NATO, the EU, and the War in Ukraine: Interview with Paul Poast 

Greek soldiers pass in front of an aircraft, loaded with humanitarian aid at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. The plane, bound for Poland, was being sent after Greece's government decided Sunday to provide humanitarian aid as well as military equipment to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

It has been six weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the conflict is devolving into a stalemate, according to Paul Poast, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a fellow of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

In this interview with Eimer Curtin, an editor with the Global Observatory, Dr. Poast discusses the responses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the shifts in European Union (EU) defense policies, and how this war might end.

Dr. Poast is an international relations scholar. His research focuses on the political economy of security and alliance politics. He is the author of three books, including The Economics of War and Arguing About Alliances.

The interview, which took place on March 25, 2022, has been edited for length and clarity.

Is there anything you see as crucial to mitigating the longer-term impacts of this war?

First, you don’t want this to escalate into a truly direct multilateral war between multiple countries, most notably between Russia and NATO. The concern, of course, is that it could become a nuclear war. Nuclear war doesn’t necessarily mean just the launching of strategic missiles and the devastation of major cities of the two sides. The use of any tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield would still have humongous implications for Ukraine, and for the wider region. Everything from the health consequences to simply the breaking of the “nuclear taboo.” If nuclear weapons are being used, even on “smaller scale,” in Ukraine, will that suddenly change the calculus?

The second thing is to minimize the humanitarian crisis, and that means the help already being provided to refugees. Poland is taking on a big burden in terms of the immediate response—how can they be assisted? And how can we ensure that people who want to flee are able to flee? Addressing the humanitarian consequences of the war, especially if it ends up being a long-term, protracted conflict, is absolutely critical.

The third thing is the economic side of it. If the international community can continue to keep the coordination together on economic sanctions, that would bode well for being able to end this conflict sooner rather than later.

If I was giving policy advice on this, I’d say, you have to try to hold this together, because if these sanctions fall apart, that’s only going to benefit Russia’s war effort, and could even enable this conflict to stay protracted. Though the scholar in me says this is going to break apart.

That points directly to what the international community would need to do. What can you do to ensure the coalition stays together? What financial loopholes, trade loopholes, energy loopholes, can be closed?

I think there are two hourglasses, and Putin is looking at both. One hourglass is how long it’s going to take for the international community to defect from the sanctions, and the other one is how long it’s going to take for his army to break. And I think that he thinks the sanctions hourglass will run out much sooner. He’s hoping for that, he’s waiting for that.

Some are saying that the armed invasion of Ukraine means the end of peace in Europe. What is your perspective on the regional implications?

Obviously, if Russia were to take measures that could expand this conflict, that would be the end of the “long peace in Europe.” Of course, Europe hasn’t been all that peaceful since the end of World War II. We had a number of conflicts during the Cold War. We had the invasion of Hungary. After the Cold War, we also had wars in the Balkans and Kosovo. But those wars were able to stay limited. So, what’s very key for European peace is to try to keep the war in Ukraine contained.

Having said that, you could make the argument that this war has strengthened European integration, has strengthened the EU, and strengthened NATO, if you view NATO as underpinning the EU. Some people are referring to this as the ultimate “own goal” by Putin—that if his goal was to undermine NATO and the EU, he’s actually accomplished the opposite.

NATO allies are more unified than ever when it comes to their views vis-à-vis Russia. You also have the EU suddenly acting like a major security provider, not just a forum, not just an economic project, but actually taking steps toward security unification by providing funds and direct assistance to Ukraine. This is the first time the EU’s done that. And if you think about the past several decades, there’s been so many efforts to try to create a European security identity, going back most recently to Macron. He called for the creation of a European army, and that went nowhere.

But if the EU becomes more and more of a security provider, that is a key step in the direction toward the European Union not just being a supranational institution, not just being an international organization, but actually becoming a European state.

How have NATO countries responded both individually and within the context of the alliance? Has anything surprised you, and what is appearing to be most effective?

The key thing to watch is how does NATO continue to strike this balance of providing assistance, ensuring that they’re taking measures to secure themselves, but not going so far as to potentially antagonize Russia. There are NATO countries providing “lethal aid” to Ukraine. You also have Poland serving as a conduit of this assistance. You have Germany stepping up, offering further assistance, and saying that it will increase its defense spending. You have NATO further enhancing the “Eastern flank,” by moving additional forces into eastern NATO members, such as the Baltic States.

A lot of the steps that we’re seeing NATO take are not so much surprising steps—they are things that have already been discussed, or were already kind of in motion, but we’re seeing an acceleration because of the actions of Russia.

Sending additional forces to the east is something that NATO has been doing for a while. It goes back to the Trump administration when there was a lot of controversy about Trump trying to draw down forces in Germany, but the attempt by the United States was to redeploy them further east—in Poland, the Baltic states—because that was viewed as the area that would be most important to have forces for deterrent purposes.

Something that I have found surprising so far—I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by it—has been the extent to which European countries have promised to provide more defense spending. Now, of course, we’re going to see the extent to which that actually materializes over time. Another thing that is notable is the extent to which the EU itself is taking on a defense role that very much complements what NATO is doing.

What will these shifts mean for integration on defense policy in particular?

The key will be to what extent does the EU take on a lead role on defense policy that’s separate from NATO. And it’s important to remember that NATO expansion and EU expansion went hand in hand.

There was a view that the EU is going to expand and that is going to inevitably create security obligations for NATO, even if countries are part of the EU but are not part of NATO, the concern would be that other EU members would want to defend those countries, and so they would try to bring them into NATO. That is, in many ways, why NATO expanded. They said, “we might as well bring them into NATO so we can ensure that there’s interoperability, that they’re meeting our standards, and that they’re providing the assistance to other NATO allies that we want them to provide.”

