U.K. Slams Russian Aggression as EU Steps Up Defense Cooperation

  • EU to set up joint command amid doubts over U.S. security role
  • Britain stresses the move shouldn’t duplicate the work of NATO

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned against the threat Russia poses to Western democracies as the European Union moved to bring its military operations under a single command for the first time.

Russian authorities “are, I’m afraid, engaged in cyber-warfare, they’re engaged in undermining countries in the Western Balkans -- you saw what happened in Montenegro -- to say nothing of Russia’s actions in Ukraine which are, as everybody knows, completely unacceptable,” Johnson told reporters in Brussels on Monday as he headed into a meeting of European Union foreign and defense ministers.

European governments bolstered security measures after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and following allegations that Moscow tried to overthrow Montenegro’s government and assassinate former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic during last year’s elections. Johnson will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks “in the coming weeks,” Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a March 4 statement.

“They’ve got to change, they’ve got to show they can be trusted again,” Johnson said. “It’s vitally important that we engage with the Russians, we try to understand where they are coming from and we try to shape their policies.”

Military Cooperation

Defense ministers at the meeting agreed to set up a centralized command structure that would pool military resources and decision-making capabilities from the 28 member states.

While there’s always been a degree of support within the EU for cooperation on military matters, it took on new life after Russia’s incursion in Ukraine and with more frequent terrorist activity in the bloc’s core. There has been further impetus since Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. would “moderate its commitment” to NATO if members didn’t fulfill their pledges to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

The plan is “a major step forward” but “it’s not the European army,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters in Brussels before the meeting, responding to accusations that the bloc is gradually setting up its own military capabilities. The plan will enable a “more unified, more rational, more efficient approach to existing training missions.”

EU governments are showing a readiness to increase military cooperation as the U.K., which spends more on defense in absolute terms than any other European country in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, prepares to leave the bloc in 2019.

Symbolic Move

The increased cooperation is more symbolic than transformational. Some of the EU’s current missions, which have individual field commanders, will come under the auspices of a unified command center in Brussels. Underscoring the sensitivities surrounding defense-sharing, even this move has been controversial, with many governments opposing the use of the term “headquarters” to describe the new arrangement.

The commander will oversee the EU’s military training missions in conflict zones such as Mali and the Central African Republic.

The U.K. is unlikely to impede the plan, despite traditionally opposing moves to significantly increase defense cooperation for fear that it would dilute NATO authority. Britain, which spent an estimated 42 billion pounds ($51 billion) on defense in 2016, may use its military might as leverage in negotiations over its exit from the bloc.

“We are urging the European Union to cooperate more closely with NATO, to avoid unnecessary duplication and structures and to work together on new threats,” U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters on his way into the meeting.

Even though defense expenditure as a share of GDP fell to a record low in the continent in 2015, EU member states, excluding Britain, still spend about 200 billion euros ($212 billion) a year on their armed forces.

Under pressure from the new U.S. administration, the EU will vow to commit additional resources on defense, according to draft conclusions of a summit taking place in Brussels later this week obtained by Bloomberg.

The bloc could save as much as 100 billion euros annually if its members pool resources and increase cooperation, the European Commission said last year.

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras, Gordana Filipovic, and John Glover

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