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The Ukraine Moment in Transatlantic Relations… and Then What?

The Ukraine Moment in Transatlantic Relations… and Then What?
 Georgina Wright
Resident Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for International Studies
 Alexander Cooley
Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

The United States will hold midterm elections on November 8th, 2022 in what will be a critical turning point for the remainder of Biden's presidency. This event calls for a Franco-American dialogue to help us understand the issues affecting both sides of the Atlantic, namely the challenges posed by the war in Ukraine compounding on those from the pandemic. After a first article dedicated to economic issues, we now focus on the future of the transatlantic relationship in the context of the war in Ukraine. This article is part of our partnership with Columbia Global Centers (Paris) and Columbia's Alliance Program. 

This paper was written with the help of Amy Greene.

The war in Ukraine has reinvigorated transatlantic unity, a resurgence that some, including maybe Vladimir Putin himself, had believed relegated to a quickly fading past. Transatlantic relations under Biden have not always been smooth: America's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and then the surprise AUKUS nuclear submarine deal between the US, the UK and Australia, announced in September 2021 had created tensions in the Alliance. The US has been pivotal in leading the West's support for Ukraine: in early February, the Biden administration, together with the British government, released intelligence reports warning that an attack was imminent and highly likely and obtained commitments from France and Germany in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The American approach was collaborative. Europeans too have acted with unity, speed and determination in the face of Russia's aggression, with the European Commission in almost daily contact with the White House over sanctions coordination and support to Ukraine. 

The "Ukraine effect" on transatlantic relations

The transatlantic effort to support Ukraine has mostly been a moment of unity. Once the invasion occurred, the US and Europe acted swiftly to provide financial, diplomatic, and military assistance to Ukraine. Effective transatlantic coordination has led to what one might call a "NATO moment" in Europe during which countries like Finland and Sweden walked back years of policy and military doctrine to join the North Atlantic Alliance. Smaller member states are now playing a more active role in shaping EU foreign policy. Despite its internal political crisis, the UK is showing that it still plays a role as a guarantor of European security. In short, the West is back. But for how long?

Transatlantic relations after Ukraine

Transatlantic unity around Ukraine does not erase the fundamental tensions that characterize the US-Europe relationship; nor does it avoid the fact that both sides of experiencing polarisation, as illustrated by the upcoming US midterm elections.

What the midterms mean for US policy on Ukraine

Public attention to US foreign policy tends to be limited and short - and usually all but nonexistent during election season. The war in Ukraine does not rank among voters' primary concerns in the run-up to the November 2022 midterm elections. Instead, they have been worried about inflation, purchasing power, partisanship, social issues, and the health of American democracy itself. Insofar as the American public is concerned about the war, their central preoccupations have been the potential for escalation and what that would mean for American troops and the escalating cost of aid.
While the conflict will not shape voters' decisions at the polls, the results of the midterms could lead to a significant change in US policy towards Ukraine. Support for Ukraine has elicited general bipartisan support, yet Republicans might be ready to use Ukraine aid as a bargaining chip.

While the conflict will not shape voters' decisions at the polls, the results of the midterms could lead to a significant change in US policy towards Ukraine.

Within the Republican party, ongoing tensions between the muscular interventionist wing and the "America First" isolationists highlight the lack of unified vision among the Right with regard to Ukraine. Outside the foreign policy and political establishments, other GOP-affiliated actors have adopted some Russian propaganda talking points (as embodied by Fox News host and Trump ally, Tucker Carlson) and embraced positions that would indicate support for anti-democratic leadership, such as the claim that the 2020 election was rigged.

If control of the House of Representatives moves into Republican hands (as is currently expected), committees will be reassigned to include new Republican members and the issue of Ukraine could become politicized. Current House minority leader Kevin McCarthy explicitly stated that Americans will not write a blank check to fund the war effort during a recession - and that Europeans needed to do more. In tough budgetary negotiations, Biden's ability to provide support and the exact nature of that support could become contested. In a hyper-partisan political climate, faced with pressing domestic economic concerns and a Republican party no longer unified on the foreign policy front (and at times ambiguous about democracy), there is no indication that Biden’s material commitment to Ukraine will remain unscathed by the tensions, hostility, and intense politicization that characterize American domestic politics.

In short, Ukraine itself may become a potential source of discord in the near future. America is Ukraine's largest contributor of aid in absolute terms. Washington is placing increased pressure on Europe to take on a more active leadership role. Some in the US foreign policy establishment lament what they see as Europe dragging its feet. They are calling on European nations to step up, boost defense spending and do more heavy lifting.

As evidenced in Biden's National Security Strategy released in October 2022, America's number one security priority is still China. At a time when Washington's focus is shifting eastwards, lawmakers want to know exactly what Europe expects of the US, and what it is willing to contribute to meet those expectations. There is also a perception in Washington that Europe does not quite know what it wants for itself. 

The increased American presence in Europe has raised concerns in some European quarters. 

