War on Ukraine ends Europe’s dream of Russia as a friend

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

  • Invasion forces Berlin, Paris and other European capitals to end years of ambivalence over whether to accommodate or confront Vladimir Putin

Among the first casualties of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: thirty years of European hopes that Russia could be a partner.

The Russian attack on Ukraine marks an end to years of European endeavor to deepen economic and diplomatic ties, even as President Vladimir Putin has become an increasingly aggressive neighbor.

More sweeping sanctions on Russia will now follow, together with diplomatic appeals for a cease-fire and support for Ukrainian refugees. Beyond that, Europe’s democracies face a question that could define the next epoch in the continent’s history: How to handle a Russia that has openly declared it wants to rewrite the ending of the Cold War, and is backing up its wish with force.

The war will likely force Europe and the U.S. to shift toward new policies of containment of Russia, which could involve accelerating efforts to beef up European countries’ military capabilities, bolster defenses in Europe’s east and diversify the region’s energy sources away from Russian oil and gas.

One result is clear: Europe’s quest for dialogue and constructive engagement with Moscow lies in ruins. Visits earlier this month to the Kremlin by the leaders of France and Germany were the last desperate attempts to make Mr. Putin choose reconciliation. The longer and bloodier the war, the harder it will be for pro-Russian politicians and business groups to reassert their influence.

“This is a turning point," said Jonathan Eyal, associate director of the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Ukraine will be an open wound. It will be very difficult this time for French and German politicians to say ‘let’s put it behind us.’"

For three decades, Western European countries have striven to reach an accommodation, even to build friendships, with Moscow. The approach has reflected economic opportunities and a belief that Russia is simply too important to marginalize. At the same time, however, European governments have vowed to maintain a continental order based on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and the freedom of democratic nations to join both.

Mr. Putin has been saying for more than 15 years that the West can’t have it both ways. After bemoaning the loss of Moscow’s former Soviet empire and denouncing the eastward creep of Western institutions, he invaded parts of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, following both countries’ overtures to NATO and Ukraine seeking a trade agreement with the EU.

Germany, the continent’s economic heavyweight, has long embodied Europe’s ambivalent approach to Russia. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel led the EU’s imposition of sanctions against Moscow for its 2014 incursions into Ukraine. But she also oversaw the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines between Russia and Germany, in the teeth of warnings from the U.S. and many European countries that the pipelines, by bypassing Europe’s east, would strengthen Russia’s hand there, including in Ukraine.

On Tuesday, new German Chancellor Olaf Scholzfroze the additional pipelines known as Nord Stream 2, saying: “The situation today is fundamentally a different one." By linking Russia’s gas and its threat to European security, Mr. Scholz broke with Ms. Merkel’s ambiguous legacy and finally heeded the demands of German allies. “Nord Stream 2 is dead," said François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

In Western Europe, the dream of partnership with Moscow took a long time to fizzle out. Trust in Russia was always lower in the former Soviet satellites of Central and Eastern Europe, where newly democratic countries saw NATO and EU membership as a guarantee of national independence against the possible return of Russian influence.

In a honeymoon period after the Cold War, the EU’s leading members and the U.S. held up Russian President Boris Yeltsin as their new friend and partner in managing a new world order. The euphoria faded when Moscow sought to wield influence in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, only for the West to brush it aside. Under Mr. Putin in the 2000s, Russia expressed growing frustration with a U.S.-dominated world order and with NATO’s enlargement to take in former Soviet satellites.

NATO enlargement reflected a dawning realization that Europe east of Germany could otherwise become dangerously unstable, said the Royal United Services Institute’s Mr. Eyal. “That has been the curse of Europe since the end of the First World War," he said. “Countries in Central and Eastern Europe are too small to look after their own security, leaving them a choice between a pan-Europe security structure or getting swallowed into a sphere of influence. This is exactly the drama of Ukraine today."

The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 followed escalating fighting between Georgia’s pro-Western government and Russian-backed rebels, foreshadowing events in Ukraine. The brief war did little to change attitudes toward Moscow in Germany, France, Italy and other West European countries, where leading politicians insisted that dialogue, not confrontation, was the way to deal with Mr. Putin. The U.S.’s declaration of a reset of relations with Russia soon afterward met with enthusiasm in major EU capitals.

“In some countries, there was a fundamental misreading of Russia that lingered on for a very long time," said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “It was more than just the economic and energy relationship. The idea that Russia is a great country, that Europe can only have security with Russia and not against it, and that Russia was historically wronged after the end of the Cold War—which is the Russian narrative—have had quite a resonance in parts of the European establishment."

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine in 2014, when it annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist war in the eastern Donbas region, prompted a partial rethink. Limited EU sanctions have remained in place ever since.

“Relations with Russia have never really been the same again," said Mr. Heisbourg. “There was a decision to substantially increase military spending in NATO countries, which is on track. Sanctions were decided mutually, and implemented. Was it enough? Certainly not, given what we’re seeing today."

As time passed, European politicians began to call again for a thaw. Among them was French President Emmanuel Macron, who said in 2020 that sanctions weren’t working and suggested Russia could be a partner in dealing with China.

As late as last summer, Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel pressed for a renewal of dialogue, proposing a European summit with Mr. Putin. But they had misread the mood in the EU’s eastern countries, which blamed Moscow for the continued low-level war in Donbas, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns in EU countries, and other aggressive actions.

In December, Moscow sent the West draft treaties that effectively demanded the rollback of NATO in Eastern Europe and the restoration of a Russian sphere of influence. Since then, pro-Russian voices in Europe have become quieter than at any time since the Cold War.

“Now, everyone in the EU talks plainly of Russia as a threat," said Ms. Tocci. “Mr. Putin has managed to unite us."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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