Declawing the Russian Bear: The Western response to the invasion of Ukraine

Professor Amelia Hadfield and Christian Turner

On the morning of February 24th, Europe woke up to the spectre of war hanging over the continent. It should not have been a surprise. We’ve had numerous indications  – both diplomatic and geopolitical – of Russia’s aggressive intentions, including clear illustrations of Russian hardware making its way inexorably toward to the Ukrainian border, as repeatedly highlighted by US and UK intelligence. Diplomatic overtures were tried and rebuffed, in various formats, including the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine that Berlin, Paris, London and Washington D.C. adopted. Germany and France pushed most avidly for a diplomatic solution with Russia, while the UK and USA stuck to stark warnings about Russian intentions, the need to arm Ukraine, and the consequences for Europe of not taking Putin seriously.

Diplomatic options collapsed on 21st February, when – hours after President Putin had indicated supportive of a French-led effort for a bilateral US-Russia summit –  Putin began his campaign with a three-pronged assault: ripping up the Minsk Accords, formally recognising the pro-Russia, separatist-controlled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as autonomous regions, and – three days later – the full-scale assault on Ukraine itself.

President Putin’s invasion was predated by a speech on 21st February, where he attempted to give an indication of his grievances over Ukraine. Yet, the reality was starkly different. A rambling and unhinged speech saw him decry the Ukrainian state, even calling into question its very existence, stating its very founding was a result of the Bolshevik Russians. Yet, his focus was not entirely on Ukraine. He heavily criticised NATO expansion, linking it to destabilisation in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. He even labelled the collapse of the USSR and independence of the former Soviet Republics as a ‘mistake’, an attack that will have only escalated worries over sovereignty of the Baltic states.

Responses and Options

The concern for Europe is grave. At a time of humanitarian crisis, owing in part to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the conflict in Yemen, instability in Northern Africa and broader socio-economic challenges, Europe is now under siege, as it braces itself for a wave of Ukrainians fleeing conflict. There is also a deeper and more pressing concern – that the Russia-Ukrainian conflict could escalate to other parts of Eastern Europe, starting with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which Putin has long coveted, and indeed targeted with myriad embargoes and restrictions.

NATO has triggered Article 4, in which any member can formally bring to the North Atlantic Council any issue of concern, including those “related to the security of a member country”. On 24 February 2022, former Warsaw Pact states including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia formally requested Article 4 consultations. Article 4 itself reads as follows:

“The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

 The indication is clear. Both this group of eight states, and NATO itself as a security entity, feels sufficiently threatened in terms of their collective, territorial integrity, as well as the political independence of its individual states, and European security in general, to respond. While this does not represent the full-scale response triggered by Article 5 (which can only be taken in response to an attack to a NATO member), NATO’s response has been swift and generally resolute, deploying parts of its response force to its eastern flank, because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now extends its military power up to the borders of several NATO member states. By 25 February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued that NATO’s response constituted “the first time the treaty’s response force has been used for collective security”.

NATO Response Force constitutes a multi-theatre structure of land, maritime and air forces, deployed to underwrite NATO’s overall presence in Europe, but specifically to be in a position to respond swiftly and decisively to the increasingly real risk of Ukraine falling wholly into Russian hands. In terms of numbers, Stoltenberg confirmed only that ‘thousands’ of NATO troops would be deployed, under the aegis of NATO’s Response Force which makes up    40,000 troops (having tripled in size since 2014, when Putin first invaded Ukraine by annexing Crimea). Biden himself has approved a further 7,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to Germany, which brings to 12,000 the total of American forces sent to Europe.

In a response that outstripped the impact of the territorial gains made by Russia in Ukraine, Stoltenberg argued that the situation – and NATO’s response – “goes far beyond Ukraine… this is about how Russia is actually challenging, contesting core values for our security.” European security values however need to reasonably supported by both hardware and software. Bolstered by the commitment received by US President Joe Biden, NATO appears ready to deploy the troops and hardware required to “ensure strong and credible deterrence and defence across the Alliance, now and in the future.” The software however, constitutes the diplomatic, financial/ sanctions-based and ultimately treaty structures that will make clear the lengths that Europe is prepared to go to defend its values, and those of Ukraine. 

An unresponsive, or worse –  divided West – is precisely what Putin is banking on, helping him to ‘decapitate the government’ in Kiev and subdue Ukraine as a whole. In the first few days after the invasion, diplomatic foot-dragging nearly brought this about. A Russian-backed government, on the basis of a swift Russian military victory however, still remains mercifully unlikely. NATO appears both united, and clearer than it has been previously of maintaining membership options to European states with shared security values. This is short shrift for Ukraine of course, for whom membership of NATO (and indeed the EU), has been devoutly wished for, but pragmatically impossible.

As for Europe? The threat of collective continental conflict is arguably greater now than since the end of the Second World War, with one or two Cold War exceptions. Fortunately, the Biden administration is now wholly re-committed to the defence of NATO allies, and indeed NATO itself, after the entire edifice itself was under threat during President Trump. Yet, it is European countries, not America, that now have to mobilise and unite either within groups, or within NATO, or under the aegis of the EU. Despite near-universal animosity across Europe to Putin’s actions, such unity is not assured.  Institutional fatigue and financial constrains remain, with the remnants of Covid-19 hampering economic growth, mobility and access, exhausting much-needed political capital. The shadow of Brexit,  with its divisive Article 50 talks, continues to strain the sinews of European cooperation.

