responsibility to be candid with the Ukrainian public on the actual prospects for membership, or otherwise, for their country, so that Ukraine can make its own informed choices.

EU foreign policy and the security crisis

Regardless of whether it was predictable or inevitable, this European security crisis, through its raw display of large-scale military aggression by Russia, will have profound ramifications for the EU and NATO. Even if Russia did not invade Ukraine again, the impression is that the old security order which we knew is over. In recent remarks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the Kremlin’s actions which caused this crisis as “the new normal”. In other words, uncertainty about the peace and security of Europe has notably increased. The EU, NATO and others will have to adapt accordingly. For the EU, this crisis intersects its ongoing debate on the future of its common foreign policy.

Foreign and defence policies have long been points of difficulty for the EU. Its Member States have differences in their perspectives, positions on issues (including relations with Russia), approaches to foreign policy (including declared neutrality for some) and roles in the world. Efforts to address the EU’s relative slowness and weakness on foreign policy have focalised in a debate on replacing the unanimity requirement for some decisions under the Common Foreign and Security Policy with Qualified Majority Voting and in the creation of an EU “Strategic Compass”, scheduled for publication next month. Underpinning this discussion is the premise of achieving “European strategic autonomy”, largely popularised and extensively promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron. On the present crisis, Macron has spoken of the need for “a new European security framework”. It would be positive if the EU developed foreign and defence policies which were more cogent and effective. However, any change of strategic direction should be thoughtfully debated and done by consensus.

For all the attention paid to it, the principle of strategic autonomy remains markedly vague. Macron has articulated aspects of his vision, including his related objectives for France’s ongoing presidency of the Council of the European Union. However, for the same reasons that Member States often find it difficult to establish a unified foreign policy, consensus on the definition of strategic autonomy and on the vision for the future of the EU will not be easily forthcoming. Moreover, the present crisis could fundamentally alter the parameters of European security. In that context, ill-defined ambitions of nebulous grandeur will not be sufficient. Despite any protestations to the contrary, it is difficult to interpret the objective of “European sovereignty” in defence and security as meaning anything other than more EU capability exchanged for less connection to NATO (and, therefore, the United States).

A sovereignty approach to European defence and security would be problematic in at least three respects. First, it would be unnecessary and unwise to minimise transatlantic cooperation. The security relationships between Europe, the United States and Canada do not need to be supplanted for the sake of European geopolitical aims. Second, many voices within the EU, across a range of Member States, would not support diminishing the role of NATO in Europe. In short, they do not want to become fully autonomous from the United States in respect of defence and security. Third, EU-only initiatives exclude the United Kingdom, a principal contributor to European security. While the EU and the UK should build effective cooperation in their shared neighbourhood, NATO facilitates an established role for the UK in European defence. To achieve strategic coherence and greater influence in external relations, the EU as a collective should prioritise effective means of reconciling divergent interests and positions, rather than pursue lofty designs of sovereignty more liable to foster discord than progress. The present security crisis demands more of the former, not the latter.

Scotland’s public debate and European security

Events over recent days suggest a fundamental recast of the European security environment. In the assessment of Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, we are currently in a situation which is “almost colder” than the Cold War. The question is not whether Scotland will be affected, but how. Yet cast a glance at Scottish politics and it is obvious that serious reflection on this crisis and its impact on Scotland is scarcely in evidence. As a whole, the Scottish political class has to date offered the bare minimum of a political response to the crisis. The Scottish Parliament has not even passed a non-binding motion declaring support for Ukraine. Such is the relatively insular state of Scottish politics that a motion will at this rate only materialise if Russia fully invades Ukraine. Political debate in Scotland on European and international relations is lacking in every respect – and, apparently, this crisis is no exception.

If political figures in Scotland wanted to demonstrate real leadership, they would cure themselves of their pervasive allergy to addressing matters of security and defence in detail. Scottish institutions do not have responsibility for UK foreign, defence or security policies. However, they are responsible for numerous matters related to our security in the round, such as management of critical infrastructure. Moreover, on a defining issue of our time, one might expect that Scottish politicians would seek to communicate their views and actions to the Scottish public. In particular, the Scottish Government could explain why it supported Ukraine, how it was doing so and why it believed that any negative effects felt in Scotland of possible sanctions would be worth the cost. It could underline the extent to which, presumably, it shared a common position on these issues with the UK Government. It could also outline what measures it has taken to enhance holistic security in Scotland. The Government could further take the opportunity to end its virtual moratorium on speaking the name of NATO. The Scottish Parliament’s Official Report indicates that the word “NATO” has only been spoken by its members four times since last year’s Holyrood election – and all by opposition parliamentarians.

In view of the present crisis and its implications, it is no longer tenable for Scottish political actors to refrain from substantive debate on the security and defence of Scotland, the wider UK and Europe. The regular practice in Scottish politics of deferring to UK institutions on such matters to avoid discussing them will no longer suffice. In reality, holistic security in Scotland requires substantial engagement from both Scottish and UK representatives. This domain also presents an important opportunity for the Scottish and UK Governments to demonstrate how their policies can align and how they can work well together. Such cooperation is beneficial to Scotland, regardless of its constitutional future. Indeed, new efforts in this area will likely prove necessary in the years ahead.

At this stage, it is unclear whether many protagonists in Scottish politics have truly internalised the extent to which this European security crisis could influence the course of the independence debate. Depending on how events develop, it has the potential to be comparable in its impact to Brexit. First of all, the crisis substantially alters the environment into which Scotland would enter if it became an independent state. The basic tenets of European peace and security are now in question. Increased uncertainty over security would inherently make it more challenging for the proposition of change (in this case, independence) to succeed. Moreover, while Scotland could undoubtedly meet its defence and security needs as a state, with appropriate strategy and investment, it does not require independence to ensure them – in contrast to the argument frequently made that Scotland requires independence to be part of the EU. Defence and security issues could feature far more prominently in a future independence referendum campaign. The question of NATO membership would surely shift from a largely ethical debate on nuclear weapons to a more practical one on Scotland’s security.

In this changed context, a substantive debate on Scottish defence and security under independence would demand consideration of measures which some political actors may prefer to avoid: a larger Scottish military than previously suggested, more widespread military training among the civilian population and expanded civil contingencies preparations. It would include not just how Scotland would ensure its own security, but how Scotland would contribute to collective European security. It would bring the issue of NATO membership to the forefront. Above all, such a debate would require sufficient recognition that the world is not carefree and global affinity for Scottish culture would not equate to the security of the state. Matters of security and defence should now have the prominence in Scottish politics which they merit. Greater consideration should also be given to how Scotland, whatever its constitutional future, will support commonly-held values in Europe and beyond.

Anthony Salamone FRSA is Managing Director of European Merchants

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