Just three days after Russia began its war of aggression against Ukraine, the European Union announced that it would provide weapons to Ukraine through a new financing instrument, the European Peace Facility (EPF), marking the first time in EU history that the bloc provided lethal weaponry. Over the past six months, the EU has provided €2.5 billion to Ukraine through the EPF for arms and equipment, signaling a more muscular EU foreign policy featuring the unprecedented provision of direct military assistance. While this represents an important step in aiding Ukrainians in their fight against Russia’s aggression, more can be done to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and Europe’s security.
What is the EPF?
The EU established the EPF in March 2021 with €5.6 billion in funding through 2027; the new instrument allows the EU to finance military or defense aspects of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. The EPF has replaced and expanded upon other EU security sector assistance (SSA) instruments such as Athena and the African Peace Facility (APF), both of which were limited in scope and geographic coverage. EU member states contribute directly to the EPF, which then reimburses them for any military equipment provided. The EU member states’ decision to create the EPF was driven by the common desire to share the costs of train-and-equip activities and shift the burden of assistance regulation and oversight from national capitals to Brussels.
Since its inception, the EPF has provided a range of non-lethal support (e.g., medical equipment, military infrastructure renovations, cyber defense) to non-EU countries. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the EU to revise its preference for providing non-lethal assistance alone. Since the start of Russia’s invasion, the EU earmarked 90% of EPF funding for Ukraine for the procurement of lethal weapons.
An Appropriate Response with Room for Improvement
The EPF mandate is to enhance the EU’s ability to “prevent conflict, build peace, and strengthen international security.” It is an appropriate instrument to respond to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and to uphold the norm that the use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state is outlawed, as enshrined in the U.N. Charter. EU support for Ukraine through the EPF has complemented the union’s robust humanitarian, political and financial response to the conflict. Russia’s war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, have required nothing less of the EU. EPF assistance to Ukraine has already had an impact, and may have contributed to bolstering Ukraine’s ability to commence its recent counteroffensive in the northeast Kharkiv region.
However, the EU can and must do more to aid Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting not just for its own statehood and territorial integrity. It is also Europe’s frontline against a revisionist Russia that wishes to change Europe’s security architecture. The United States has provided roughly €25 billion in military aid (equal to roughly 25 billion U.S. dollars), significantly more than the EPF (€2.5 billion), the UK (€2.7 billion) and Germany (€1.2 billion) combined. (Bilateral and multilateral [EPF] commitments counted separately to avoid double counting, figures from early August, 2022.) U.S. military assistance to Ukraine is nearly as much as the total assistance provided by all EU 27 member states and multilateral organizations, which totals of €27.76 billion.
The EU should be doing significantly more now to bolster its own defense by aiding Ukraine. As the largest economic bloc in the world, the EU needs to demonstrate that it has the political will to pay for its defense and to share more of the burden to uphold common norms and values.
Budget, Transparency and Messaging
The EPF was created as an “off-budget” instrument, separate from the EU’s base budget. The allocated €5.6 billion through 2027 is not subject to the European Parliament’s oversight, though it is financed by member states. The Council of the European Union decides to reimburse donor countries by unanimous consent on a case-by-case basis. Once the Council decides to establish assistance, the EU High Representative and the European External Action Service monitor beneficiary compliance with relevant conditions. Information about which countries have been reimbursed and what they have provided is not currently available. Member states transparency on what they are providing via the EPF would send a stronger political message to Russia about Europe’s political will for Ukraine to prevail. In addition, as a best-practice transparency on SSA is key to enabling experts tasked with post-shipment monitoring to ensure that equipment sent is not abused and does not end up on illicit markets for arms and enables publics to hold their governments to account. It must be noted that transparency may inadvertently foster member state reluctance to provide assistance if these states prioritize bilateral relations with Russia. However, the benefits of transparency far outweigh the risks.
It should be noted that not all EU member states are aligned with the decision to provide weapons to Ukraine, and the EU’s messaging around the EPF has been perplexing at times. Consistent with their longstanding policies of military neutrality as non-NATO member states of the EU, Ireland, Malta and Austria have abstained from sending lethal weaponry, opting to provide non-lethal materiel (e.g., helmets, medical equipment and body armor). And EU countries that are NATO member states have either been slow to respond to Ukraine’s request for weapons, or weapons promised have not materialized.
