Why War Occurs in Europe?
---The Structural Transformation of the European Security Order in the Post-Cold War Era ---

Yuichi Hosoya


On February 24, 2022, war broke out on the European continent. To understand the structure of the war ignited by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the lead-up to it, it is important to look at the evolution of the European order over the 30 years since the end of the Cold War. 1

As a compelling reason for its military invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has repeatedly emphasized the threat to Russia posed by NATO's eastward expansion and the problem of NATO's betrayal of its original "pledge" not to expand eastward and its subsequent persistent eastward enlargement since the end of the Cold War. Such claims indeed have a certain degree of influence in Japan, and no small number of critics accept the Russian government's propaganda that the root cause of this war lies not with Russia but with NATO, especially its leader, the United States. One reason for the acceptance of such Russian government propaganda can be accounted for by the fact that it is usually difficult in Japan to understand the entire picture of the evolution of the European security order since the end of the Cold War. Therefore, it is more important than ever to understand its overview.

On the other hand, since the current European security order is in flux and unstable, it is very likely that even if in due course a ceasefire agreement is reached between Russia and Ukraine, it will be necessary to restructure it. Such a new future European security order following a ceasefire will pose significant challenges for us --- What status will Russia and Ukraine occupy in it and what military involvement will the United States make, and to what extent? When considering the need to reorganize the post-war European security order, it will be helpful to review European history over the post-Cold War 30 years.

Let us now consider how the end of the Cold War, German reunification, and NATO's eastward expansion have affected and are related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

1. The End of the Cold War and German Unification: Three Visions of European Security Order, 1990-1994

The convulsions in Europe associated with the end of the Cold War, which began with the Eastern European Revolutions of 1989, followed by German unification and the collapse of the Soviet Union, have greatly disturbed the European order that had existed until then. 2 It was not necessarily apparent whether a peaceful and stable Europe would emerge after the violent actions or whether revolution and regime change would result in another war and chaos. 3 The reorganization of the European security order after the end of the Cold War, led by the United States and Britain, and the gradual shift of Russia's position to the periphery, are important in considering the origins of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. What does this signify?

After the end of the Cold War, there were differences of opinion among the major powers over what European order to rebuild and what security framework to introduce. In particular, the United States, Britain, Russia, and France had different visions of the post-Cold War European order. 4 The four major powers --- the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union --- had a special responsibility for the postwar European order, marked prominently by the division of Germany. Meanwhile, each of these four powers had a different vision of the order. What vision did they then conceive?

First, the United States and Britain saw the continuation of US security involvement in post-Cold War Europe as essential and sought to position NATO as exclusively responsible for security in Europe. They regarded NATO not as a product of the East-West confrontation in the Cold War era but as a community to defend the values of democracy and liberalism and as the basis for international cooperation.

Second, as General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (later the first President of the Soviet Union) had aspired to in his "Common European Home" initiative, Russia sought to dismantle both NATO and the Warsaw Pact Organization with the end of the Cold War and to create an inclusive pan-European framework such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe at the nucleus of the post-Cold War European security order. The CSCE was reorganized later to become the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Third, France regarded the 1945 "Yalta System" as being at the root of the division of the European continent by non-European powers such as the United States and Britain and considered it as its mission to establish a "Europe by Europeans," as President Charles de Gaulle once advocated. Therefore, France strove to place the France-led European Community (EC, later reorganized to become the European Union (EU)) at the center of the post-Cold War European order, thereby promoting European political integration and sharing a single security policy. Following De Gaullism, France also argued for the necessity of maintaining European security by European countries instead of having the post-Cold War security order dominated by the two extraterritorial powers, the United States and Russia. To this end, it was expected of the EU, established in 1993, to develop CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) and ESDP (European Security and Defense Policy) and to foster ESDI (European Security and Defense Identity) as the foundation of those policies. The first 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS) expressed the expectation for developing a unique European strategic culture.

Thus, each of the four major powers --- the United States, Britain, Russia, and France --- had a different post-Cold War order vision in mind, and there was a certain amount of friction and tension between the American, British, and Russian concepts. On the other hand, Russia and France shared some understanding that European countries should play a central role in the post-Cold War European order.

Russia and France shared the position on the need to reduce the role of the United States in the post-Cold War European security order. This may be seen from subsequent developments: the Minsk II reached in February 2015 was discussed mainly by Russia, France, and Germany; in the process leading up to the Ukraine war, President Putin referred, through frequent consultations with President Macron, to the restructuring of the European security order. It is quite natural to conclude in this connection that a shared understanding between the two leaders about the future European security order lay in the background of the frequent contact between them through telephone conferences and face-to-face meetings just before the outbreak of the Ukraine war.

