Can the war in Ukraine get European defence out of the rut ?

English translation by Yurri Clavilier of La guerre en Ukraine peut-elle sortir la défense européenne de l’ornière ?

‘Getting out of the rut’ is not an appropriate image. Indeed, to this day European defence remains non-existent despite almost 72 years since the advent of European construction which aimed to overcome the devastation WW2 brought to our continent and our societies alike.

For lack of debate, for lack of interest, of military culture and political courage, European defence is the great missing piece of our co-constructions. Despite programs with lofty titles and ‘initiatives’ with no future, the European Union has no defence.

So, I will not talk about the defence of Europe, but rather about how to spark the interest of European public opinions on their defence. Why? Because I am a former officer and now a communication professional, perhaps also because wars led me ‘to the gates of hell’ and I am convinced that we should not suffer them but lead them.

After a first experience in Cambodia, I intervened in Rwanda where we managed to side with the genocidaires. Then I went to Sarajevo during the Balkan war, and, powerless, I witnessed the massacres of Srebrenica. I had been raised in the remembrance of The Holocaust and I believed in in the ‘never again’. I still cannot accept it.

To be interested on the question of defence, one must feel threatened.

For a long time, I sought to understand what made these genocides possible, probably a blend of indifference and unconsciousness. And when Putin’s Russia initiated its war against Ukraine, I had the feeling that eventually the time had come: the time to interest public opinion, which is the key to any political endeavour.

Indeed, for three decades, since the end of the confrontation with the Warsaw Pact, we in Europe thought that we no longer had enemies, and we silently disarmed: most European countries folded their armies or kept bonsai trees, this miniature tree that fits on a living room shelf instead of a forest… Great Britain and France made a divergent choice, as usual but with the same discretion: their armies turned into a Light Expeditionary Forces to intervene out of sight, allowing a few political leaders to decide on their own that this was essential.

The advantage of keeping such a low profile is not having to account for the succession of failures in these foreign interventions.
The disadvantage, of course, is that it was necessary to desensitize public opinion to military affairs, which is how France was able to participate in 32 wars without ever being at war…
Throughout Europe, public opinions were the missing key of these military transformations, I will try to give some reasons why.

And so I will start with the military’s silence. Not (really not!) that I would like to see soldiers involved in political affairs – speaking of which, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who imposed on the French military the culture of silence in order to monopolize the space thus created, but it would make sense for professionals to express themselves on military affairs and for the latter to be restored as an indispensable pillar of our society if we want to devote the necessary means it requires, the means to resist.

The War against Ukraine, a window of opportunity for Europe?

February 2022, when Putin unleashes his war against Ukraine, it scares off the whole of Europe who is right to be so. Europe managed to build the largest space of prosperity and democracy, but without any security system of its own. The Russian war against Ukraine is therefore a shock and a breaking point.

A shock because we had reversed reality: we had decided that we were no longer concerned by War, as if this was the way it could be played out. Yet, to the question of who our enemies are, we do not have a say… while facing empires become naturally oppressive.

A breaking point after decades of denial: yes, we are concerned by War, yes, we remain unprepared, and yes, we are and will always be threatened.

NATO’s relevance seemed to be fading, but we are learning once more that in time of crisis, strength lies in numbers, and that without strength, we can only suffer.

So, thanks to the War in Ukraine, thanks to the threat we all felt, we can talk about defence and temporarily debate this crucial subject…

However, for such endeavour, one needs to be acquainted with military culture and I am struck in all these debates on Ukraine by how few people still have it. Our society must however be able to seize these subjects to appropriate them, to understand this particular language in order to grasp the stakes and the consequences.

How can we reintegrate this military culture into our social debates?

Should we return to military service? I do not think it is necessary to exhaust our societies with a system that mostly taught boredom and developed safe-conducts. It would be more appropriate to organize short careers in the army to ensure a real interweaving with civil society, rather than allowing a military world to develop and become isolated, drawn apart. Moreover, it is essential to break with the disastrous culture of silence, the ‘Grande Muette’ – i.e., the Great Mute

This is why I write and communicate on these subjects of war: our society can only protect itself if it can debate military issues. The public is there, we must just feed it.

Another hurdle to overcome is of course the legacy of the past, specifically the question of national sovereignty. How can we build a powerful defence if we cannot go beyond our own history? While doing so it is of paramount importance to not pit nations against European construction, but rather bring these bricks together in a device that gives it strength and power at an acceptable cost. We did this well regarding our industry, and I will come back to this later.

An Airbus equivalent for the armaments industry.

A European defence can be based on national armies, or even regional units, as long as they share the essential means: the way they operate, train, command, treat intelligence and, of course, their weaponry.

This is why controversies surrounding the nationality of X or Y equipment must come to a definitive end by creating an Airbus of Armaments, thus avoiding building a tank or an airplane of the ‘future’ which would be the ultimate manifestation of our disagreements and national claims. The reference, the model is Airbus, nowadays a serious and respected competitor to Boeing, because of its European size and efficiency.

So, if we want to resist the threats that will continue to arise – because after Russia’s war against Ukraine, other empires will come to threaten us – we must first make European defence an asset shared by our societies.

And let us not delude ourselves, the question of France’s military budget shows it once again: no member country of the Union has the means to constitute alone a complete and coherent defence system, ranging from nuclear deterrence to the capacity to intervene in a disaster.

Only the Union has the necessary size to offer us a defence worthy of the name, but it must be convinced of this, and ‘it’ is our public opinion.

The public is there, we must just feed it [Yurri Clavilier comments]

Yes, the public is there indeed. My generation came after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, yet we are acquainted with War. Or should I say with wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Nagorno-Karabagh and now Ukraine, these are some of the many conflicts we witness unfold for years throughout our path to adulthood. By its intensity and its stakes, Ukraine represents an absolute rupture as many among all generations in Europe understand the threat before us.

Anyone can witness that there is now an unprecedent thirst for knowledge and a desire to better grasp the nature of this war, of War in general. This newfound interest is furthermore fuelled by the challenges ahead, in the near future. Empires, homes of totalitarian dystopias do not hide anymore their ambition to unleash their armies to conquer and dominate their neighbouring bastions of democracy. Beyond, lies the danger that climate change poses, too little has been done so far and we are getting dangerously close for anything more to be too late.

In Europe, we have enjoyed a peace and prosperity made possible by the combination of our mutual effort to set aside our historical grievances and by the protection offered thanks to the United States’ unrivalled military might, all while closing an eye on building a more integrated common European defence. Russia’s cruel onslaught against Ukraine is proof that we can no longer ignore the necessity to reinforce our continent’s security, significantly and definitively.

Europe must learn for good the language of power. No more promises of “clean wars led remotely“ or enjoying the “dividends of peace”. The bravery of Ukrainians gave us time, for their sake and ours, we shall not waste it, we might not get another chance, and let it not be forgotten that the consequence of failure is the death of more innocents.

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