It seems too early, almost inappropriate, to imagine what Ukraine’s future will look like while its present is under military attack. The worst-case scenario is unfolding in front of our eyes, and the sad truth is that the West has been reduced to an observer of a war unleashed by a single man: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The war is only in its early stages. What is certain is that there will be many casualties, high numbers of internally and externally displaced people, and a severe socioeconomic crisis. Ukraine will need the support of the EU, in particular, to address the humanitarian and economic consequences of this war.
However unimaginable this may have seemed even in recent days, it is now unclear how much of its territory Ukraine will still control when the war eventually subsides or ends.
Different forms of de facto control of parts of Ukrainian territory are conceivable. The extent to which Ukrainians will engage in armed and civil resistance might be the only factor influencing Putin’s calculations. Short- and long-term resistance becomes a more likely scenario if the Russian army occupies big cities, possibly even the capital, Kyiv. And even among the majority of Ukrainian citizens who will not engage in open resistance, there will be no loyalty toward Russia.
Ultimately, the war is a high-risk gamble on the part of Putin. The Ukrainian government and citizens will be more determined than ever to orient themselves westward. An opportunity for Ukraine to regain full control of its territory may arise only in the post-Putin era—and it is uncertain when that era will begin.
Europe Will Unite. What About Civil Society?
The contrast between Europe’s slow motion and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rapid full invasion of Ukraine could not be starker. Until two days ago, Europeans were discussing what Russian action would trigger what sanctions, while the Russian military was encircling Ukraine.
But even if they have done so in slow motion, Europeans have prepared and will unite around this crisis.
Huge efforts made over the past weeks enabled the approval of a strong sanctions package less than twenty-four hours after the invasion of Ukraine began. This response was rightly being prepared while all diplomatic avenues to de-escalate the crisis were being pursued. But Europeans need to do more, because Putin’s revisionism of the post–Cold War order will continue regardless of the military outcome of the invasion of Ukraine. This crisis is one step in a long game.
The EU’s package of sanctions will become the first phase, not the last, of an escalation. Even if military engagement has been ruled out, European publics are not prepared for the consequences of war on energy provision or the economy, nor are they ready to welcome refugees. Instead, streams of mis- and disinformation have littered European traditional and social media. Europeans need to be mobilized through evidence-based explanations—and outreach to Russians should be another pillar of a different communications strategy.
Beyond the €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) package the EU adopted on February 21 to support Ukraine, the other countries in a region already destabilized by Russia will need more political energy and financial resources while NATO beefs up its Eastern flank in case the conflict widens.
Finally, Europeans need to reach out to civil society in Eastern Europe and Russia to energize those networks that have been the drivers of positive change across the former Soviet Union in the name of human rights, freedom, and self-determination.
In the Western Balkans, Expect Russia to Fan Polarization and Misinformation
The repercussions of the war in Ukraine will no doubt be felt in the Western Balkans. For one thing, the conflict is polarizing opinion there. For anti-Western nationalists in Serbia and beyond, Putin’s actions are tantamount to giving the United States and its allies in Europe a taste of their own medicine. What goes around comes around, they say, pointing at the 1999 Kosovo intervention.
Those who support integration into the EU and NATO see the war in Ukraine as a repeat of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s onslaught against Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the earlier chapter of Yugoslavia’s disintegration.
Neither analogy works perfectly, of course, but the war of narratives is real, has raged for years, and is about to peak in the coming months. Expect Russia to fan it further with the help of its media mouthpieces, proxies, and fellow travelers in the region.
Will Russia take an even greater risk and open a second front in, say, Bosnia, where the Serb-majority entity of Republika Srpska has exited the common state in all but name? That is not very likely. A showdown with the EU and NATO will bring no benefit and will add to Putin’s problems. There are more cost-effective ways to stir up trouble than by sending in the paratroopers, with all the attendant political risks. Russia will do more of the same: support Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik, nurture links with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, and back anti-Western politicians and parties elsewhere in the region. In short, Moscow will wage its political war as before.
But that does not mean that the EU and NATO should be complacent. Upping deployments in the Western Balkans is the way to go. The European Union Force (EUFOR) in Bosnia is taking a 500-strong reinforcement, according to reports. NATO should beef up its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, KFOR, as well. The West needs to show strength at this testing time and send a clear message to Moscow.
Watershed for EU Security and Defense?
As the Russian military offensive continues in Ukraine amid reports of hundreds of casualties, does the invasion mark a watershed for EU security and defense?
These are among the darkest hours Europe has experienced since World War II and the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, which were terribly violent and led to so many deaths. Europeans now know that war is possible yet again on the continent, but are they prepared to experience this kind of war as well as pay the price of its economic and humanitarian consequences?
The crisis is already testing the EU’s readiness to defend the post–Cold War European security order. Much of the public debate on the crisis has portrayed European governments as divided, weak, and vague. Yet, the conflict might just be the catalyst to reinvigorate the EU’s security and defense debate and force Europeans to shift from a security order shaped by soft power to one that is yet again dictated by the harsh realpolitik of hard power.
