Russia’s Aggression and a Paradigm Shift: Towards a More Geopolitically and Security-Oriented EU?

March 2024

Vitalii Rishko

Research Fellow

With the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has undergone a series of transformations. The era of peace dividends has ended, prompting the EU to recalibrate its posture and evolve into a more geopolitically focused community, enhancing its profile in defence and security. Therefore, Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 was a tipping point for the EU (Lazarou et al. 2023) to transition from merely a peace project to a peace and security project, necessitating closer cooperation on defence matters. This includes strengthening the domestic production and coordination between defence industries to meet the needs of EU member states and bolstering external aid.

The EU has taken a step previously deemed unthinkable – deciding to provide and finance military and other forms of assistance to Ukraine. Some may argue that emotions and fear drove this decision. Others view it as a rational and pragmatic move, allowing it to weaken the enemy’s war machine without deploying its forces. As a result, the EU’s aid to Ukraine during the first year following the invasion amounted to over 67 billion euros (European Union) in military, economic, and humanitarian support. The EU has also provided funds and arms on the bilateral member states level based on individual commitments, available capacities, and political will.

Many cite so-called “fatigue” over the war of attrition, while others point to the lack of an endgame strategy vis-à-vis Russia and the slow advances of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.”
Despite the significant achievements of the Ukrainian army on the ground, the aid to Ukraine from the EU has been questioned and, at times, undermined for various reasons. Many cite so-called “fatigue” over the war of attrition, while others point to the lack of an endgame strategy vis-à-vis Russia and the slow advances of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. This debate, however, disregards Ukraine’s considerable successes on the ground in 2022 and its effective operations in targeting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in 2023. Accountability issues also loom large, given that financing such a massive aid package requires considerable money and effective control over its spending.


Recent European Elections, Member-State Level Gamble, and the Hungarian Game

In addition to the impact of unfolding realities on the Russo-Ukrainian war battlefield, other factors must be considered. These include the influence of several elections in 2023, such as those in Slovakia, where Robert Fico and his party pledged to halt military aid to Ukraine. There is also the rise of populism and right-wing parties, exemplified by the Dutch elections, introducing uncertainty over the future government’s stance on Ukraine aid. Amidst these considerations, internal divisions within the EU between member states and institutions on the substance, quantity, and price of assistance to Ukraine were apparent.

One notable case illustrates the discord between Hungary and the EU (Gray 2023). Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán has a reputation for blocking various initiatives supporting Ukraine, sanctioning Russia, and maintaining a coherent EU policy on Russia and Ukraine. Orbán’s decision to play a dangerous game involves blackmailing both the EU and Ukraine over aid, thereby undermining the joint efforts of the EU to support not only Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself but also jeopardising the EU’s long-term security, inherently linked to that of Ukraine.

Budapest has voiced numerous ultimatums (Rishko 2023), directing demands to Brussels to unfreeze funding frozen by the European Commission in response to Hungary’s illiberal tendencies and growing attacks on democratic liberties. Simultaneously, they have been directed to Kyiv, aiming to force Ukraine to review its policy concerning the ethnic Hungarian minority in the Transcarpathian (Zakarpattya) region in the context of education. This strategy of maximising Budapest’s potential benefits through blackmail is reminiscent of Turkey’s recent tactics concerning NATO’s enlargement, as witnessed by Finland’s and Sweden’s accession processes.

Internal divisions within the EU between member states and institutions on the substance, quantity, and price of assistance to Ukraine were apparent.”

A Pivotal Election Year: 2024 and Political Landscapes in the United States and European Parliament

The Time Magazine titled 2024 the most significant election year in history (Ewe 2023), with elections spanning all continents. Among the crucial ones are the presidential elections in the US and elections to the European Parliament, both poised to have a tremendous impact on the support for Ukraine.

As the electoral campaign in the US unfolds amid a significantly polarised society, the question of American aid to Ukraine takes a prominent place on the agenda. The potential reelection of Donald Trump has already prompted preparations for a worst-case scenario in Europe. Within the EU, there is apprehension that Trump might not only abandon Ukraine but also Europe, given his past criticisms of NATO and promises of US withdrawal. There is a fear that even if Trump does not opt for this drastic measure, America’s commitment to Europe’s security might diminish. Trump’s consistent criticism of multilateralism, a core tenet of EU external relations, adds to the concerns. Additionally, the anticipated acceleration of the US pivot to Asia will likely become a focal point for the future administration in deterring China, amplifying the geopolitical significance of the Indo-Pacific region.

