How Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine Transformed Europe
When Ursula von der Leyen moved into the Berlaymont four years ago, she declared that hers would be a “geopolitical” Commission. No longer was it just a “political” Commission, like her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker had dubbed his executive power. Given the growing rivalry between great powers and the exquisitely transnational nature of the major challenges of our age, Europe had to become a “geopolitical” player worthy of the name. Little did we know in 2019 that the years that followed would be marked by a global pandemic and a nuclear-armed power's brutal invasion of its neighbor: by far the two greatest geopolitical earthquakes since the end of World War II. With the pandemic over and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine well into its second year, as the EU enters the last lap of its political-institutional mandate and heads towards European elections, what can be said of the Union’s geopolitical ambitions?
Political unity and leadership
Let’s begin with the good news. Any observer of Europe’s role in the world is quick to finger-point the EU’s age-old problem castrating its global ambitions: divisions between member states. Political division between members coupled with unanimity in decision-making in foreign and security policy, underlie the most often cited slogans belittling Europe’s global ambitions. How many times have we heard that Europe is a “player but not a player,” or that while being an economic giant, it remains a “political pygmy”? Underlying these—by now unimaginative stereotypes—is always the same virus of disunity between member states and their unwillingness to give up sovereignty in the most jealously guarded fiefdom of foreign policy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought back to the fore the question of unity. Russia is a particularly divisive issue for the EU. Northern and Eastern European countries have traditionally pushed for a tougher stance, while Western and Southern states used to press for cooperation. The tension between these two camps explains why Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine saw the EU take a two-track approach of sanctions and selective engagement. When the full-scale war began, many feared that divisive forces would eventually gain the upper hand. They may have anticipated that moment of unity at the outset, when the shock of Russia’s invasion and awe at Ukrainian resistance galvanized joint European action, but feared that this would dissipate as the months dragged on and as Europe reeled under the economic, energy, and humanitarian costs of war. Indeed, by the summer of 2022, the concern was the growing European rift between the “peace” and “justice” camps, with countries further away from the frontline pressing for an immediate ceasefire, and those closer to the heat of war convinced that peace cannot be achieved at the expense of justice. It is this latter group that argue that Ukraine should be supported until it has fully liberated its land and its people.
However, despite this political divide, the EU has mustered and maintained a united policy response, which is becoming more unified, not less, as the war progresses. EU member states unanimously agreed on 11 packages of sanctions on Russia. The most significant one came in the early months of the war, and, as time passed, the time lag between one package and the next increased. This is because after having sanctioned finance, technology, coal and oil, seized Russian public and private assets, banned responsible individuals, capped energy prices, and reduced the import of Russian gas to a trickle, there is little left to sanction. Rather than adding many more sectors, the bulk of the work on sanctions now concentrates on closing loopholes and tightening the implementation screws. This brings the EU into even more politically complex territory, especially when this means agreeing on how to handle powerful third states like China that facilitate the circumvention of Russia sanctions. Should the EU sanction third states, including China? Would this imply extra-territorial sanctions that the EU so vehemently condemns the United States for? And if punitive measures are to be foreseen against such third states, how is the EU going to equip itself to face eventual retaliation? China has already hinted rather explicitly that it would not stay quiet, were the EU to proceed on this course of action. Over the months, some disagreements have surfaced and remain to be ironed out. However, as regards the most politically toxic case—Victor Orbán’s Hungary—the Union has developed ways of containing the damage. Orbán’s maneuverings have broadly failed, in fact, with the European Commission using a novel form of economic conditionality linked to the rule of law. In December 2022, the Commission held back €22 billion in cohesion funds for Hungary until it fulfills conditions related to judicial independence, academic freedom, LGBTQI rights, and the asylum system.
Another area that could have proved Europe’s political Achilles heel is asylum. Alongside the eight million internally displaced persons within Ukraine, there are over eight million Ukrainian refugees in Europe, almost five million of whom have received temporary protection in the EU, with the right to live, work, and travel across member states. When the war broke out, European publics were overwhelmed by a wave of solidarity. The brutality of Russia’s invasion, the heroism of Ukrainian resistance, and a shared sense of destiny with Ukraine converged in explaining Europe’s unprecedented humanitarian response to the war. Europe’s solidarity with Ukrainian refugees was as inspiring as its closure and indifference to the plight of those from elsewhere is shameful. However, here too many believed that time would take its toll as Ukrainian refugees would outstay their welcome. While it is true that some tensions are surfacing, especially in countries like Poland that host the lion’s share of Ukrainian refugees, in the end, the fear that they would wear out their welcome has proved unjustified. Millions of Ukrainians continue to live in the EU, and with their refugee status extended. All in all, it is remarkable how the EU has been able to absorb the second largest wave of refugees worldwide (after Syria) without this causing major socio-economic and political disruption.