The key to achieving a European common position on Ukraine is coordination among EU member states and the agreement of all leaders to tougher sanctions. The war will increase pressures not only on governments to rethink their defense budgets but also on Europeans to re-evaluate their long-held belief that war is no longer a European reality after more than thirty years of peace.
This will likely make recent EU defense capability development initiatives, such as the European Defense Fund, more attractive. In times of economic austerity, this change of mindset should trigger a new momentum for EU collaborative capability projects and programs.
But most importantly, the crisis signals a regrouping around NATO as the main politico-military alliance in charge of collective defense. In these fast-moving developments, NATO’s greatest responsibility is reaffirmed: to protect and defend territories and populations against attacks and emerging threats, and address all challenges that affect Euro-Atlantic security.
The End of the German Delusion
Germany’s special policy toward Russia is over. The belief that Germany’s decades-long economic, trade, and political relationship with Moscow would lead to the country’s modernization has been debunked. The belief that its Ostpolitik, or Eastern policy, forged during the Cold War, could continue without reassessment by Germany’s political elites, particularly the governing Social Democratic Party, has been discredited. Until the past few days, some political elites and lobbies claimed that it was NATO and the United States, not Russia, that were saber-rattling.
The other stark reality for Germany is the instability now facing Eastern Europe. What is unnerving for the political establishment in Berlin is that the European and Western order enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which made the upholding of territorial integrity so central, is over.
This is an immense blow to Berlin. As the EU’s largest economy, Germany had hoped diplomacy and the architecture of multilateral institutions would suffice to maintain the status of the post–Cold War period.
German governments repeatedly gave Russia, particularly Putin, the benefit of the doubt, whether it was over the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, or the subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine. Yes, former German chancellor Angela Merkel got all EU member states to impose sanctions on Russia, but without putting in place a strong strategy based on a mix of hard power and deterrence.
If its delusions about Russia are over, Germany has the chance to start shaping a new EU policy toward Eastern Europe that is no longer seen through the prism of Russia. That won’t happen tomorrow.
Why Georgia and Moldova Need to Be Worried
Thomas de Waal
We woke up yesterday in a Europe that had changed totally overnight.
The vast majority of Russian and post-Soviet commentators believed that Putin would not be so outrageous as to launch an entirely unprovoked invasion of a neighboring country—that it would be an act of madness. The worst nightmare scenario has now come to pass, so it would be foolish to forecast his intentions toward other neighbors.
For that reason, pro-Western Georgia and Moldova should definitely be worried. Objectively, there are reasons to say that they are less threatened.
Moldova is much smaller than Ukraine and far less significant to Moscow. It does not share a land border with Russia, and even the pro-Russian territory of Transdniestria wants normal peaceful relations with Chișinău and the EU. Georgia is the most post-Soviet of these countries, even more united in its rejection of Russia than is Ukraine. Moscow has literally no political or ethnic group to claim to be fighting for outside the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it already controls.
Besides, Russia now has its hands full with Ukraine for a very long time.
But all bets are off now. Even if the unchained militaristic Putin of today does not necessarily seek war in these two countries (or not yet), he may have some scary ideas about regime change—ideas that their European friends should be seeking to prevent right now.
Britain’s Russian Oligarchs
In the short run, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s horror at Russia’s attack on Ukraine comes with a personal, domestic benefit. Britain’s news media are no longer dominated by “Partygate”—stories that he broke coronavirus lockdown rules by attending illegal parties. For the moment, the UK’s major political parties stand together in backing economic sanctions against Russia.
The longer-term outlook—for Johnson, Britain, and Europe—is less clear. The consequences of Partygate have been delayed, not eliminated. The prime minister might still be brought down this year. At the same time, the real test this week for Britain is whether its actions against Russian oligarchs prove effective. Transparency International estimates that their stake in the UK property market is around $2 billion. However impressive Johnson’s rhetoric sounds, and however tough his sanctions appear, the real test will be what proportion of that $2 billion Britain actually manages to confiscate.
Beyond the next few months, Europe’s crisis adds to the stress of Brexit. In the 2016 referendum on the UK’s EU membership, Leave campaigners promised an economic bonanza. Instead, Britain is paying a heavy price. Trade is suffering, and near-term economic growth is officially forecast to settle at below 2 percent a year.
If some pro-Brexit enthusiasts looked for a strategic “global Britain” bonus to offset the economic cost, the Ukraine crisis exposes the absurdity of the idea. The UK could have played an important role as an EU member not only in fashioning a common response to Putin but also in designing the new architecture that will be needed to protect Europe’s security and defend its values in the years ahead. Membership in NATO is important, but in an era when economic power matters as much as military might, that is not enough.
The Era of the Peace Dividend Is Over
Well, warning lights had been flashing for over ten years. Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine is just an extreme stage in a course that began with the 2008 war with Georgia. And it is not just about Putin overthrowing the post–Cold War European settlement. The February 4 joint Russian-Chinese statement, too, amounts to a fundamental challenge to the values that underlie the international order established after World War II.
