War has returned to Europe. One month ago, a European great power attacked its smaller neighbor – which it claims does not have the right to exist as a sovereign nation-state – and even threatened to deploy nuclear weapons against those that challenge it. With that, the world was fundamentally changed. Europe must change with it.
With his unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin deliberately destroyed the underpinnings of European peace and, to some extent, of the entire post-Cold War international order. Not only has the West’s diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia been decimated; direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia is a distinct possibility.
The world now must contend with the risk – once thought to have been overcome – that a war in Europe could quickly escalate into a global conflagration. If World War III were to erupt, it could entail an unprecedented level of destruction, even by European standards, owing to the likelihood that weapons of mass destruction would be used.
To be sure, Putin has made some serious miscalculations. His blitzkrieg was supposed to decapitate the democratically elected Ukrainian government and replace it with a puppet regime. But he seems to have overestimated the Russian military’s prowess – and underestimated Ukrainians’ willingness to fight for their country and their freedom.
Putin also seems to have underestimated NATO and the European Union. While some pushback was undoubtedly expected, he probably did not anticipate the West’s swift, determined, and unified response.
Beyond welcoming a large share of the roughly 3.5 million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homeland since the start of the invasion, Western countries have sent Ukraine billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and other materiel. And they have imposed stringent – and intensifying – financial and economic sanctions on Russia, Putin, and his supporters.
For Europe, this response reflects just how close to home Putin’s war of aggression hits. Day after day, on television and social media, Europeans are inundated with stories and images of decimated cities, packed bomb shelters, and ordinary Ukrainians courageously coping with their new reality. This, together with the arrival of refugees in virtually every country across the continent, has made the war a defining feature of Europeans’ everyday lives.
But the connection runs even deeper. Europeans inside and outside the EU understand that Putin’s aggression is not directed only toward Ukraine. Russia has launched an assault on our most deeply held values: democracy, the rule of law, peaceful coexistence, and the inviolability of borders. If the war on Ukraine is an attack on all of us, the only appropriate response is a united one.
Yet, while Europe’s unity so far merits praise, much more will need to be done. It is not yet clear how the war in Ukraine will unfold, or even whether Ukraine will survive as an independent country. But there is little doubt that Putin’s war will have profound longer-term consequences – potentially even more profound than those of the watershed years when the Cold War order came crashing down.
For starters, mistrust of Russia will be enduring. Given that the West’s relationship with Russia has long been a pillar of European peace, this implies that Europe will need to transform its approach to security. In particular, NATO’s eastern flank and the EU’s eastern border will remain vulnerable, requiring a higher level of military protection. This task, which must be shared equally by NATO and the EU, should transform the EU into a geopolitical player.
Until now, the only geopolitical instrument the EU had at its disposal was the promise of membership and the prospect of peace, prosperity, and respect for the rule of law that accession implied. But, as the EU’s eastern enlargement at the beginning of this century showed, accession alone is not enough to guarantee that a country will complete the expected geopolitical transformation.
Faced with the aspirations of the Western Balkan countries, as well as Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, the EU needs to develop a more flexible, responsive, and nuanced system – or risk collapse. The EU’s development into a political, security, and defense union, rather than just an economic and monetary union, offers an ideal opportunity.
As this new Europe takes shape, a new journey to EU membership can be mapped out, consisting of several phases, each with its own criteria, rights, and obligations. To move to the next phase, a country must meet pre-determined standards relating to the economy, the rule of law, security, and other domains. Some countries might progress quickly, while others may never reach the highest level of EU membership. But all would benefit from their ties with the bloc.
Putin’s war has made Europe more united than it has ever been. The challenge now is to uphold this sense of common purpose, and build a stronger, more resilient, and more self-sufficient EU capable of advancing its geopolitical interests in a world of renewed great-power rivalry. Alliances will, of course, be essential, particularly with the United States and Canada. But, as Europeans marvel at the Ukrainians’ bravery and mettle, we must also absorb from them a crucial lesson: no one will fight for you – for your family, your country, and your future – as hard as you will.