To date, the EU is standing firm politically. Divisions have not grown. In fact, they have narrowed. In the early months of the war, West European countries—notably France—spoke of the need for negotiations and infuriated North and East Europeans by insisting on the need for Russia not to be humiliated. But there are few in Berlin, Paris, or Rome who now believe in the potential for negotiations, ceasefire, let alone a peace agreement with Russia. This unity is not limited to the EU. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the poisonous post-Brexit EU-UK relationship on a different footing; it has ushered in unparalleled transatlantic unity, notwithstanding acute differences over trade and industrial policy, and it has gelled cohesion within the G7 and other like-minded countries, such as Australia and South Korea.
This has happened alongside another significant political development. A corollary of the criticism of Europe’s political divisions is that the Union is accused of not having a “single voice.” While Henry Kissinger does not recall having made the joke, one of the most cited phrases on Europe attributed to him is that there is “no telephone number to call to speak to Europe.” Partly as a consequence of Angela Merkel’s exit from German politics and partly due to the absence of other European leaders of her stature, today there is a telephone number that springs to mind and it’s in Brussels. Commission President von der Leyen has navigated both the pandemic and the war remarkably well. Not only does she outsize other institutional figures in EU institutions, like European Council President Charles Michel and High Representative Josep Borrell, but she has also become a familiar face in European and global politics writ large. She is well respected in Washington and has made her voice and views heard across the world. She has taken a strong stance on Ukraine, enlargement, the energy transition, defense, and industrial policy.
This does not mean she has been successful all around. Specifically, the war has revealed a deep chasm that divides Europe (and the West) from the so-called Global South. Although there are only seven countries that openly stand with Russia in the UN General Assembly, 32 others abstain from votes. Of these, setting aside China, which backs Moscow in all but name regardless of European attempts to nudge Beijing into exerting its influence on Moscow, the rest are more genuinely neutral concerning the war, although for different reasons. While there may be some anti-European sentiment, it is interests rather than ideas that are driving the ambivalence. In most cases, especially in relatively small, distant, and poor countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with challenges of their own, the war is either viewed as a “European war,” and/or what matters are its consequences, beginning with food security. What they are more interested in is ensuring that the war ends quickly, even if this costs Ukraine its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Alongside a “poor Global South,” there is also a “power Global South”: a smaller group of mid-sized powers that do not want to passively stay clear of the war and its consequences, but rather wish to exploit their neutrality to serve their interests and increase their power. They have opportunistically leveraged their neutrality to extract gains from both sides. Countries like India stand out in this respect, as well as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. These countries have condemned Russia at the UN General Assembly, but they have also used their relations with Moscow and Kyiv to present themselves as mediators, send weapons to Ukraine, and increase their trade and energy imports from Russia. When it comes to many countries in Africa, Latin America, and South and South-East Asia, Europe has a long way to go to establish trust, redeem its reputation and build win-win relationships. But successes or failures aside, when it comes to voice and visibility, the EU, perhaps for the first time in its history, has a face vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Economic and energy resilience
If Europe has scored relatively well politically in terms of unity and leadership, it is largely because it has weathered the storm of the energy crisis remarkably well. This averted what could have been a devastating economic recession on the continent. In late spring 2022, the International Monetary Fund had predicted a contraction of 3–5% in countries like Germany, Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. When the war began, few would have bet on the fact that with Russian gas closed off to Europe, the EU would have survived energetically, and therefore economically and politically. Vladimir Putin expected Europe to bend and eventually break over their need for energy, which is precisely why he turned the taps off at the cost of hurting Russia, too. Europe was partly aided by exogenous factors like a warm winter and sluggish Chinese growth, but the EU and its member states also put in place a set of key measures that ought to be credited. They diversified their gas supplies by increasing imports from Norway, the US, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, and the Republic of Congo. They met their targets for the refilling of gas storages and developed a European Energy Platform to aggregate gas demand ahead of next winter. They coordinated the reduction of gas and electricity consumption and met the targets they set themselves. And they accelerated the development of renewables, with these now representing the primary source of electricity generation in Europe. Notwithstanding the fuel switch from gas to coal and oil, overall emissions in Europe fell by 2.5% in 2022. All this has meant that Europe, so far at least, has averted the risk of recession, and, albeit sluggishly, its economy continues to grow.
This does not mean that the energy crisis is over and that the EU has squared the circle of energy security and the energy transition through deeper integration. Plenty of challenges remain. These include short-term ones concerning Europe’s energy and economic resilience next winter, especially if China’s growth picks up, while a hot summer could lead to higher-than-expected gas consumption and lower renewable energy production in Europe. Meanwhile, new-born instruments like the European Energy Platform still need to fully prove their worth. Moreover, there are even greater longer-term challenges. While energy prices have dropped in Europe from a peak of €340 MWh to around €30 MWh, they are still double what they used to be before the energy crisis and four times as high as in the US. Coupled with the potential impact of the US Inflation Reduction Act that could lure European companies to the other side of the Atlantic, the risk is Europe’s deindustrialization.
