Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

How is the war changing Europe?

How is the war changing Europe? Ivan Krastev on a new era for the old world.
Tom Podmore
Looking to rally support for his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled over the past 10 days to the capitals of Europe, as well as to the G7 and Arab League summits in Hiroshima, Japan, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, respectively. During stops in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, Europe’s leaders expressed their continued backing for Kyiv. After the Russian invasion last February, they’d quickly united on Ukraine’s side: Germany declared the attack a turning point for its foreign policy; NATO was re-energized; and to some, Europe as a whole started to realize its potential as a global superpower. But Germany has struggled since to live up to its promises; Italy elected a far-right government in September whose parties have long praised Russian President Vladimir Putin; and French President Emanuel Macron visited Beijing last month to promote relations with China—which has supported Moscow staunchly throughout the conflict. Where exactly does Europe stand now?

Ivan Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. To Krastev, the war has brought about fundamental changes in Europe’s politics, security doctrines, and self-image. Upending a longstanding conviction that a major war wasn’t possible on the continent after World War II, the Russian invasion has led to new uncertainties. European national governments are all behind Kyiv, but they’re divided on how much support to give it. Ultimately, Krastev sees the war as feeding opposing political tendencies: A widespread agenda of solidarity with Ukraine is strengthening calls for a pan-European identity, on the one hand; and a widespread admiration for Ukraine’s resistance is demonstrating the power of a committed independent nation-state, on the other. Out of this contradiction, Krastev says, is emerging a divided Europe, unsure about what its future holds—not least amid conflicting views about how much it can trust its longtime ally, the United States.

Michael Bluhm: After Zelensky visited Europe’s capitals in mid-May, and their heads of state all expressed support for Ukraine’s defense, it’s still unclear whether they’ll meet all his requests for material back. How strong is European support for Ukraine?

Ivan Krastev: It’s stronger than it was a year ago. When the war started, people had a very clear idea of who the victim and aggressor were. But they also had the idea that Moscow was going to win. Many discussing peace talks two or three months after the invasion weren’t friendly to Russia; they simply believed that Ukraine didn’t have a chance. So European support was tentative.

That changed, first, when Ukrainian forces managed to liberate some Russian-occupied territories last summer and fall. For Europeans, this was a miraculous success. They’d been dismissive of Russia’s economic power—but never questioned its military power.

A second reason it changed is that we Europeans surprised ourselves. If you had asked us before the war how Europe would react, people would have said we were going to end up deeply split: The war will matter a lot to some countries and not much to others, as every previous crisis had led to a lot of division like this.

The third reason was relations with the United States. In polling by the European Council of Foreign Relations, Europeans had been saying, in effect, Biden is back, but America isn’t. Something felt finished in transatlantic relations. In a way, the people saying this were right. The role of Europe in U.S. strategy and in the American political imagination had changed; everything had become about China. But suddenly, after the invasion, the United States came back to Europe.

Bluhm: You say Europeans surprised themselves. How’ve they changed?

Krastev: On the night of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, Zelensky spoke by Zoom to the EU Council of Ministers—the prime ministers of EU countries. He said, I’m probably seeing you for the last time. After that moment, people throughout Europe did things they’d never have imagined they could do.

The war was a turn from living in normal politics to living in extraordinary politics. People’s views of themselves changed. They grew up reading books about European history, but that wasn’t about them; now, this was about them.

Unity in Europe shouldn’t be taken for granted, though. It could be challenged by Ukrainian failure, and it could be challenged by Ukrainian success. If the Ukrainian military’s coming counter-offensive doesn’t produce results, for example, the pressure to end the conflict is likely to grow. Or if it produces great results, and Russian military forces seem about to collapse—with everything that would imply about Russian domestic politics—different European countries could end up having very different ideas about what a Ukrainian victory should look like.

Bluhm: Thinking of Russia, EU countries went along with the unprecedented package of U.S.-led sanctions against it at the beginning of the war. How strong is the European resolve to isolate and punish Moscow?

Krastev: European governments and publics believe the relationship between Europe and Russia is broken—and will be for a long time.

But there’s a reluctance to cut off all exports to Russia on account of the economic costs that’d mean. A major difference between the United States and Europe is that, economically, Russia is totally unimportant to the U.S. economy, whereas it’s quite important to European economies. So European leaders can fear that if the economic costs of sanctioning Russia become too high, they’ll be punished by voters.

Our policies toward Russia aren’t about what we can do to them; they’re about what we can afford.

Fabien Barral
More from Ivan Krastev at The Signal:

If you go beyond government policies and look at public opinion, you might be surprised at how divided Eastern Europeans are. The divisions follow the maps of the three former continental empires: Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian. Poland and the Baltic republics are taking in the most refugees and giving Ukraine the most support. These countries of Eastern Europe that were part of the Russian Empire are the strongest supporters of Ukraine and the strongest critics of Russia. But in Bulgaria, almost 60 percent of the population is against giving any weapons to Ukraine. Romania is not a pro-Russian country—it has a major conflict with Russia over Moldova—but people’s views there aren’t like people’s in Poland. Countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire—Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians, and Serbs—aren’t particularly supportive of Ukraine; and countries that were part of the Habsburg Empire—Austria, Hungary, Slovakians, and Croatians—are in between.”

The war is having two contradictory effects on European illiberalism. On the one hand, it’s pushed some illiberal forces toward more mainstream views. The best example is Italy’s Prime Minster Giorgia Meloni from the fiercely nationalist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a direct descendant of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. The war reconciled this kind of party—Euro-skeptical and always trumpeting national sovereignty—to the idea of Europe. They now see Europe under threat, so support for Putin has declined among the European far right. On the other hand, the Ukrainian resistance is a strong manifestation of the transformative power of civic nationalism—and nationalism is a core principle for Europe’s authoritarian populists. Ukrainians are dying for a country that was until recently dysfunctional and corrupt. But now they’re able to self-organize and more or less defeat the second-strongest army in the world. So this war is at once a European moment and a nationalist moment—and both sides of the political spectrum are trying to build their identities on it.”

The big problem for Europe … is its future relations with the United States. Another thing the war has shown is that, in terms of security, Europe is still a protectorate of the United States. Yet Europeans are less sure now than they were before the war that they really know what American policy is going to look like over the next decade. This is what’s driving the differences in how European countries are behaving. Macron is going to China and saying, Europe is a third power pole, along with the U.S. and China. The Poles and others are saying, There is no Europe; there’s only the West, which will be the player in this new international order.”

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