Russia’s attack on Ukraine has given the historical post-WWII European project a new lease on life. Now it faces a stark choice about its future.
One of the main assumptions that compelled Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack Ukraine in February was that a shock-and-awe-type invasion would work. Kyiv would fall, Ukrainians would buckle, and the West would accept the fait accompli.
Moscow saw Europe, in particular, as the weak link in an already decadent Transatlantic alliance. The Europeans were soft and spoiled, Putin assumed, addicted to their comforts and privileges – which, of course, were contingent on cheap energy from Russian pipelines.
To its credit, Europe has stood fast in the face of Russia’s aggression. Sanctions have held. Alternative sources of fuel have been sought and found. Even reluctant European Union (EU) members, with pro-Russian leaders – such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Croatian President Zoran Milanović – have been convinced to support Ukraine.
Sure, the EU could still do much more to help Kyiv, particularly in terms of military aid. Nevertheless, on Oct. 25 European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU would help Ukraine finance its state budget deficit. She added that Ukraine had already received more than 19 billion euros of financial aid from the EU since the beginning of 2022, not including military supplies, but this was not enough.
“I believe it is only right if the European Union assumes its fair share,” she added. “I am working with our member states so that the Union could support Ukraine with up to 1.5 billion euros every month of the war, which would [amount to] round about 18 billion euros in 2023.”
The European engine
To its credit, what Europe has achieved since the end of World War II is edifying, to say the least. From a continent that was largely destroyed, the site of untold horrors and genocide, the European project created an area in Western Europe that has arguably become the pinnacle of world civilization: unprecedented material well-being, state-funded cradle-to-grave healthcare in most countries, and more than 70 years of relative peace and security in extremely tolerant and free societies with a social safety net that has been the envy of the world.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of European history – to wit, its wars – knows this is nothing short of miraculous.
Of course, the engine driving the European project came from across the Atlantic. Crucial factors were the Marshall Plan for the economy and NATO for security. Over the years, various iterations of what would become today’s EU have created a unique (often criticized) form of technocratic umbrella government over a loose union of sovereign states – a modern political experiment in nested hierarchies, if you will.
Ukraine’s European heart
Without delving into the intricacies of EU bureaucracy, it must be said that this raging Russo-Ukrainian War actually began in November 2013, with what was initially called the “Euromaidan.” Ukrainians, disappointed and angry with their president for having reneged on the European Union Association Agreement at the last minute under pressure from Moscow, took to the streets waving Ukrainian and European flags. Some observers pointed out that the upheaval on Kyiv’s Maidan was the first time anyone fought and died for the EU.
Fast forward nine years and Moscow’s game plan looks obvious: to rectify and reverse the “geopolitical catastrophe,” as Putin has referred to it, of the Soviet Union’s demise.
Today, Ukrainians – and many conscientious Europeans – are fully aware that they are now fighting for Europe. They are shedding blood not only to protect their land and families, but also to stop a horde sent by an aggressive dictator to implant “illiberal” regimes amenable to Moscow throughout Europe, thereby fragmenting the continent so Russia can step in and wield its influence.
Ukrainians were eager to be embraced by the EU. They saw the benefits accrued by their neighbors: not merely material well-being, but also the obligation to strengthen democratic institutions that might preclude authoritarian regimes and facilitate a more open, tolerant society.
And yet, while Ukrainians champed at the bit to get into the EU and become more like their recently accepted Eastern European neighbors, older EU members were busy criticizing the whole project. The sovereign debt crisis that began in 2009 nearly broke the eurozone. The immigrant crisis of 2015 strained the political relationships among member states. And then came Brexit, when one of the EU’s pillars chose to walk away.
On the eve of Feb. 24, the European project – notwithstanding its historical achievements – looked like a lame old man.
Since the war, however, the Transatlantic alliance has been reinvigorated. Now NATO includes Sweden and Finland, both of which jettisoned their neutral stance when they saw Russia’s real face, and they are poised to help Ukraine achieve victory.
Barring any black swan events, Russia simply cannot achieve the objectives it had set out for itself at the outset of its full-scale attack in February. Moscow’s adventure has been a strategic disaster: NATO has expanded to cover most of Russia’s western border, and Russia is now a pariah state, fast losing its high-tech weapons along with its perennial petro-power.
If Europe and the U.S. remain steadfast in their commitment to Ukraine’s defense, victory and ultimate reconstruction, then we will see a flourishing society that can certainly breathe new life into the European project so many have dismissed as moribund. This new generation of Ukrainians are performing miracles every day. Europe needs them.
As Alex Younger, former chief of the U.K.’s MI6 intelligence service said in an interview with Times Radio: “The world is diverging into different blocs, and there’s a competition between value systems… This is the West’s opportunity to remember what it’s for, double down on its strengths, renew its alliances, empower its innovation… I think there’s an opportunity here, boosted by the extraordinary cohesion shown in Ukraine, to actually get our act together.”
Ultimately, we are witnessing a watershed moment for European history. How Europe fulfills its stated commitment to Ukraine will determine its future for decades, if not centuries. Will it embrace Ukraine and even form a “true, European army” (as French President Emmanuel Macron suggested in 2018)? Will it reinforce its previously flagging commitment to NATO? Or will it succumb to discord, with each “sovereign” entity going its own way – some inevitably swayed by Moscow’s authoritarian allure?
Given how Putin has revealed the true colors of his “strategic” plan, along with the genocidal methods of its implementation, Europe has little choice if it is to remain faithful to its common ideals.
Ukrainians everywhere – those in the country defending it and those who have been forced to seek safety abroad – are hopeful. They have no other choice if they are to survive.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.