Furthermore, the increased American presence in Europe has raised concerns in some European quarters. In some French policy circles, there is the sense that Europe is too dependent on the US for security and, increasingly, for its prosperity. France sees the US as an important ally, but it does not want Washington to have a seat at every European decision-making table. In Europe's scramble to secure new energy sources, France is leading the way to discourage overreliance on the US to meet its energy needs. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire recently called on fellow Europeans to "resist American economic domination". Some European countries are also fearful of getting caught up in the US-China rivalry, while others are prepared to compromise if it means they can continue to benefit from the American security umbrella.
Clearly, China could become a longer-term source of transatlantic division. Within Europe, finding a common approach will be a challenge with some countries, especially in Eastern Europe, adopting a more hawkish stance. NATO's 2022 Strategic Concept mentions China for the first time in an effort pushed by the US and the UK. But while some believe that China should be discussed within NATO, some European allies believe China is best discussed inside the EU. Others in Europe and especially the US believe that Europe is naïve about China and its potential for disruption.

Eurasia policy: finding new spaces for transatlantic strategy

Eurasian economies

The war in Ukraine has highlighted issues facing the region that would benefit from a coordinated transatlantic approach, the first of which is the economic dilemma in which Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) member countries find themselves. On one hand, they are confronted in their backyard with a revisionist Russian power determined to upend the notion of sovereignty in its push to alter post-Soviet borders and deny Ukrainian identity. This is particularly concerning to Georgians and Kazakhs given the recent remarks by Dmitry Medvedev calling their own statehood into question. On the other hand, Eurasian nations feel unjustly punished by Western sanctions having deeply tied their economic fortunes to Moscow. Landlocked and unable to export through Iran, they are also unable to receive waivers from the West. Most EAEU member states are forced into a strategy of neutrality - caught between East and West - either abstaining during UN votes on the war in Ukraine or simply finding reasons not to show up to vote at all.

Responding to the Russian exodus

The reality of Russian flight would compel a real transatlantic dialogue and perhaps even a strategic policy toward Russian exiles.

There is also the broad impression of a security and mediation vacuum that Russia previously filled. Post-Soviet countries are experiencing an influx of hundreds of thousands of Russians. Using a visa regime intended to encourage central Asian immigration into Russia, waves of Russians are now using it to flee Russia. The flows have only increased with the introduction of conscription - some estimates place the exodus at 600,000 people, mostly men. They are increasingly going to smaller areas that are not fully capable of absorbing this unexpected influx. The governments’ responses - both political and in terms of public policies - remain to be seen.

The reality of Russian flight would compel a real transatlantic dialogue and perhaps even a strategic policy toward Russian exiles. There is the negation of the Schengen short-stay visa for which Russians were the single largest recipients (30% of all such visas granted during the past ten years) and who now see their applications denied for security reasons or approbation. While it is important to show solidarity and support for Ukraine, handling the question of Russian exiles needs to be part of a larger, systemic, and coordinated policy: should there be organized support for exiles? If so, with what tools and budgetary resources? According to what timeline and with what incentives?

What about Belarus?

President Lukashenko once tried to act as a mediator regarding Moscow and has since become fully co-belligerent. He is under international sanctions but also under tremendous internal pressure for his support of Putin and a war that is highly unpopular in Belarus. Until this point, policy towards Belarus has been ad hoc according to events on the ground. Because Lukashenko is completely invested politically in the Ukraine war, a new approach toward his regime and its opposition is needed. How robust should policy be in support of an opposition democratic cabinet? Should the policy include security links? Or should the West attempt to lure Lukashenko away from Moscow? In what configuration would or could that possibility exist? How can the transatlantic dimension address the problem in a coherent and unified manner? 

America looks East. What about Europe?

Many Europeans believe that the US will always be there to defend them, no matter what. Yet Europe has also learned from the Trump years that the US can be somewhat more transactional and will not always coordinate with European partners. Europe has learned that it must be able to work on its own. With the return of war in Europe, Europeans have been confronted with the harsh reality that they are still unable to respond to crises in their neighborhood without the support of the US. As internal divisions flare up in American politics - and with the possibility of an electoral shakeup in the coming days - the ability of the US to make security engagements with the EU may grow more complicated. America may find itself fighting on several fronts: the rise of illiberalism, the gridlock of the domestic political system, and high inflation all set against the backdrop of rising strategic competition from countries like China and Russia. Europeans will need to step up.
The Ukraine moment in transatlantic relations is just that - a moment. US involvement in the European theater does not harken a return to preponderant US leadership on the continent, nor does it restore the US to the role of an indispensable actor on its own terms. Instead of questioning how the transatlantic alliance can be maintained, we also need to analyze how easily it could unravel and what we need to do to make sure that does not happen. Rather than remaining in a reactive mode, the successes in finding unity around Ukraine should be seen as an opportunity to take a hard look at sources of friction, and new challenges and anticipate a way to work together to identify and then achieve outcomes. Europe must move beyond theory and introspection and into the territory of concrete political will and decisions.


This paper was written with the help of Amy Greene.


Copyright: Samuel Corum/ Getty Images via AFP

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