China aggravates the problem. Beijing’s market dominance in areas like renewables, critical minerals, and batteries, alongside Europe’s heightened awareness of the vulnerability generated by energy dependences, push Europeans to re-shore, near-shore, or friend-shore green technologies and industries. Yet doing so is not easy and certainly comes at a high cost that will strain public budgets further. There is no silver bullet to address these problems, and as the EU scrambles for a solution, it could fall into the trap of protectionism and debt unsustainability. It remains to be seen whether the EU’s Net Zero Industry Act will strike the right balance between security, affordability, and sustainability and above all whether in the next political-institutional cycle the EU will succeed in putting more flesh on the bones of its nascent industrial strategy. At the moment, discussions over a new economic security fund are rather unimpressive, with figures hovering in the double digits at most.
This connects to the political landscape that will emerge after the European Parliament elections in 2024. There is already a green backlash ongoing in Europe. Dutch farmers complaining about the EU’s stringent nitrogen targets, the German automotive industry lobbying for an e-fuel exemption to the ban on combustion engines, the related Italian push in favor of biofuels, the heated German debate over the phase-out of gas boilers, President Macron’s call for a moratorium on the EU’s green legislative agenda, the Polish insistence on extending coal subsidies until 2028, and the EP’s difficulties in moving forward on the biodiversity agenda are only some examples. The question is whether this green backlash is the natural consequence of a decarbonization trajectory in Europe that is finally getting real, or whether, by contrast, it indicates the beginning of a slowdown or perhaps even halt and reversal of the EU’s green momentum. The outcome of the 2024 EP elections, and the political majority that will emerge as a result, will be critical in this respect. If there were a slowdown or even a reversal of the European Green Deal, the corollary question is how this would impact the EU’s industrial and investment policies. Will Europe find itself increasingly playing green (and digital) catch-up with both the US and China? EU institutions and member states are aware of the trilemma of efficiency, affordability, and sustainability as they search for solutions. It remains to be seen whether they’ll succeed in finding the right equilibrium as they confront contrasting political, social, and economic forces in the months and years ahead.
The challenges ahead: enlargement and defense
The challenges do not stop here, however. In two other areas, the tasks ahead of the EU are just as daunting. The first is enlargement. While never formally halted, the EU’s enlargement process gradually ground to a halt after the big-bang eastern enlargement of the early 2000s. With the exception of Croatia in 2013, no country has entered the EU for almost two decades. The accession process has formally continued with the Western Balkans and Turkey, but it has been increasingly characterized by a double farce: candidate countries have largely pretended to reform, and the EU has pretended to integrate them. The outcome has not been ideal: Democracy and rule of law have faltered, economic development has languished, peace processes have stalled, and powers like Russia and China have increasingly made their presence felt. But the Union was absorbed by its successive existential crises, and by and large thought that stability in its neighborhood would hold. The results were not great, but they were believed to be good enough.
That illusion was shattered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly it became obvious that stability, while guaranteed within the EU and NATO, cannot be taken for granted on the other side of the “frontier.” Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky applied for EU membership three days into Russia’s large-scale invasion of his country. Now, Ukraine and Moldova are recognized as candidate countries, while Georgia—given its government’s authoritarian turn despite public backlash —is a potential candidate. In the Western Balkans, Albania and North Macedonia have opened accession negotiations, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been recognized as a candidate, and the change of leadership in Podgorica could revamp momentum for enlargement in Montenegro. All this does not yet amount to a decisive revival of the EU’s accession policy, and plenty of problems remain to be solved. The most urgent of them is the dramatic deterioration of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, with the renewed eruption of violence in the region. Alongside, deep reforms await both candidate countries as well as the EU, as it will need to grapple with reforms of its institutions, decision-making procedures, and policies in key areas such as agriculture and cohesion. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious—to EU member states and candidate countries—that there is potentially an extremely high cost to non-enlargement: The status quo is an intolerably high-risk gamble for European security.
This brings us to a final set of challenges that pertain more directly to security and defense. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a contradiction. Europeans finally take security and defense more seriously. The war has led to more defense spending across Europe, from Germany’s defense Zeitenwende of €100 billion additional spending on defense, to the more diffuse uptick in defense expenditures across mostly Northern and East European states. European countries have spent approximately an additional €75 billion per year on defense since the war began, bringing NATO’s 2% of GDP in defense spending finally within reach. EU institutions that traditionally considered defense a dirty word have now mobilized a European Peace Facility to support Ukrainian defense. They have also approved a military training mission for the Ukrainian armed forces. Collectively, the EU and its members have provided €12 billion in military assistance to Ukraine as of March 2023 (and a total of €67 billion if economic assistance is included). The EU has also developed a mechanism for the procurement of ammunition for Ukraine, committing a first €2bn installment to the endeavor.
