A fascinating and perhaps unforeseen corollary of Russia’s invasion, occupation and annexation of parts of Ukraine, is the reappraisal of security and defence in Europe’s neutral and non-aligned states. In the post-Cold War interregnum, these states were ideally placed to contribute to the construction of a new EU foreign and security policy grounded in collective security and active engagement in international security missions. Finland and Sweden in particular worked pro-actively to define an EU foreign policy shaped by a comprehensive security approach using the full range of tools at the EU’s disposal. Austria and Ireland overcame initial hesitancy to find themselves regular and sometimes significant contributors to UN-authorised, EU-led civilian missions and military operations in Africa, Asia and Europe – such as the Irish-commanded EUFor military operation in Chad in 2007. By Prof Ben Tonra, Head of School Politics and International Relations, UCD.
Today, as Russia literally and metaphorically drives its tanks across European borders and through its international treaty obligations, several of these states are reassessing their options. This has been made all the more acute as the Russian military has ostentatiously set out to test their neighbours’ national defences through unannounced and unauthorised military overflights, submarine manoeuvres and war ‘games’. However, rather than reverting to Cold War-style neutrality, both Finland and Sweden have sought and secured closer ‘enhanced’ relations with NATO, closer regional defence cooperation bilaterally and with their Nordic partners and greater commitments to EU security and defence. While neither yet looks towards full NATO membership, both see the threat posed by Russia to themselves, their Baltic neighbours and wider European security as being sustained and serious.
Meanwhile, the EU’s small Baltic member states that have joined NATO look to that alliance to make its security guarantees stronger, more visible and more tangible. In addition to regular NATO exercises and the Baltic air policing mission they have now requested a brigade-level permanent NATO military presence. This would amount to the stationing of 3,000-5,000 NATO troops across the three states.
Austria and Ireland are no less concerned at Russia’s challenge to European security, but their tactical evaluations are coloured by their own strategic interests and histories. For Austria, the ‘secular religion’ of neutrality is deeply grounded within public debates while Austria is also anxious to ensure that the costs imposed on Russia for its behaviour do not create a diminishing spiral of antagonism. Ireland, far removed from the theatres of direct and potential conflict, is not faced with a direct security threat but has nonetheless had to revise its own threat assessments.
The imminent publication of a new White Paper on Irish security and defence has to address these issues among many others. The role, structures and equipping of the Defence Forces, their education, training and deployment and the appropriate allocation and distribution of resources are all critical. The issue of neutrality will not be tested by the White Paper which takes Ireland’s non-membership of military alliances as a settled issue of state policy. Nor, indeed, will the White Paper interrogate the veto over Irish peacekeeping which China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States possess on the UN Security Council through the so-called ‘triple-lock’. Even within that policy envelope, however, there are many issues which the White Paper must address.
While Ireland does not face direct security threats, it must plan for contingencies (domestic and international) as well as maintain its hard won and valuable reputation for contributing to wider international peace and security. Tough questions for the White Paper to answer in this context are the balance between land, sea and air forces, the appropriate levels of air and maritime defence capacity and maintaining a substantive capacity for overseas deployment – ideally at battalion level. This latter also brings up the issue of the appropriate shape of training, communications, intelligence and operational capacity. In that context, NATO and the UN can operate quite differently – not least because of the variable nature of the military operations in which they are most often engaged. In a nutshell then, what model is Ireland best advised to follow; that of the UN or that of NATO?
The choice is based on where best Ireland can contribute; to lower-intensity, police-like security operations or high-end, more intensive, battle-ready missions? Certainly, there is no doubt that the greatest international gaps are to be found in that latter capacity. Often enough, those states with the higher-end military capacity are precisely those that are unwilling or unsuitable to contribute in a sensitive security situation. Ireland’s potential provision of a ‘non-aligned’ but ‘high-end’ military security capacity is a pretty unique niche – and one which has the potential to deliver the greatest return in terms of responsibility and recognition.
The imminent publication of the White Paper on defence will give us some clear indications as to what choices the government is making in this regard. Shortly thereafter, we will have to consider the implications of those choices, for both Ireland and the EU.