This potential refocus of the US from Europe is especially troubling, considering the ongoing debate in Europe about the preparation and imminence of a possible Russian attack on Europe in the next five or more years (Camut 2024). The current situation, where Congress struggles to agree on funding for Ukraine aid, coupled with the US’s crucial mistake of linking Ukraine aid to Washington’s commitment to support Israel and Taiwan, has turned the question of supporting Ukraine into a zero-sum game, overly politicised, and connected to US domestic issues (Applebaum 2024), including legislation on migration and the Southern border. Any compromise is seen as a weakness for either the Democratic or Republican party. In response to these challenges, EU member states have accelerated providing more aid to Ukraine, including short-term support packages.

The forthcoming elections to the European Parliament are vital for various reasons, notably because the EP plays a role in planning the EU budget. Given occasional criticism from EU member states regarding the loyalty of EU institutions towards third parties and their high ambitions, this year’s elections carry added importance. Forecasts indicate that the new composition of the EP may include a more significant proportion of right-wing, populist, and eurosceptic MEPs (Cunningham et al. 2024) who could question and undermine support for Ukraine. The Identity and Democracy (ID) party grouping, comprising Alternative for Germany (AfD), National Rally (RN), Party for Freedom (PVV), Italy’s League, and Austria’s Freedom Party (O’Neal 2024), is projected to secure second or third place. Consequently, these parties may hold half of the EP seats, contrary to mainstream parties like EPP, S&D, and RE.

Amidst this populist surge, reaching annual agreements on Ukraine aid could prove challenging. It is exemplified by reservations from member states like Hungary, which advocates for negotiations over financing Ukraine’s support each year, potentially giving Budapest leverage for blackmail and new compromises from the European Commission. Other states, including Germany, express concerns over the amount of money, accountability and necessity. Hungary’s blockage of the EC decision on financial support to Ukraine worth 50 billion euros (Peters 2024) in December 2023 underscores the potential divisions within EU member states and institutions. Given the stalled US aid and political instability, the EU’s support for Ukraine remains indispensable.

According to the EU infographic, the EU’s support for Ukraine is multilayered, demonstrating the allocation of funds. As of January 2024 (European Council, Council of the European Union), this support includes €31 billion in financial, economic, and humanitarian aid via the EU budget, €9.45 billion in grants, loans, and guarantees from EU member states, €17 billion in support for refugees within the EU, and €28 billion in military aid. This is a critical lifeline for Ukraine, sustaining its economy damaged by war and covering the functioning of the EUMAM mission, which trains Ukrainian soldiers.

Why is the 1st of February EC Decision on Ukraine Aid Pivotal for the EU?

Despite the challenges in achieving consensus on Ukraine aid, the leaders’ meeting during the Special European Council endorsed a long-term initiative: the Ukraine Facility for 2024-2027 (European Council, Council of the European Union), providing 50 billion euros in financial support. This support is contingent on Ukraine’s commitment to respecting human rights, conducting reforms, preserving democracy, respecting the EU’s economic interests, and fighting corruption and fraud.
The decision specifies that the European Council will annually debate the facility’s implementation based on a Commission report to address member states’ demands. If necessary, after two years, the European Council may invite the Commission to propose a review in the context of the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Although a challenging decision requiring concessions, it is deemed the best possible decision given the outlined challenges. The EU demonstrated its ability to make tough decisions during a crucial moment, presenting a united front, particularly in areas affecting the EU’s security and defence.
The adoption of this decision holds greater significance than may initially appear. It is vital for the EU as the financial investment in Ukraine’s resilience and defence capabilities contributes to the security of the Union itself, both in the short and long terms, recognising that the EU’s security is interconnected with Ukraine’s security. This is not a mere act of charity, as sometimes oversimplified by media or politicians; rather, it represents a realist foreign policy approach by employing the minimax principle – minimising Russia’s military and economic potential to reduce the threat to the EU. The EU, without directly engaging Russia, avoids sacrificing its citizens’ blood.

