Putin made the European Union even bigger
“And just as Vladimir Putin thought he would destroy European unity, the exact opposite has happened. Cooperation is rock solid,” said European Council President Charles Michel.
Something remarkable in geopolitics happened last week. It’s not just that Germany has flip-flopped in its defense policy, which is quite remarkable; it is the fact that the European Union has indeed taken swift and historic decisions. When you have 27 sovereign states, getting an agreement normally takes a long time. Often a very long time.
It was Russia’s recognition of areas not controlled by the government of the Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk on February 23 that got the ball rolling. In response, the EU adopted a set of sanctions targeting some politicians, businessmen, most senior commanders of the Russian armed forces and some banks. In total, asset freezes and travel bans were imposed on 23 people, 3 banks and a notorious internet “troll factory” in St. Petersburg. The immediate reaction to the EU announcement was disappointing. Some EU countries, such as Lithuania, had wanted to hit the Kremlin immediately with the harshest possible sanctions, but larger member states France, Germany and Italy argued for a more gradual approach.
They did not have long to wait since the next day, President Putin gave the order for the invasion of Ukraine. As Russian forces rained missiles down on its southern neighbor throughout the day, in the biggest state-on-state attack in Europe since World War II, EU leaders met again in emergency session and agreed on a wide range of sanctions that would freeze Russian assets en bloc and block its banks’ access to European financial markets. EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell described it as “the toughest package we have ever implemented”. Belgian Prime Minister De Croo asserted that “our sanctions will harm the Russian economy at its heart”.
Previously, a sense of helplessness was tangible after the West failed to stop a war their leaders saw coming. “We have not succeeded enough, not decisively enough, in preventing Russia from taking this step, which is a tragedy for Ukraine, a tragedy for Europe and a tragedy for Russia itself,” he said. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, whose country is on the front line. with Russia. Perhaps, but the EU countries that would face the greatest economic backlash were keen to keep the harshest measures in reserve, arguing that it was the most effective strategy. Nevertheless, most observers were amazed that the EU, normally a timber giant, could be so nimble in reaching a common agreement within hours, which normally would take months.
The momentum was maintained and the following day, Friday February 25, envoys from the 27 member states approved a new wave of measures, this time agreeing to freeze the assets of Putin himself, as well as his longtime top diplomat. , Sergei Lavrov. “They are responsible for the death of innocent people and the trampling of the international system. We as Europeans do not accept this,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. As she spoke, something else remarkable was happening in Berlin.
For years, the United States has pushed Germany to spend more on defense and invest more in its military. Until last week, those calls had largely fallen on deaf ears. Not because Germany considered it had to do no more as a member of NATO, or because it saw itself as a bridge between the West and Russia, or even because its economy and its business world are closely linked to Russia. It was a reason that is at the heart of how Germany sees itself as a country. German pacifism is a real thing, something that vibrates in German society. Over the years, there has never been broad public support for a more robust defense posture. Vladimir Putin changed all that. His invasion of Ukraine made Germany a reality, and there’s no denying how significant this moment is.
It was the day after Putin’s rambling speech recognizing the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced he would block the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project. of 10 billion euros intended to double the flow. Russian gas directly to Germany. It was quite a big decision, as Germany depends on Russia for more than a third of its gas. But an even bigger one came the following Saturday: Scholz promised to arm Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles. It would also lift restrictions on German weapons sent to conflict zones by third parties. Finally, in an innovative speech to the German Bundestag, he notably committed Germany to devoting more than 2% of the country’s GDP each year to the army, thus achieving a NATO objective that Berlin had long delayed. It was nothing less than a Zeitenwende, a historic turning point in German defense policy and a massive investment in the struggling German armed forces. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought more clarity and change to German foreign and defense policy thinking in a matter of days than the United States and governments from Paris to Warsaw could. do in a decade.
Putin also restored something that had been broken for years: transatlantic unity. For years, Putin has been able to sit back and savor unseemly scenes of Western disunity, ranging from Britain’s Brexit exit from the EU in 2016, Hungary’s longstanding antipathy towards Brussels and , also, of the fracture created by former President Donald Trump which has far from completely healed under Joe Biden. For Putin, the timing seemed perfect for his invasion of Ukraine, as it had the potential to open the cracks of division even further, with a war on the continent forcing everyone out of their diplomatic comfort zones. Precisely the opposite has happened.
Hear what European Council President Charles Michel said in an interview with a small group of journalists last week. “And just as Vladimir Putin thought he would destroy European unity, the exact opposite has happened. The cooperation is rock solid,” he said. “That is what the circumstances of the story demand. Required by circumstances none of us could have imagined.
Last week, transatlantic relations were further strengthened by an agreed package of measures unprecedented in scope and unity, when Brussels and Washington announced financial sanctions within minutes of each other, all targeting Russia’s central bank and excluding the country from much of the SWIFT international financial system. transactional system. Another surprise came when the EU agreed to fund the purchase and delivery of arms and other equipment to a country under attack, described by European Commission President Ursula von der Layen as “a moment decisive”.
A furious Putin resorted to the old vernacular the West loved to use during the Cold War era of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact – describing Western allies as “American satellites humbly flattering him, bow down to him, copy his conduct and joyfully accept the rules he proposes to follow”. Spitting venom, he continued: “So it’s fair to say that the whole Western bloc, shaped by the United States to their liking, represents an empire of lies.” The Western powers will have taken Putin’s anger and cynicism towards their unity as a compliment. After all, he made the EU great again.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.