However, as a result, the vision of a NATO-centered post-Cold War order as conceived by the United States and Britain constituted the core of the development of European international relations. The United States and Britain were particularly forward-looking about NATO's eastward expansion. Russia's deep-seated discontent with the post-Cold War European security order, led by the United States and Britain, cannot be overlooked in understanding the Ukraine war. This requires further examination.

2. The Controversy over NATO's Eastward Enlargement, 1991-1999

One of the most contentious issues regarding the post-Cold War European security order was the realization of German reunification and the question of NATO membership for a unified Germany. 5 From the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, to the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, US President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, who led the process of German reunification, worked closely with West German Chancellor Kohl. In parallel, they held discussions with French President Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Thatcher, and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev (President since March 15, 1990), all of whom had resisted a desire for German unification, and endeavored to reach an agreement.

In a talk on February 9, 1990, Secretary of State Baker proposed to General Secretary Gorbachev that if a unified Germany were allowed to join NATO, NATO would "not" station its troops "an inch" beyond the "Iron Curtain" into the former Communist bloc countries. This is often quoted by Russia as the "pretext" for justifying its current invasion of Ukraine. There is a record in the US government archives of such a statement by Baker, and the Soviet government also remembered it.

However, this was just an oral proposal to assuage the Soviet government's anxiety about the evolution of a unified Germany into a military power; the talk itself, too, was designed to mitigate concerns about German unification. At that time, Eastern European countries were still in the midst of post-revolution turmoil and regime transitions; the possibility of NATO's eastern expansion was not yet discussed or even on the agenda. Such remarks by Secretary of State Baker were not recorded by the Soviet government as a formal diplomatic agreement or much less approved as a signed agreement between the two countries. In the first place, for an agreement to be binding on the actions of NATO, it must be accompanied by an agreement by the North Atlantic Council as a formal decision-making body or by all member states --- not by the United States alone. Consequently, Baker's proposal in question cannot be considered a binding "agreement" between Russia and NATO.

The overriding challenge for NATO in the 1990s was to work out a framework for cooperation with the former communist bloc countries. 6 The former communist bloc countries, including Russia, needed economic support from NATO countries to advance regime transitions in the post-Cold War era. At that time, they were not antagonistic but remarkably cooperative due to the necessity to seek such economic cooperation from NATO countries. At the NATO summit in London in July 1990, the member state leaders discussed the post-Cold War security order in Europe and agreed to maintain the NATO-centered order led by the United States and Britain. In July 1991, they established the NATO Cooperation Council (NACC) with the former communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe. In 1994, the NACC reorganized itself with a new name: the Partnership for Peace. Russia joined it.

The atmosphere dominant in Europe in those days was optimistic about the future of international cooperation. In 1997, the three Eastern European countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary joined NATO; at the same time, the NATO-Russia Joint Permanent Council was established, which allowed Russia to participate to some extent in NATO decision-making. In a sense, NATO's eastward expansion proceeded while developing cooperation frameworks between NATO and Russia. In other words, NATO provided reassurances to Russia, in parallel with its eastward enlargement.

In the meantime, from the 1990s to the 2000s, the OSCE played a cardinal role in European security. For example, at the 1994 Budapest CSCE Summit, an agreement was reached to denuclearize Ukraine and other former Soviet republics; the "Budapest Memorandum" was signed by the signatory countries with the premise that they would respect Ukraine's borders and territorial integrity. Japan also provided economic and technical assistance to that end. Likewise, in 1994, it was agreed that Ukraine should relinquish its nuclear weapons and that the Russian government should preserve Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity as a precondition for denuclearization. Therefore, the current Russian invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the 1975 Helsinki Declaration, which agreed to respect the territory and borders in Europe, and the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In other words, the current aggression is contrary to what the Russian government had agreed to in the past. Given the above acts of violations in addition to an offense against the UN Charter's norm of the peaceful settlement of disputes, it is almost impossible to justify Russia's military attack against Ukraine.

3. From the War on Terror to the Annexation of Crimea, 2001-2014

Two major turning points in European security in the modern era were the Kosovo war in April 1999 and the Iraq war in March 2003. The use of military force by the United States without the support of a UN Security Council resolution shook the foundation of cooperation between NATO and Russia that had endured in the 1990s. Russia showed a cooperative attitude toward the "war on terror," in the belief that it could obtain the understanding of the international community by defining as "war on terror" the suppression by military force of dissident forces in Russia, designating them as "terrorists." Such a "war on terror" justified the Russian government for conducting military strikes in, among other areas, Chechnya, diverting the attention of the United States and other Western countries from the threats of Russia and China to international terrorism. Meanwhile, the US government believed that cooperation from the Russian government was essential to advance the "war on terror" and to pass a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against terror.