The EU’s rapid agreement on a first sanctions package shows that the union has drawn the right conclusions from these developments. At least for the moment, the EU has overcome its long-standing divisions in its approach to Russia. It helps that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is working well with the Europeans. But given the uncertainty about the political future of the United States beyond 2024, it would be a mistake to relapse into the old dependence on U.S. leadership.
Today, the EU faces a moment of truth. The era of the peace dividend is definitely over. Supporting Ukraine, sanctioning Russia, and addressing the humanitarian crisis will require a massive mobilization of efforts. In the longer term, strengthening deterrence through NATO and building a serious security and defense policy within the EU will need enormous additional investments. Reducing asymmetric dependencies, diversifying supply lines, and protecting the EU from external coercion also call for sustained efforts.
The EU can rise to these challenges. But this will require a quantum leap toward greater unity, solidarity, and determination.
The Challenge to NATO
Consistent with multiple warnings from Western intelligence agencies, and despite the skepticism of European media and even some governments, Russia has attacked Ukraine in a massive way. Moscow is conducting this campaign with complete military impunity, since NATO powers have clearly declared that they will not put boots on the ground, as well as political impunity, since Moscow has a veto power in the UN Security Council.
Let’s be realistic about the Kremlin’s objectives. The first is the neutralization of Ukraine’s military, hence Russia’s initial strikes in some sixty locations, from Chernihiv in the north to Odessa in the south, from Kharkiv in the east to Lviv in the west. The second objective is, inevitably, a change in Ukrainian leadership, although it is not yet clear how this will be achieved. The third goal is the certainty that Ukraine will never become part of NATO.
This is where NATO’s security architecture comes in. So far, the alliance has been remarkably united in its condemnation of Russia’s hostile attitude to Ukraine. Will NATO remain united when it comes to increasing allied operations to protect the Baltic states or monitor Russian operations in the Black Sea? The challenge is particularly acute for Turkey, which has so far conducted a balanced policy between NATO and Russia. Ankara’s balancing act may quickly become a high-wire act.
More widely, the Atlantic alliance is now facing a scenario in which Moscow could challenge its four Eastern European members that border western Russia and the Kaliningrad exclave: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. This would be a momentous development.
Turkey’s Unenviable Position
Turkey finds itself in a most unenviable position in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Turkey is a NATO member but has developed a growing dependence on Russia not only as an energy partner but also as a diplomatic and security partner in Syria. That is the case in particular in Idlib, where Moscow’s influence has been indispensable to preempt a regime attack that could trigger a humanitarian crisis and a wave of refugees.
Ankara also has a burgeoning relationship with Ukraine, including in defense industries. Unlike some other NATO members, Turkey has stated clearly that it will continue to sell armed drones to Ukraine despite Russia’s reaction.
So Turkey will strive to implement a recalibrated balancing policy. Ankara will be heavily critical of Russia’s behavior and will continue to highlight the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But Turkey will not want to comply with the U.S. and EU sanctions policies toward Russia for fear of alienating Moscow, which could lead to a debacle in Idlib.
Ankara is also likely to participate in any concerted NATO effort to enhance reassurance for allies in the Baltic and Eastern Europe. Over the longer term, however, the conflict may lead to a reappraisal in Western capitals of Turkey’s geostrategic importance, akin to the situation in the Cold War era, which, arguably, the world may witness again. Such a shift, combined with smart diplomacy in Ankara, could significantly upgrade Turkey’s relationship with its key Western allies.
The View From France: Back to the Cold War
From a French perspective, the writing had been on the wall since Putin’s unprecedented speech on February 21 definitively closed off all diplomatic channels.
In the short term, all political and diplomatic efforts will focus on finding ways to stop the fighting through a negotiated ceasefire. But it is difficult to imagine the Kremlin stepping down now that it has made the decision to invade the whole of Ukraine. Developments on the ground from the Ukrainian military and, just as crucially, from civilian militias are the factors to watch for the time being.
Stronger national resistance than that generally expected by foreign observers may well surprise the Russian leadership and complicate its military advance. Not that the objective and the probable outcome—a military and political takeover of Ukraine—are in any doubt: this is not Georgia in 2008, it is Czechoslovakia in 1968.
What about the long term? For now, any diplomatic path is closed. The post–Cold War order, if ever there was one, is now over. It is on the ground that the new security order is going to take shape. For Western partners, for the moment that means preventing Russia from moving closer toward NATO countries.
The Russian president’s insistence on Ukraine in his February 21 remarks may indicate that he is not looking for any more invasions. Yet, by the end of this military episode in Ukraine, whether it leads to full occupation or meets resistance, Europe will be back to the Cold War era, and it will take a long game to rebuild any kind of regional arrangements.
The political system ushered in by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act is gone, and for now, any return to a rules-based order agreed on and respected by all European nations seems a far-fetched prospect.