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In 2014 the escalating political crisis in Ukraine was followed by a rapid descent into a major conflict that drew in a wide range of external actors in a variety of roles—including as combatants, armourers and mediators. The political relationship between Russia and a spectrum of Western countries deteriorated rapidly, and some institutional relationships—such as those between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia, and Russia and the European Union (EU)—may have been damaged irrevocably.
The speed with which a relatively new and previously unknown armed actor—Islamic State—could establish military and administrative control over a large territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria was a further shock. Murders in European cities carried out by individuals with connections to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria highlighted the erosion of the lines between internal and external security of states in Europe.
Dramatic events contributed to a sense that Europe, which has become accustomed to a relatively benign security environment, had underestimated the need to prepare for military threats. The decisions taken by NATO leaders at the Wales Summit towards the end of 2014 suggest that some rebalancing of security policy instruments might be expected. The full results of those decisions cannot yet be seen, but they could include the regeneration of larger military forces configured for territorial defence and a concerted attempt to restore deterrence as a central element in the security policy of European NATO allies.
Aside from decisions related to military security, events put further strain on the cooperative security approach that European leaders have promoted since the end of the cold war—a model that has been subject to increasing pressures. The decisions taken in 2014 may signal that states might in the future once again see the capabilities of their national armed forces as the most important factor in promoting their security.
The active participation of citizens from European countries in armed conflicts inside Europe and at its periphery was the catalyst for a political discussion about national and regional measures aimed at preventing radicalization to terrorism and violent extremism. On the one hand, these discussions have lead to increased focus on security implications of social exclusion in Europe. On the other hand, this development has fuelled policy responses that limit the movements of certain individuals.
While these tendencies were seen in 2014, it would be premature to draw far-reaching conclusions about the future development of European security. It remains to be seen whether states progressively re-emphasize a balanced approach that pays equal respect to the various tools of cooperative security—military defence, arms control, crisis management, conflict prevention and conflict resolution.