NATO has always taken the lead for European security, and the EU has kind of taken a backseat, and kind of free-loaded on the security provided by NATO. If NATO is providing security, then that allows the EU to focus on other issues, most notably on the economic side of things. We’re seeing the EU operate with a little bit more of an independent security identity. But the reality is that NATO is still very much the key player in this, and you can even say that part of the reason why the EU is taking this lead role is it’s being encouraged by the US, by key non-EU NATO allies, to do this.

Is there now an opportunity for greater cooperation between the two and what are the barriers and continued differences between NATO and the EU?

There are definitely opportunities. Where you’re seeing this most notably is Germany. Germany would be absolutely essential for the EU to have an independent security identity, but it’s also essential for NATO to be able to provide the type of assistance, or the kind of burden sharing, that’s been the desire among NATO allies. Having said that, there are still going to be potentially some points of tension between NATO and the EU.

What else does this teach us about the role of defensive security communities and their ability to coordinate collective action?

In the 1960s the international relations scholar George Liska wrote that alliances are against and only derivatively for something or someone. So to have an alliance, there typically has to be a security threat. If instead, you’re relying on the pleading of a particular member of that alliance, for example, the US for years calling for Europeans to spend more on defense, it’s less likely to happen.

You can also apply this to the EU as a whole. Years ago, my colleague Dan Kelemen, the Jean Monnet Chair in EU Politics at Rutgers University, was asked what would be the key thing to further European integration. And he said “a war”. War has a great way of focusing countries on their common efforts and indeed compelling them toward putting aside differences, putting aside concerns about sovereignty, in order to cooperate to counter that threat.

It goes back to the famous line by Charles Tilly, that “war made the state and state made war.”

Recently, non-NATO members—Finland and Sweden—attended the extraordinary NATO summit on Ukraine. What does that suggest?

This is another reason why the war that Putin has brought about is, in many ways, an “own goal.” Sweden and Finland have made it a point to not be part of NATO. Now Sweden is interesting with respect to this because they are almost a de-facto NATO member—there’s so much cooperation between NATO members’ military forces and Sweden’s military forces that further coordination could be achieved relatively easily. But nevertheless, Sweden has made this political decision to not be part of NATO and now, suddenly, they’re having that conversation. Finland is even more extreme, in that Finland has made it a point to maintain a pro-western policy, but a semi-neutral policy in terms of not becoming a NATO member, and they are now taking it very seriously.

The fact that Finland and Sweden are seriously considering becoming NATO members further strengthens NATO because it illustrates how other countries perceive it as valuable, but it also contributes even further to this sense of insecurity that Russia has.

What might the challenges be for countries that have a renewed desire to join NATO and the EU?

Something that’s been at the core of the EU project, and really the NATO project when you think about NATO expansion, is the idea of conditionality. The idea that joining the EU is not just symbolic, that joining NATO is not just symbolic, that to join, you have to have coherence in your policies.

You see this in terms of NATO trying to ensure interoperability. When a country decides that they want to join NATO it’s not just as simple as, “Oh yeah sure, you can come on in.” They first ask, “what is it that you provide, and moreover, do you pursue your security policies in a manner that’s consistent with the existing members? Do you have proper civil-military relations, proper chain of command, do your forces speak English?”

Ever since the end of the Cold War, there’s been this back and forth between the established members of NATO and the Eastern European countries wanting to have the benefits of being part of NATO, but not necessarily wanting to meet all the conditions that are required for doing that. And with the EU it’s very similar.

One complaint is that these conditions are ironclad. The reality is that these conditions are very flexible. And Ukraine is a good example of a country that’s been disenchanted a bit by the EU project and by the NATO project because of this double standard. In terms of security policies, they can look at a country like Montenegro and say, “Why is it that they get to be part of this? We have a much larger military, we’re in a position where we need more military assistance, and yet we can’t be part of the protection and the benefits that are offered by joint NATO and EU membership?”

What is being done in terms of de-escalation and creating opportunities for diplomacy?

We’ve seen a number of meetings between officials in Ukraine and Russia to try to broker a ceasefire, but these meetings haven’t really accomplished anything. And that’s not surprising because the things that could be done would either be a complete violation of Ukrainian sovereignty or it would set a precedent that other countries, especially NATO allies, would be worried about setting.

Moreover, there’s a concern that even if you do broker some sort of ceasefire, given the territorial ambitions of Russia, it’s difficult to see how that ceasefire could be sustained.

I think it is also important for people to recognize that when this conflict does end, it will not end with the ultimate defeat of Russia. It will probably also not end with the ultimate defeat of Ukraine. It will end with some sort of settlement, some sort of brokered peace.

Do you have any other policy prescriptions for NATO, the EU, or individual states?

I would say that I don’t need to make the same policy prescription that I would have made two months ago. Then, I probably would have focused on making the case for why something like NATO is valuable—it’s just hard to see the value when it’s prevented the very thing it was designed to prevent.

I think the lesson is going to be very clear—that NATO membership is valuable. Article 5 seems to be very valuable. So, you’re going to see other countries wanting to become part of that. Moreover, I think you could make a similar argument regarding the EU. You could say this shows why new membership is valuable. Because of the EU being so intertwined with NATO, it creates this deterrent effect. However, what does that mean for the countries that aren’t part of it?

That’s part of the reason why it’s going to be difficult for a Ukraine to formally say, “We will never seek NATO membership.” Would they really do that? They are now seeing exactly why it’s valuable.