Additionally, having a track record of Russia’s war crimes against the civilian population in Ukraine, the EU’s investment in Ukraine’s defence is an attempt to prevent similar crimes committed against the EU member states in the future. The financial package to Ukraine buys the EU time to rearm, reform, and reassess its approach to Russia and its broader role in international security as a defence actor. If Ukraine withstands Russia’s invasion and achieves significant success, it will also be a victory for the EU. The fact that the EU is now surpassing the financial support provided by the US (Trebesch 2023) indicates how serious its consideration is.

Demonstrating unity in making this decision is critical at the EU level, with multiple recipients of the signals it sends. Firstly, it is a reaffirmation of solidarity with Ukraine, signalling that the EU will not abandon the country. Secondly, while acknowledging that the EU cannot replace the US entirely as the sole contributor to Ukraine’s security, the decision sends a strong message to Washington that the EU is sharing the burden of maintaining security in its neighbourhood. This message can be perceived as directed towards Donald Trump, although his reelection is uncertain. The idea that Europe has to invest more in its security and take leadership in its vicinity is highly appreciated in the US political and research debates. A solid European pillar of NATO is pertinent to these discussions in Washington (Germanovich et al. 2021).

By supporting Ukraine, the EU sends an even stronger message to Russia and Vladimir Putin. There is an understanding that Putin senses weakness, and if the EU could not continue supporting Ukraine, it would signal to him that he could still win his war of conquest. Numerous messages from Russian politicians and Kremlin-sponsored propagandists express anticipation for Trump’s reelection, potentially leading to a halt in aid to Ukraine. This would allow the Kremlin to avert a strategic failure in its war. While the battle over Ukraine aid in Congress persists, the EU has preemptively conveyed a message to the Kremlin.

Thanks to the European Council’s decision, Russia was denied the chance to stay one versus one with Ukraine. Even if the aid from the US is stalled or will continue facing challenges, Kyiv can now count on Europe’s mid to long-term assistance and win the time for Washington. This message also extends globally, serving as a signal to other rising or revisionist powers, such as China. This implies that the EU can take resolute measures to safeguard its security interests, utilising a blend of financial and military assistance in times of crisis. Consequently, the EU’s choice to assist Ukraine can now serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors.


Applebaum, Anne. 2024. “Is Congress Really Going to Abandon Ukraine Now?” The Atlantic, January 27, 2024.

Camut, Nicolas. 2024. “Putin Could Attack NATO in ‘5 to 8 Years,’ German Defense Minister Warns”.” POLITICO, January 19, 2024.

Cunningham, Kevin, Simon Hix, Susi Dennison, and Imogen Learmonth. 2024. “A Sharp Right Turn: A Forecast for the 2024 European Parliament Elections.” ECFR. 2024.

European Council, Council of the European Union. n.d. “Infographic – EU Solidarity with Ukraine.” European Council Council of the European Union.
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Ewe, Kow. 2023. “Elections Around the World in 2024.” TIME, December 28, 2023.

Germanovich, Gene, Stephen J. Flanagan, Lucia Retter, Stephanie Pezard, Sarah Grand-Clement, and Pauline Paille. 2021. “European Strategic Autonomy in Defence: Transatlantic Visions and Implications for NATO, US and EU Relations.”

Gray, Andrew. 2023. “EU’s 20 Billion Euro Plan for Ukraine Military Aid Hits Resistance.” Reuters, November 13, 2023.

Lazarou, Eleni, Eric Pichon, Bruno Bilquin, Anne Caprile, Mario Damen, and Rosamund Shreeves. 2023. “Peace and Security in 2023: Overview of EU Action and Outlook for the Future.” Think Tank | European Parliament. 2023.

O’Neal, Molly. 2024. “Rightward, Populist Drift in EU Elections Signals Big Ukraine Shift Rightward, Populist Drift in EU Elections Signals Big Ukraine Shift.” Responsible Statecraft, January 30, 2024.

Peters, Tim Ulrich. 2024. “The Future of EU Financing for Ukraine: Options Ahead of the 1 February European Council Meeting,.” Think Tank | European Parliament. 2024.

Rishko, Vitalli. 2023. “Democratic Backsliding and Self-Centered Foreign Policy: Hungary-EU Relations in Perils.” The New Global Order, August 31, 2023.

Trebesch, Christoph. 2023. “Ukraine Support Tracker: Europe Clearly Overtakes US, with Total Commitments Now Twice as Large”,.” Kiel Institute for the World Economy. 2023.

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