Europe is undoubtedly more secure now than it ever has been in the past. Relations between European states, which, not so long ago, were dominated by aggression and suspicion, are now built up on co-operation and consensus. Through projects like the European Union, the political landscape of our continent has been fundamentally changed for the better.
However, the crisis in Ukraine serves as a warning that we should not take this security for granted. While the situation is unlikely to escalate into anything resembling a conventional military conflict with Russia, the difficulties we have faced in seeking a unified response to the occupation of Crimea should be a serious cause for concern.
World leaders seem to be caught uncomfortably between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we have the option of punishing Russia through economic and political sanctions. Though, many have been quick to point out that sanctions may be counterproductive – Russia remains easily the world’s largest exporter of gas, and also ranks first in oil production. For many European countries, this energy supply is vital; the risk that it could be interfered with is an obviously unwelcome prospect for a continent still crawling out of deep recession. Yet even more unappealing is the idea that, as was the case with their 2008 adventure in South Ossetia, Russia goes unchallenged.
Let us be clear – there is no justification for Russia’s actions here. Yes, there is a significant Russian speaking minority in some regions of Ukraine, and some people have demonstrated in favour of Russia. Regardless, even if a person speaks Russian or has roots there, it does not follow that they automatically wish to see the Russian army intervening on their behalf.
There seems to be little evidence that ethnic Russians were being targeted in a way which requires the intervention of a foreign military. Ukraine is a sovereign state and its borders should be respected. Ukraine needs support, financial and diplomatic, to strengthen its institutions and ensure that the democratic process accurately reflects the will of its people – all of its people. The intervention has only served to interrupt this process and will likely only engender a sense of division and difference in Ukraine.
It is hard to predict how exactly the situation will end, or prescribe a course of action. But regardless, we need to examine why we were so constrained and learn lessons from it. Of course, the best strategy for the future will not be to exclude Russia but to work diplomatically to ensure that all countries – including those in the West – show respect for international law. But this event has shown that, while much has changed in international politics, it would be naïve to think that there are no dangers left. We need to be realistic and Europe needs to ensure that in the future, it has the unity and security required to act in situations like this.
The United States should be seen as a model of energy security. Because of their investment in shale drilling, the US has begun a process of transformation that will see it move from the world’s leading importer of oil to a net exporter. Remarkably, it will become virtually self-sufficient in terms of energy in about two decades.
While it is not clear if Europe has similar potential to become fully independent, the dependence on imports could certainly be lessened. The move towards energy independence should be a cornerstone of our security. Reducing our dependence on other countries for energy would give us the confidence that, despite any potential threats or unpredictable events, we can maintain stability by ensuring we can never be held to ransom with energy.
Lastly, we in the EU need to be aware that ultimately we are responsible for our own security. The United States has guaranteed the security of Europe through the Cold War and beyond, taking a leading role in the crises that have flared up on continent. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the burden needs to be shared. America has many priorities, and with a growing focus on the Pacific, we need to recognise that it will not be able to play its traditional role indefinitely.
At the moment, EU co-ordination of foreign policy remains loose. The extraordinary summit of European premiers to discuss the situation was scheduled for the 6th of March, almost a full week after the crisis has begun. Europe is not a state, and there are realities of being a political union, but we cannot maximise our potential as a Union if we are so slow to act.
Admittedly, there are many worthwhile arguments against both shale drilling and European integration. But we live in an uncertain world, and we cannot always assume that someone else will guarantee our security.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat