Russia’s war against Ukraine is a shot in the arm for the transatlantic partnership after several years of concern in Europe and the United States about their gradual, long-term drifting apart. Today, the broad transatlantic community find itself more united in purpose than it has been for some time, which may ultimately give it a new lease on life. However, how long the reinvigorating impact of the war will last is uncertain.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 initially had a positive impact on transatlantic unity, albeit with limitations. However, this eventually faded as many in the West came to see the situation in Donbas and Crimea as a regrettable yet tolerable “new normal”. If the fighting drags on while Russia occupies parts of Ukraine — a very possible scenario — a repetition of such a dynamic could happen in the coming months and years.
Security and economy: strengthening ties
The most obvious and consequential impact of the war on the transatlantic partnership has been in the security realm. NATO is experiencing a revived sense of unity and urgency, based on a clear reconfirmation of its core mission as one of collective territorial defence in Europe. The war has also emphasised the United States’ centrality as Europe’s security provider, something that had been questioned in recent years due to, among other things, the US pivot to Asia and European debates around strategic autonomy.
From Washington’s perspective, hindrances in the relationship — such as some European countries’ reluctance to take on a greater share of the security burden in their continent or to reduce their energy dependence on Russia (exemplified by Germany on both counts), or the desire by some for a more independent geopolitical path (epitomised by France) — have been shelved, at least for now. The war might lead to substantial progress toward solving tensions between the two sides as regards Europe assuming a greater share of the security burden.
The war also confirms for Central and Eastern European countries the decision to put their trust in defence ties with Washington, even though, at the same time, it also reinforces their doubts about Berlin and Paris as partners in this sphere. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden could soon apply for NATO membership, and post-Brexit United Kingdom advertises itself to the European Union and the United States as a key transatlantic security actor.
The war may also delay, perhaps indefinitely, the Biden administration putting pressure on some European allies — especially Hungary and Poland — to reverse their democratic backsliding. Such a de-prioritisation would be a mistake on the part of Washington, but it would nonetheless put on ice one potential element of transatlantic tension.
The impact of the war on transatlantic economic ties is likely to be much weaker, despite the damage it inflicts on the global economy, which hurts especially Europe but also the United States. Ukraine and even Russia are simply not consequential factors in transatlantic economic relations — that is, in terms of trade or investment — compared to their near-existential role in the security sphere.
One partial exception is energy. Before the invasion, rising prices and fears about Europe’s dependency on Russian supplies had led to efforts to find transatlantic alternatives, as with the export of more US liquefied natural gas to Europe. A lasting war in Ukraine and matching European and US economic decoupling from Russia could see more moves toward a closer transatlantic energy coupling. They could also boost the importance of the recently created EU-US Trade and Technology Council as a nexus of closer transatlantic economic cooperation.
What is more, the Biden administration’s efforts to ease economic tensions with the European Union, which had built up over the years before culminating under Trump’s presidency, should make it easier for the two sides to weather the economic impact of the war collaboratively — at least initially.
Further ahead, the major post-war reconstruction that will be necessary in Ukraine could provide Europe and the United States with an opportunity to work together on a large economic project with major political repercussions, following the example of the Marshall Plan after the Second World War.
A transatlantic approach to China?
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will also affect the development of a transatlantic approach to China. While it reinforces the hand of the transatlanticists in Washington and the strategic rationale for the United States’ role in NATO and Europe, all the signs still point to China and Asia remaining the top US priority for the foreseeable future. Only the security situation in Europe worsening — in the case of Russia’s military moves spreading beyond Ukraine — might change this, though even then not necessarily for the long term.
Beijing’s more or less open support of Russia is likely to reduce European illusions about China as a geopolitical actor and drive greater alignment with the United States in viewing it as more of a rival — or even a threat — than a partner. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine could also lead to a greater shared understanding across the Atlantic about the need to reduce dependencies on China just as much as on Russia.
However, these drivers of closer transatlantic alignment on China can be counterbalanced by the economic impact of the war in Europe, where many will not want to pay on any additional price of decoupling from China at this time. What is more, the need for European countries to focus on the security crisis in their neighbourhood will reduce their bandwidth — at least for the time being — for building on recent efforts to define Europe’s strategic role, alongside the United States, in the Indo-Pacific.
What could weaken the transatlantic axis
The impact of the war on the transatlantic partnership could ultimately be determined more by its duration than any final outcome, inasmuch as there can be a clear one in the short to medium term. The longer the fighting lasts, especially if at a lower level of intensity or restricted to eastern Ukraine eventually, the more probable the emergence of divisions within the EU as regards the war and Russia-related policies, with a knock-on effect on relations with the United States.
A long-lasting economic shock with sustained inflation or even stagflation resulting from the war will fuel public discontent across Europe and the United States, which could once again boost intra-EU and transatlantic divergence. Especially with both sides just emerging from two years of the costly COVID-19 pandemic, tighter monetary policy by the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve could make things worse in this regard. This could slowly push the United States in particular toward a more inward focus.
This leads to a final consideration, which is that any positive impact of the war in Ukraine on the transatlantic partnership could be lost as a result of the US presidential election in 2024, or, to a degree, the 2022 midterms. A serious economic downturn due to the effects of the war would increase the probability of a second win for Donald Trump or the election of another president sharing his nationalist, unilateralist, and EU- and NATO-critical views.
For Europe, this means that the reaffirmation of the United States’ crucial security role in the continent cannot be totally guaranteed beyond the next two and a half years. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that the war in Ukraine will still be ongoing in some form beyond 2024 and have lost some of its crisis urgency in Washington and European capitals. This means that, however improved the transatlantic partnership is today as a result of the war, this coming period will also be marked by nagging European concern about the return of Trump or Trumpism to the White House. Meanwhile, emerging divisions over Ukraine and Russia-related policy in Europe may prompt renewed US frustration with any remaining European security complacency or renewed striving for strategic autonomy. The revival of such a cycle of mutual concern and frustration could cost the transatlantic partnership what it has gained since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.