Press Releases US: Speech by High Representative Josep Borrell at Georgetown University on current geopolitical challenges

US: Speech by High Representative Josep Borrell at Georgetown University on current geopolitical challenges

Distinguished faculty, dear students, ladies and gentlemen,

I have now served over four years as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.

Four years during which multiple crises spilled onto us like a violent river overflowing its bank.

I will spare you the list of crises we are experiencing. You know them as well as I do.

Let me reflect today on what seems to me our continent’s major challenge: Europe rediscovering – through Ukraine – the harshness of the world.  A harshness, for which we have been poorly prepared.

Why so? Europe was poorly prepared for the harshness of the world because the project of European unity was built in opposition to the very idea of power politics.

Its aim was to eradicate among Europeans the instinct of war, which had caused us so much trouble over the centuries. European nations had spent centuries at war. First on behalf of religion. Then in the name of the nation, the will to power, or imperial ambitions. Europe was the continent with the highest number of inter-state wars.

When in the aftermath of World War II, the idea of European unity began to emerge, Europe’s top priority was to put in place a system that would put an end to the wars that had ravaged the continent.

This was the starting point of European integration. The new Europe would be built around the economy. Negotiations and compromise would defuse conflict.

And it has been a great success. It brought 80 years of peace within our Union. Today, the very idea of war between European Union member states is unimaginable.

But the downside for Europeans is that we began to think – or perhaps wanted to think – that war was equally disappearing in the rest of the world. Or that, even if conflicts persisted elsewhere, they no longer concerned us. This has been the received wisdom in Europe for many decades.

This worked well during the Cold War. As, by definition, the war in question remained cold. And, in fact, Europe’s security was ensured by an external actor, the United States. So it was almost as if Europeans were saying, ‘For war, please call the US.’

After the end of the Cold War, the belief in a world without war only grew. We believed in the end of history and expected the triumph of democracy. Russia became a G8 member, and China joined the WTO.

We were told that globalization would make borders meaningless, some spoke of the “end of geography”.

But what do we see today? Two violent conflicts in the world – one in Ukraine, the other in the Middle East – where issues of territoriality are at stake.

In Ukraine, we are facing a conflict between a sovereign state, Ukraine, and Russia, an imperial power – or more precisely, an imperialist power – that still has a colonial vision of its identity. This is the thread that runs through tsarist politics, Soviet politics and now Putin’s policy.

As long as Ukraine remained within Russia’s orbit, Putin pretended to accept the formal principle of an independent Ukraine. But the moment he realized that Ukraine was likely to break away from Russian influence and gravitate towards Europe, he set out to destabilize it. We all know the different stages: annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbass.

As destabilization failed to achieve the desired results, Russia opted for an open war of aggression with the idea of waging a swift, decisive campaign. They expected victory within three days. We all know what followed.

On 24 February 2022, the forgotten harshness of the world returned to Europe with intensity.

Europe reacted in a remarkable manner that was neither guaranteed at the outset, nor expected by Russia. It was Europe’s moment of awakening as a geopolitical player.

We took strong and decisive action:

— We have adopted 13 successive sanctions packages, including freezing all Russian assets held in Europe.

We virtually stopped our energy imports from Russia, a move that seemed unthinkable. And with the G7, we have capped the price of Russian oil sold by sea, thanks to the de-facto monopoly held by European insurers on maritime freight – a little known instrument of European power.

— We have taken the historic decision that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union. A step that will fundamentally change the European Union.

— We provided massive economic and financial assistance to Ukraine, including by supporting member states hosting Ukrainian refugees. The commitments we have made now exceed EUR 110 billion

— In addition, we provided substantial military aid of EUR 28 billion, either through bilateral aid from member states or through EU mechanisms. And for this year alone, Member States have budgeted at least EUR 21 billion in additional military assistance.

This makes us by far the largest financial supporters of Ukraine. However, the massive financial, military and political support of the United States has also been decisive to keep Ukraine in the fight.

Russia has undoubtedly suffered a colossal strategic defeat. It failed at the gates of Kyiv, it suffered an enormous setback when Ukraine liberated over half the territory Russia had captured and unblocked the Black Sea routes. And the long-term prospects of Russia’s economy are much bleaker than recent figures would suggest.

But Russia has not yet lost the war, nor has it changed its strategic calculation. Today we are entering a delicate new phase. It is important that we fully understand the magnitude of the situation, assess the difficulties we face, and adapt accordingly.

What is this new phase?

Firstly, the Russian regime has regained political space. Putin did that in a number of ways. On the one hand, he further consolidated power internally. The demise of Wagner leader Prigozhin and the recent murder of Alexei Navalny sent a signal that absolutely no opposition would be permitted.

On the other hand, he was able to move towards a war economy, by converting parts of civil industry into military production. This was facilitated by the authoritarian nature of the regime, as well as a formidable network for evading sanctions, particularly through Central Asia.

Russia’s political space was further amplified by the horrific attacks by Hamas on 7 October. The Hamas attack and the resulting Israeli offensive have shifted the centre of gravity of global attention. Many countries in the global South, which supported us only half-heartedly on Ukraine, now point to double standards when witnessing the scale of the carnage in Gaza and the failure of the international community to step in.