EPF effectiveness has also been hampered by messaging issues. On February 27, EU Foreign Affairs Chief Joseph Borrell claimed that the EPF would supply fighter jets to Ukraine. This prompted outrage among EU diplomats, who noted that such a comment risked escalating the conflict. According to an investigation, and contrary to Borrell's claim, the EU had only agreed to provide equipment such as automatic rifles, ammunition, air defense systems and mortars. Such teething problems on messaging will need to be ironed out.
Security Sector Assistance in Fragile States Warrants a Cautious Approach
While lethal aid in the context of a war of aggression (such as in Ukraine) is the correct EU response, experience demonstrates that military assistance in the context of intra-state conflicts, in particular in the context of fragile states, presents donors with significant challenges related to shipment diversions and SSA misuse.
Several examples from Africa provide ample evidence of the risks associated with providing SSA in fragile contexts. First, weapons can be diverted from their intended recipients. Attacks by al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin have led to the loss of small arms and light weapons (SALW), which are easy to carry and conceal and can be in service for decades. Weapons can also be diverted by corrupt security forces for profit, as evidenced by cases in Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Somalia. Poor management of national stockpiles can also be problematic; SALW plundered from Libya’s military arsenal post-2011 have fallen into the hands of terrorist organizations and criminal networks.
Second, SSA can be misused. Between 2019-2021, Human Rights Watch documented more than 600 unlawful killings by security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The security forces of the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mozambique — where the EU conducts military training — have been accused of arbitrary arrests and torture. This may be why the EU has resisted providing lethal EPF assistance to countries such as CAR and Somalia; the EU has also recently suspended non-lethal EPF assistance to Mali, where the coup leaders were the beneficiaries of U.S. and other western military training and assistance. A Rand report examining the effectiveness of SSA in advancing counterterrorism and counterinsurgency goals in Africa found that SSA did not increase peace and stability.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine required military assistance — including lethal weapons — from the EU. The EPF is one instrument for doing so but the EU can do more to bolster its own security through this instrument both in Ukraine and elsewhere. Here’s how:
- Bolster Support to Ukraine: The EU can use the EPF to double down on support for Ukraine corresponding to the war’s shifting landscape. The EU should raise the EPF’s financial ceiling to match or even exceed U.S. military support. Greater EU investment in the EPF would bolster the EU’s role in security and defense matters and deter future Russian aggression.
- Improve Oversight: Given that the EPF is financed by EU member states, it could be subject to the European Parliament’s oversight. Greater involvement of the European Parliament would help ensure that the EPF complies with relevant EU policies related to international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It would also help address the EU’s “democracy deficit” by giving EU citizens a voice in EPF usage.
- Bolster Transparency: The lack of EPF transparency regarding which state is providing what military equipment is a problem. Publicizing the specifics of EPF support would need to be weighed against intelligence risks. Nevertheless, the creation of a publicly accessible database — with information that avoids compromising active operations — would foster civil society oversight and bolster member-state accountability. USIP’s Working Group on Elite Manipulation of Security Sectors has uncovered the risks associated with opaque foreign security sector assistance. Greater transparency would also give beneficiary states a more complete picture of what materiel they can expect, who will supply it, and when it can be expected.
- Establish Criteria for Weapons Provision: The EU could specify that the EPF will provide lethal weaponry in the context of interstate wars of aggression. Weapons provision in other contexts (i.e., counterinsurgency and counterterrorism) should be approached more cautiously and with consideration of secondary effects. The risk of diversion and misuse suggest that weapons provision should be avoided unless the conflict meets specific criteria
- Prioritize Human Security and Governance Reform: The EPF’s integrated methodological framework — which emphasizes compliance with international law, protection of local populations, proportionality and post-delivery controls — is a good start. However, the EU could explore additional safeguards to expand the protection of civilians (e.g., conflict sensitivity assessments or civilian harm mitigation frameworks). In addition, the EPF could prioritize governance reform. Train-and-equip programs are often prioritized over durable, long-term security sector governance solutions. Rendering security sectors more effective, transparent, accountable and inclusive promises peace and security dividends down the road.
Leveraging the EPF to counter a war of aggression in Ukraine with lethal weaponry at a critical juncture is a welcome start, but more must be done to bolster Ukraine’s defense and European security. In intra-state conflicts, the EU must pragmatically consider the long-term risks associated with weapons provision and proceed cautiously to avoid exacerbating existing dynamics and perpetuating conflict. If applied correctly in different contexts, the EPF has the potential to create long-term solutions and prevent conflict, build peace and strengthen international security as intended.
Jacob Zack is a program specialist for the Governance, Justice and Security program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.