Reflections on European Security after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

By Natasha Wood, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

During the Fall 2023 semester, I had the pleasure of joining a Harvard Kennedy School study group led by Karen Donfried, a Fletcher alumna and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2021-2023). The study group convened to assess policy challenges surrounding the war between Russia and Ukraine and how the war is affecting U.S. interests and the European security landscape. 

Each week, students debated some of these challenges and presented the most compelling arguments for the side of the debate they were assigned to. Throughout the semester, the study group debated whether the United States should continue providing substantial levels of military assistance to Ukraine, whether the war in Ukraine was a distraction from China, whether Russia’s full-scale invasion had strengthened transatlantic ties, whether the war had so far been a strategic failure for Russia, and whether President Joe Biden should pressure Ukraine to the negotiating table.

Several arguments emerged from the first debate. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that I was assigned to argue in favor of additional aid to Ukraine. Before Fletcher, I worked for Congressman Jim Costa (Democrat-CA) on his Foreign Affairs Committee portfolio. I spent most of 2023 thinking about how important it was for Congress to support additional military, economic, and humanitarian aid packages to Ukraine. This work included drafting op-eds, leading the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue on the staff level to coordinate Ukraine policy with the European Parliament, and researching legislative proposals to repurpose frozen Russian assets for Ukrainian reconstruction. 

We pointed out that European defense is American defense. While the United States does not have treaty obligations to Ukraine, Russia’s escalation directly threatens NATO countries, and by extension the United States via the Article 5 collective defense obligations. We also raised the imperative of protecting freedoms and sovereignty through the integrity of international law. Moreover, we explained that the U.S. aid to Ukraine measured by GDP is relatively insignificant and that Europe needs time to ramp up weapons production and improve the required defense industry supply chains. Finally, we argued that there was a narrow window of opportunity to pass additional aid through Congress before the 2024 election cycle took over.

It was not until we finished our opening remarks and the opposing side started speaking that I realized I had misunderstood the exercise. I had sat down in preparation for the debate thinking I was correct, confident I could counter any argument against continued support for Ukraine that the opposing side threw our way. But as the opposing side spoke, I grew uneasy. 

We heard multiple arguments against aid for Ukraine. Europe cannot continue to rely on the United States for its Security. U.S. public support for Ukraine is fading while domestic challenges like student loan debt and health care costs directly affect Americans every day. Pax Americana is a relic of the post-World War II era and implies a level of persistent U.S. engagement abroad that is incompatible with U.S. federal debt. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that open-ended commitments can drag on for many years and do more harm than good. Depleting U.S. weapons stockpiles may eventually present a national security threat. The United States should only produce military aid through means-testing, ensuring that funding and weapons systems are used for the intended purpose.

The study group was an important opportunity to confront the arguments against aid to Ukraine (as well as other arguments challenging the transatlantic alliance) head-on. It was also a chance to acknowledge that many of these debates, including regarding aid to Ukraine, are not going away anytime soon. As of this writing, a deal to pair border legislation with U.S. military and financial aid to Ukraine has stalled in the House of Representatives. Despite House Speaker Mike Johnson’s support for Ukraine since assuming the speakership, President Donald Trump’s criticism of the deal has resulted in gridlock. Senator Mitch McConnell recently announced he will step down as Senate Republican leader and acknowledged that his views on national security are increasingly out of step with those of his conference.

I am grateful to Donfried and her team for hosting these important discussions. In an immediate sense, it is clear that the Biden administration is grappling with many of these debates currently. The study group also raised hard questions that have not been answered but that must be addressed as the war in Ukraine passes the two-year mark and the U.S. presidential election in November 2024 draws closer. 

Karen Donfried joined the Harvard Kennedy School in 2023 as a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In 2013 and 2014, Donfried served as Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for European Affairs, during Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Donfried was also the first female President of the German Marshall Fund and worked as a Europe specialist for ten years at the Congressional Research Service. She completed her MALD and Ph.D. from The Fletcher School.

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