The call for respect of international law has become much more difficult for us when the international community fails to stop the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of our time. This is also what I told the Security Council two days ago in New York. If the two-state solution is really what we all agree on, the Security Council should now define the parameters to achieve it.

The second reason why the war in Ukraine entered into a new phase, is that Russia is waging an asymmetrical war. It simply needs not to lose in order to win, whereas Ukraine needs to win in order not to lose. That’s a fundamental difference. Because for Putin, Russian lives are cheap. But Ukraine has neither the means nor the desire to sacrifice large numbers of its population.

As the lethality of the war increases, this disparity between the two societies grows, shifting further in Russia’s favour. Moscow has adapted by strengthening its defensive positions, using its advantages in terms of ammunition, manpower, drones and electronic warfare.

For Russia, what matters is that Ukrainian losses are proportionally much greater than its own, in accordance with the known principles of wars of attrition.

Wrongly or rightly, Russia believes that it has time. That’s why calls for negotiations are pointless now, unless one expects Ukraine to simply surrender.

The context is therefore very worrying. But you can be sure that Europe’s stance on Ukraine will not weaken. Nor should that of America.

There are lessons to learn from history. Appeasement and isolationism have not worked in the past.

In 1939, the rallying cry of the French pro-appeasement crowd was: “Pourquoi mourir pour Dantzig?” “Why die for Danzig”, the Polish city.

And in 1940, when war was already raging in Europe, large crowds turned out on the Washington Mall, just a few minutes from here, to protest against US involvement.

But war came anyway, to both France and to the Unites States.

Today, the question is not even whether European or Americans should “die for Donbas”. It is rather, if we are willing to provide the assistance needed to help Ukrainians stop dying for Donbas – and the rest of their country.

Our lesson from history must be, that if we allow Russia to erase Ukraine from the map, we will pay a much higher price later on.

In Europe, this realisation has largely unified our strategic view of Russia.

The vast majority of Europeans now see Russia as a direct threat to their security. This sentiment is widely shared from Riga to Lisbon. The possibility of a conventional high-intensity war in Europe can no longer be ruled out. Almost all European capitals are now working on this scenario, hoping of course that it will never materialize.

This realization has several consequences:

First, we are urgently looking for ammunition, anywhere we can find it. Because Ukrainian forces have shown that if they are sufficiently supplied and entrenched, they can inflict very high costs on Russian forces for minimal territorial gains.

An initiative by the Czech President has just identified 800,000 rounds of artillery shells, many of which will be in Ukraine in a matter of weeks. And the ammunition production capacity of European industry has already increased by 50% in the last two years.

We are also ramping up the capacity of our defence industry to produce more. The quality of European military equipment has been exceptional for the past two years. But admittedly, we have often been too slow to provide our best technologies.

We hesitated on modern tanks, we hesitated on cruise missiles, we hesitated on F-16s. In the end, we agreed to send all of those, but the hesitation has cost lives.

Ukraine’s path to turning the tide of war can only lead through technological superiority, including modern battle drones and artificial intelligence. And I don’t need to remind you that on that front, nobody can do more than the United States.

The second consequence is that Europe must, more than ever, solidify its credibility as a future guarantor of its own security. This is called Europe’s strategic responsibility. It will take time, require sacrifices and demand collective action. All this is easier said than done.

While we indeed agree that Russia is an enormous threat to Europe, our view on how to respond to this threat is far less unified. Let me explain this by looking more closely at Germany and France, the two countries at the heart of our union.

Germany’s response is captured in one word: “Zeitenwende” – a turning point in history. This turning point came to the tune of a EUR 100 billion investment package in the German army. Much of it is spent on US arms, indicating Germany’s conviction that in the medium term, European security without the US is unimaginable. France on the other hand, concluded that Europe must stand on its own feet in matters of defence as soon as possible.

This is of course a very schematic picture. Poland and the Baltics want both, a strong domestic arms industry and the US to back them. On the other hand, some EU member states have a history of military neutrality.

Against this background, Europe’s strategic responsibility must be built and developed. First of all within NATO, where a European pillar should be established. A pillar developed in parallel with continued strong US commitment in favour of EU Security.

The United States may have other strategic priorities outside Europe. Any state always has its own agenda. But when I appeal to the commitment of the United States, it is simply to remind us that the United States themselves has a fundamental interest in ensuring that Europe’s security is guaranteed and that its stability is strengthened so that its prosperity is not threatened.

Why? First, because Europe is by far the most important partner of the United States. Second, because if the United States were to disengage from Europe by misfortune, the credibility of all its alliances outside Europe would inevitably be undermined.

Let’s not forget that the Russians intervened in Syria because they saw that we remained idle in Crimea. Let us not forget that the Russians intervened in Ukraine because they saw the United States disengage from Afghanistan.

Our strategic interests are deeply intertwined, even if in terms of military, we have to do more and better as Europeans. And doing things better is in my view as important, if not more, than doing more. Because if one looks at the European military landscape, what prevails is not the lack of military effort, but its dispersion and duplication among EU members.

So let me say it loud and clear. Europe has changed dramatically. We are now on alert because our vital interests are at stake. But the awakening of Europe should not imply that the US should rest easy. We both need to remain vigilant, because our strength comes from our unity. Working together as we have done for decades.

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