In times of peace, this would have been read as hard evidence of European strategic military autonomy in the making. In times of war, paradoxically, the opposite is true. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading to a dramatic increase in European defense dependence on the US. This is true in operational terms: without US military support for Ukraine, Kyiv would have likely fallen, putting at an unprecedented risk the entire European continent. It is also true in terms of defense capacities. As Europeans are depleting their stocks, they spend to replace them with what is available: this is often American, not European. This does not mean that European defense industrial projects have stalled altogether. There are several that are promising, including: The European Patrol Corvette, including France, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Norway, as an observer; European space projects, including the Commission and the European Space Agency; the first steps in a European helicopter project including France, Germany, Italy, and the UK; and—provided ways are found to partner also with West European countries—Germany’s missile defense initiative with East European countries. However, in times of war, the bulk of European defense spending is being targeted not to future projects but to short-term fixes, which means that, in relative terms, European dependence on US defense industry is increasing.
This is bad news for Europe. Transatlantic relations have not been as strong as they are currently in many years, but this could reverse quite soon. If a Republican candidate were to win the 2024 US presidential elections, the US’s commitment to Ukraine and to European security could be scaled down. This would leave Europeans at massive risk. Moreover, aside from the question who will win the next US presidential election, Europe’s greater dependence on the US will most likely translate into its reduced ability to chart its way in the world. Especially regarding China, while European and US views are broadly convergent—with European views having distinctly hardened since the pandemic—they are not identical. There is, in fact, a substantial difference between the US drive for a decoupling of the Chinese and US economies, and the EU’s calls for de-risking. This is because Washington’s view is essentially competitive in nature. By decoupling in sensitive technological areas, the US aims to slow down China’s rise. Whereas Europeans also talk about China as an economic competitor and systemic rival, it is not really competition they are most worried about. What Europeans fear is China’s ability to exploit European vulnerabilities to gain strategic gains and interfere in European systems. Against the backdrop of Russia’s weaponization of energy, by “de-risking” their relationship with China, the EU seeks protection and wants to avoid making the same mistake twice. In short, US and European views on China overlap but are not the same. Yet Europe’s growing defense dependence on the US may well mean that its ability to chart its own way vis-à-vis China has been significantly reduced. Europeans cannot reverse this situation in a matter of months, it should have been addressed many years ago. A sense of impotence may be part of the reason why, politically, this question continues to be avoided, although it does not make the problem disappear.
Finally, whereas European security and defense vulnerability is an existential challenge for Europe, it is a problem for the United States as well. When the US was an unrivaled global hegemon, it could afford to have relatively weak and dependent allies. Given that no power seriously challenged US supremacy on the global stage, there was no real price to be paid for European weakness. Europe’s defense dependence on the US benefited American defense industry and foreign policy given that European allies were generally drawn into US foreign policy adventures, notably in the wider Middle East. That era is gone. Today the US is challenged by China, and it knows it. It has an interest in having partners and allies that are capable and strong, at the very least in order to look after themselves. The potential costs of a vulnerable Europe in security and defense terms far outweigh the economic and strategic gains of a dependent Europe on the US. This realization is beginning to dawn in Washington, but it is yet to trickle down across institutional and policy practice.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is profoundly transforming Europe, and in many ways it has forced the EU to live up to von der Leyen’s promise to be and act more “geopolitically.” Europe has reacted politically, energetically, and in terms of enlargement and defense. Crisis has not paralyzed the Union into inaction, nor have the solutions found represented a lowest common denominator. Unprecedented sanctions, the first ever activation of the temporary protection mechanism, energy diversification, efficiency and accelerated transition, the revival of enlargement policy, greater defense spending, the development and use of the European Peace Facility, de facto representing an EU defense funding and procurement mechanism—all of these are ground-breaking developments. Some, like the steps forward made on energy, will certainly make the EU stronger and more strategically autonomous than what it was before the war. On other issues, like enlargement, it remains to be seen whether the EU will truly revive the enlargement process while reforming itself. With respect to European defense, the challenge is even greater, given that notwithstanding the significance of the EU’s moves, these are insufficient to reverse the trend of greater dependence on the US. And for a Union that wants and must play a stronger role on the global stage, this is bad news. The EU is a geopolitical player coming of age. For this it should be credited. Yet the age we live in is such that this may still be woefully insufficient.
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This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.