President Joe Biden’s victory was cheered in Europe as the Transatlantic news of the year, given the strained Transatlantic ties during the Trump Administration. But just one month into the Biden Administration, (Western) Europe’s enthusiasm is waning. This Administration has indicated that while reinforcing Transatlantic ties will be a priority, Washington will maintain its heightened threat perception of both Russia and China. While the U.S. sees enhanced deterrence as necessary, the European Union’s major powers see this as provocative and counterproductively hawkish. Meanwhile, the EU’s Russia policy has been labeled a “fiasco” with High Representative Josep Borrell recently “humiliated” in Moscow. If the EU indeed prioritizes a reinforced West, it will need to carefully develop its own balanced and realistic Eastern European security policy.

When EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell embarked on a visit to Moscow last month, he advocated for revising the differences” in EU-Russia relations. But Borrell was quickly seen as outplayed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – who used a press conference to accuse EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny – and upon his return, Borrell imposed new EU sanctions on Russians responsible for the “arrest, sentencing, and persecution” of Navalny. Such a sudden and radical shift in position demonstrates, to put it mildly, that the EU has an underdeveloped Russia and Eastern European security policy. The EU’s next move – announcing high level visits to its Eastern European membership aspirants Georgia and Ukraine – should be viewed as a tactical message for Russia, rather than a comprehensive Eastern European security policy.

The U.S. is investing heavily in Eastern European deterrence. Russia is sending warning signs of military escalation in multiple conflicts around Eastern Europe’s hot spot, the Black Sea. The EU must step up.

The EU’s strategic thinking remains impeded in part by great power politics. In the prelude to Europe’s most important annual security gathering, the Munich Security Conference (MSC), President Biden talked about Russia and Ukraine in a plenary session with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. But representatives of Eastern Europe were conspicuously absent from the discussion.

Larger EU member states Poland and Romania have been pushing for an EU security policy for its Eastern neighborhood for over a decade. Poland proposed the Eastern Partnership in 2009. Romania advanced an EU Black Sea Synergy initiative (with the aim of transforming it into an EU Black Sea Strategy) upon entering the Union in 2007. This is all been to no avail. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and in 2014, invaded Ukraine and began building Black Sea Anti Access/Area Denial against NATO. Moscow restricted access to the Sea of Azov in 2018, and deployed troops to Nagorno Karabakh in 2020.

During his visit to Moscow, Borrell represented the interests of all EU member states, but most prominently the interests of the Union’s great powers France and Germany. Paris and Berlin were represented at the highest levels at the MSC. But President Macron has called for dialogue with Russia, and advocates for European strategic autonomy to reduce dependence on the U.S. (and to shift priorities and resources to project power into Africa and the Middle East outside of EU security structures). Germany, for its part, is energy dependent on Russia.

History has shown that developing (Eastern) European security policy without the input of Eastern European representatives does not lead to more security. Doing so only reinforces fears in Eastern Europe of being left out, as was demonstrated with Yalta and Malta and the recent examples at the MSC and in Moscow. 

Moscow is on the move. Russia is sending escalation warnings. Following the EU’s humiliation” during Borrell’s visit — an ostensible response to perceived Western meddling over the poisoning and jailing of Navalny — Moscow continues to confront the West with military escalation in Russian-created frozen or active conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Carnegie’s Dimitri Trenin has summed up the situation persuasively.

Military escalation around the Black Sea is an exercise that Eastern European countries are now well-versed in. Since 2014, NATO members (and U.S. strategic allies) Poland and Romania have been competing over hosting U.S. military capabilities in an effort to bring more Western security to the insecure Eastern flank. On the Black Sea, in the absence of (European) deterrence against Russian deterrence, Bucharest turned to the U.S. Romania now hosts several U.S. military bases and the NATO Ballistic Missile Defense system, as well as buying F-16s and Patriots and, most recently, hosting a squadron of U.S. Reaper drones.

On the other side of the Eastern flank, leaders are now competing with their NATO members to attract U.S. military presence. This is the case for non-NATO countries that aren’t protected by the NATO Article 5 security guarantee, but that have been invaded by Russia in response to their Western orientation. Ukraine has recently announced the development of two naval bases on the Azov and Black Seas and has offered NATO to take control of the airspace around Crimea. At the same time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is rallying Western support against Russian aggression through initiatives such as the Crimean Platform Summit.

Calls from the Black Sea region for more Western aid have been heard by the Biden Administration. To bolster Eastern European security, President Biden has tasked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to conduct a global force posture review, with plans to amass 30.000 U.S. troops in combined U.S. and NATO exercises in the Black Sea over the next year. Meanwhile, Britain has for years contributed to NATO airspace policing in the Black Sea, has committed £1.25 billion to build new military vessels for the Ukrainian Navy, and now, has pledged to deploy the UK’s Carrier Strike Group into the Black Sea.

But when it comes to Black Sea security, the EU seems oblivious. European security experts have called for an upgrade” to EU security policies to its declared ambitions of a more geopolitical and strategically sovereign EU.” They have also advocated for a pilot security compact” that would enable the Union’s support for its Western-minded Eastern partners in intelligence, cyber security, and defense.

At the political level, the EU’s Eastern security view remains, for now, restricted by the lens of great (European) powers and their national interests. The EU currently conducts a total of 18 missions and operations in areas of conflict, 11 civilian missions, and seven military operations. Around the Black Sea, the EU runs three civilian missions and no military operation (six out of seven EU military operations are on different continents, and one has been in the Balkans since 2004).

The EU must develop an Eastern security dimension that a) includes a cohesive Western Russia policy in coordination with the U.S., and b) responds to the security needs of the Union’s Eastern partners and aspirants Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

There are four concrete steps to foster Eastern European security with immediate or long-term effect:

1. Ensure EU Council President Charles Michel’s visits to Ukraine and Georgia this week focus on the security needs of both countries. Following the visits, conduct an internal EU policy review (for example, through the EU Council) to address the Union’s Eastern partners’ security concerns.

2. Include Eastern partners like Georgia and Ukraine in EU security initiatives and programs to help bolster efforts against shared threats, such as hybrid warfare. The newly approved European Cybersecurity Competence Center in Romania could establish programs that include participation from, and support for, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. A selective participation approach could also be applied longer-term to more comprehensive EU defense programs, such as some Permanent Structured Cooperation programs.

3. Restructure the Eastern Partnership (EaP) to differentiate between partners with signed Association Agreements. Build selectively into relations with Association Agreement countries 'opt-ins' to foster resilience in security domains such as cyber, disinformation, and malign foreign influence. Such initiatives could be led by EU EaP advocates, such as Poland and Romania.

4. Include into EU military planning naval capability contributions under the EU flag for Black Sea maritime monitoring and early warning. By establishing a modest rotational EU naval presence in the Black Sea, the EU would support ongoing U.S. military presence and efforts to contribute to Black Sea maritime security.

Irrespective of EU negligence on Black Sea security, the region is doomed to remain Europe’s hot spot, with new and reignited military conflicts occurring every other year. European security cannot be achieved without Eastern Europe and the Black Sea.

Iulia Joja is a Senior Fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are her own. 

Photo by Olivier HOSLET / POOL / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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