At the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, President Bush strongly recommended the accession of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO. France and Germany, however, opposed the move because it would exert pressure on Russia and cause anxiety. The NATO summit failed to reach an agreement. A repeated criticism in hindsight is that France and Germany embraced, at that time, excessive optimism about cooperation with Russia. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel left a justification against such criticism. 7

In the Russian government, pent-up discontent accumulated against NATO's expansion to some republics that had made up the Soviet Union; Russia looked upon the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine as a "conspiracy" by the US government to effect regime change. In this light, the six years that elapsed between the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit, when the question of Ukraine's NATO membership was discussed, and the year 2014, when the Maidan Revolution took place and Russia enforced the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, turned out to be a vital turning point. During these years, the Russia-NATO relations worsened, and their mutual distrust became apparent.

4. The Fixation of US-Russia Confrontation --- Toward an Inter-regime Competition between Liberal Democracy and Authoritarianism, 2014-2022

Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO strengthened its collective defense and launched economic sanctions against Russia; it became increasingly inclined to regard the actions of Russia as threats. NATO set a goal for each member to appropriate 2.0% of its GDP to defense spending and urged the Trump administration to strengthen US involvement to defend Europe.

The United States gradually moved toward solidifying cooperation among liberal democratic countries against the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia. The US National Security Strategy of December 2017 and Vice President Mike Pence's speech on China on October 4, 2018 were ideological reflections of this move.

From 2021 through February 2022, the Russia- and France-led moves to restructure the European security order were frequently observed. The withdrawal of US troops from Kabul in August 2021 was seen as representing Biden's America retreating from the world stage, while the US emphasis on the Indo-Pacific strategy was construed to signal a diminishing American presence in Europe. Against the backdrop of receding US influence, Germany's dependence on natural resources provided by Russia, and a certain degree of trust with French President Macron, President Putin may have thought it possible to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine by hardball measures.


Since the end of the Cold War, the European security order has evolved around the core initiative that the United States and Britain proposed to promote eastward expansion with NATO at the nucleus. The Russian initiative, which called for granting greater authority to the OSCE, and the French initiative, which wanted the EU to assume a more autonomous security role, also assumed some complementary roles.

However, since the 2000s, the OSCE has gradually become dysfunctional against the backdrop of the confrontation between the United States and Russia; the limits of the EU role have also become apparent as EU member states did not secure sufficient defense spending, and Britain left the EU (Brexit). US security involvement in Europe continued, while the EU's original "strategic autonomy" failed to develop as the French government anticipated. The initiative of NATO-centered European security order, led by the United States and Britain, is being solidified, which will lead to the increasing trust and expectations toward NATO of the Central and Eastern European and the Nordic countries. This trend is symbolized by the moves by Finland and Sweden following the Russian invasion of Ukraine to apply for NATO membership, abandoning their longstanding policy of neutrality.

In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on strengthening the role of NATO; US troops have been stationed in the Baltic States and Eastern European countries on a rotational basis to dispel concerns about a military invasion by Russia. In 2017, the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (NATO-CCDCOE) was established in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to deal with cyber-attacks from Russia and other countries; Japan is providing some cooperation. The Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 gave rise to more security concerns in the neighboring countries, such as the Baltic states and Poland, which had been invaded and annexed by Russia. The 2014 annexation led to calls for greater US military involvement.

NATO's eastward expansion proceeded alongside the deepening of its cooperation with Russia, such as the NACC, the PfP, the NATO-Russia Joint Permanent Council, and the NATO-Russia Council. These cooperation frameworks testify to the Russian government's desire to collaborate with NATO countries. However, since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO allies have shared more concerns about Russia's military threat and moved in the direction of strengthening collective defense in concurrence with the dysfunction of those cooperation frameworks. These developments may, in turn, have made President Putin anxious that the pressure from NATO was mounting. In this sense, Russia's hard-line military actions prompted NATO to strengthen its defense power as a response, with the consequence of expanding unrest in neighboring countries. The possibility of a cooperative security order between Russia and NATO had been explored by both sides, producing some results. However, those efforts came to nothing. We must reconfirm that it was Russia's unilateral military actions in 2014 and the succeeding change of borders that led to ensuing tensions and confrontations between the two sides and brought confusion and conflicts to the European security order.

(Professor, Keio University)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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