Military awakening must leave legacy of connection between NATO and Ukraine

Military awakening must leave legacy of connection between NATO and Ukraine

With the winter rapidly approaching, the World Health Organisation has warned that millions of Ukrainians face a battle for survival. Hit with significant losses on the battlefield, Russia is increasingly resorting to cynical missile strikes on civilian energy infrastructure, recently launching devastating aerial assaults that have left 10 million people in Ukraine without power as temperatures nosedive.

The widespread war crimes of this civilian bombing campaign have played no small role in NATO officially recognising Russia as a “terrorist state” in its annual Parliamentary Assembly on 21 November. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a painful awakening for those NATO countries, which for years had ignored the warnings of NATO members, extended to the east but is now significantly bolstering military defences along its Russian border.

This strengthened posture will be complemented by transport infrastructure enhancements that will boost military mobility while facilitating a shared future between Ukraine and the current EU countries .

NATO reborn

NATO’s eastern bloc has played a leading role in the alliance’s revitalisation, boosting military spending and planning reinforcements for key infrastructure to form a dynamic eastern defensive line from the Baltics to the eastern Balkans. At the NATO level, four new battlegroups have been created in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to reinforce the battlegroups already deployed in the Baltics and Poland, but initiatives from member states are playing an equally critical role.

Poland has been at the centre of this effort, already well-positioned after years of meeting NATO’s 2% of GDP defence spending target, which has helped make its army one of the strongest in Europe. And the Polish military is just getting started, with Warsaw passing legislation to raise investment to 3% of GDP and even declaring a longer-term ambition of 5%.  The Baltics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are also springing into action, conscious of the risk associated with sharing a border with Russia, with each set to reach the NATO spending target this year.

By 2024, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expects that the 2% club will shoot up to 19 member countries, representing a seismic shift in European security. And the bloc is set for further reinforcement with the forthcoming membership of Sweden and Finland after decades of neutrality. In the meantime, Finland, Sweden and Norway are shoring up joint military operational planning and deepening cooperation to bolster NATO’s deterrent against Russian aggression.

Linking East and West

While this enhanced military spending and cooperation constitutes a major step forward, improving cross-continental transport links will be essential in optimizing NATO’s enhanced military presence by enabling rapid deployment to its Eastern Flank. Europe’s transport infrastructure has failed to keep pace with NATO’s eastward expansion, with insufficient rail capacity and connectivity, incompatible railway track gauges and poor road links significantly hampering military mobility. Recognising these issues, the European Commission has prioritized the Central and Eastern European region in its Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) network, with projects such as Solidarity Transport Hub (known by its Polish acronym CPK), Rail Baltica and the Visegrad 4 HSR (V4 HSR) all set to play key roles.

CPK, which will weave together a new Solidarity Airport and 2,000 km of new railway lines, mostly in high speed rail standard, will significantly improve high-speed connectivity within Poland as well as between Ukraine and the rest of Europe. According to Marcin Horała, the Government plenipotentiary for the project, CPK represents a breakthrough for the region “where large tactical connections, large amounts of ammunition, supplies and logistics can be taken to Poland very quickly.” Crucially, CPK’s railway lines will link up with the region’s other major projects to boost Europe’s connectivity.

Rail Baltica, the Baltic region’s biggest infrastructure development in a century, will deliver 870 km of high-speed railways to connect the three Baltic capitals with Warsaw, and by extension, Ukraine and Western Europe. Tālis Linkaits, Latvia’s Transport Minister, has emphasised that “in the current geopolitical conditions, the strategic significance of the Rail Baltica project is increasing,” given the need to “increase our country’s defence capabilities.” Beyond its strategic importance, this project signals the Baltic’s final shift away from its Soviet past.

Further West, the Czech-led Visegrad 4 HSR interconnection project will amplify the positive impacts of CPK and Rail Baltica by providing high-speed rail links between Berlin, Prague, Brno Vienna and Warsaw, enabling a truly connected continent from east to west.

A common future

Beyond its military mobility role, these enhanced rail links serve as symbol of solidarity and deepening integration between the Western alliance countries and Ukraine, particularly as the war has helped older generations of Poles and Ukrainians overcome historic grievances. This infrastructure will help build a common future with Ukraine, building on the bridges already being created with younger generations.

Between its Delegation to Ukraine and Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative, the latter of which was launched in 2009 to facilitate closer political and economic ties between the EU and six Eastern European partner countries in its backyard,  the EU has been working constructively with Ukraine to lay the foundation for a long-term alliance based on shared political, economic and cultural principles.

For example, projects like the “EU4USociety” and Eastern Partnership Civil Society Facility are aimed at bolstering the capacities of Ukraine’s civil society in influencing solutions to both internal and transnational policy challenges, such as human rights, inclusive democracy, good governance, migration and climate change, as well as cultivating cross-border advocacy efforts with other European nations. What’s more, through the “Creative Europe” programme, the EU and Ukraine are working together to protect and promote European cultural diversity, unlock the economic potential of the continent’s creative sectors, create collaborative European works and support innovation and mobility.

The recent escalation of Russian aerial bombardments has naturally put immediate priorities, namely getting through the harsh looming winter, above such longer-term initiatives. But the war will end one day, and when it does NATO will be in its strongest position in decades, between ramped up military spending and a cross-continental transport system, leaving a strong foundation on which to cement a shared future with Ukraine.

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