Mini-lateralism : E3 Options for the UK?

Could mini-lateralism hold the key to post-Brexit European diplomacy?  It is telling that in recent months, despite considerable dialogue across capitals, the E3 format of the UK, France and Germany has not been utilised. Created in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw attempted to create a format of discussion and dialogue to prevent further ruptures between London, Paris and Berlin. The tripartite group has operated at its best on the Iran nuclear discussions, playing a key role in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Accord, before President Trump pulled the plug on the treaty. There were also some attempts by France and Germany to strengthen the group in the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum, who viewed the forum as an important vehicle by which to keep London firmly involved in European decision-making.

Sadly, a lack of interest from Britain itself in this option, as well as frequent post-departure acrimony departure has seen the desire diminish among all parties. Beyond traditional capital-to-capital bilateral connections with European partners, and its security-specific role within NATO, at a time when collective European security is facing its greatest threat, the UK currently has no formal means by which to coordinate diplomatic initiatives with the EU. This is a strange and unsustainable state of affairs. While Britain has played a diplomatically active role in the build-up to the invasion of Ukraine, this was certainly adjacent to, rather than alongside the EU. For some, this latitude is precisely what Global Britain signifies; for others, this distance is risky at best, and isolationist at worst, with the UK shut out of both EU-led discussions, and key bilateral meetings, including Paris-Berlin. Urgent and immediate action must now be taken by London to reverse this trend.

 The UK must re-establish trust across European capitals, especially Berlin and Paris. It must take the lead in organising and hosting discussions as part of the E3 format, extending invitation whenever relevant to the European Union, the United States, the Baltic states and the Visegrad Four. Going further, then UK also needs to mobilise the full strategic capacity at its disposal, drawing on its significant military, security, and diplomatic reserves to showcase that whilst it has left the European Union, it has not left Europe; that the UK will continue to be an active participant in the European way of life and its protection from nefarious influences. In turn, France, Germany and indeed the EU will need to welcome these overtures and be prepared to abandon the stubbornness of the EU Treaties in order to allow for this needed collaboration.

Collective Europe vs.  German Catalysis

The last few days have seen the UK close ranks with the EU, and EU members themselves align. While both have been pulling in the same direction in terms of public statements of outrage at Putin’s blatant violations of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty. These have taken the form of targeted sanctions, provisions to support the unfolding refugee crisis, and – somewhat surprisingly – hard power assets.

In terms of sanctions, the EU (along with the US and Canada) have backed bans on a host of Russian banks, as well as the Swift global payments network, reducing at a stroke both regular import-export between Russia and the West, as well as diminishing Russia’s ability to liquidate national assets (including those held within its Central Bank) to fund its war chest. Overall, sanctions are aimed at making it increasingly more difficult for Russian companies – including those providing oil and gas supplies to Europe – to trade with their European and British counterparts. Weekend summits saw the EU provide the sort of support its generally well-known for: swift humanitarian aid to crisis hot-spots. This time around, this includes supporting Poland as the prime destination of choice for Ukrainians, as well as coordinating food and medical supplies to and within Ukraine.

The most surprising development however is the hard-power decision taken by the EU, and even more surprisingly – that it has come at the instigation of Germany.  Despite its reputation as a post-war “peace project,” the bloc is now planning a far more assertive role in order to assist Ukraine in confronting and repelling the ongoing Russian invasion; beyond the coordination of medical supplies and finance to Ukraine, the EU is now prepared to add shipments of weapons. If EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell can get member states to agree, then the EU will shortly unveil a program not seen in the existence of the bloc, which could enable all 27 EU countries to offer ‘lethal assistance’. 

The catalyst has been the German government, which on February 27 announced it would independently authorise the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine. German Chancellor Scholz called an emergency session of the German parliament to discuss the war, Scholz, announced that his government would now establish a dedicated €100 billion fund to tackle two goals: swiftly undertaking a long-overdue upgrade of its armed forces, committing to the NATO goal of 2% GDP spend on defence. This is a seismic shift for German constitutional and foreign policy: having historically firmly (even fervently) prohibited sending any arms into conflict zones.


For NATO, the EU and individual states including Germany, a Rubicon has been crossed. After the first day or two of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all parties echoed the same refrain: no one had any intention of being drawn into the dangers of military conflict with Russia. But after the relentless ongoing bombardment of Kiev, and dozens of other Ukrainian cities, coupled with stalwart Ukrainian resistance – military and political – outrage and fury have combined to produce collective response.  

It is often in the rubble of war that the foundations of strengthened institutions and alliances are laid. During times of peace and prosperity, the commonality between allies can feel unnecessary and be allowed to fray. Now, with Europe facing its gravest threat since the turn of the century, it is the time to abandon divisions and unite with the knowledge that a common threat faces us all. Our culture, our shared history and our very way of life is all threat if we do not.