Analysis: Europe takes once unimaginable decisions to counter Putin’s aggression

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All over the continent, and more particularly within the European Union, decisions have been taken that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. In the space of days, Brussels has gone further in its quest to become a full-fledged geopolitical power than it has in decades.
The shock of war returning to the continent has unified the 27 EU member states as the bloc not only endorsed the harshest sanctions package it has ever imposed, but also agreed to buy and to supply arms to the Ukrainians.
Historically, the bloc has been divided over exactly how much central control Brussels should have over foreign policy. This has stood in the way of the EU’s lofty global ambitions, as policy proposals have been watered down in negotiations or simply vetoed. And according to a study by the UK House of Parliament, the vast majority of EU member states that are also members of NATO have not met their 2% defense spending target for more than a decade.

“The crisis in Ukraine has shattered the illusion that security and stability in Europe are free,” a senior EU diplomat told CNN. “When there was no real threat, geopolitics seemed distant. Now there is a war on our border. Now we know we have to pay and act together.”

It wasn’t just Putin’s aggression that awoke Europe from its slumber. The diplomat explained that in conversations with their counterparts, the officials had taken note of the initiative taken by US President Joe Biden in coordinating the response from the West.

“Big fear in European capitals: what would have happened if Biden was not in the White House right now? No one seriously believes that Trump would have handled this well and we could have him or someone like him back in a few In fact, that means we have to assume we are on our own,” the diplomat added.

Perhaps the most significant and symbolic change of recent days has come from Germany. The EU’s wealthiest and arguably most powerful member state has announced it will more than double its defense spending, with its military budget for 2022 set to rise to $100 billion.

Not so long ago, most German politicians – and a number of politicians across Europe – were uncomfortable with the idea of ​​the country having a large military presence for obvious historical reasons. .

Again, the situation in Ukraine has changed everything.

“Based on conversations over the past few days, most European leaders now seem comfortable with a massive German military if it is firmly entrenched within the EU,” the diplomat said, noting that there only a few months old, even putting the words EU and army in the same sentence would spark outrage in most European capitals.

A cynic might think that Europe’s unity and decisiveness only emerged because of a single crisis and a single threat to the continent’s security.

However, several European and NATO officials told CNN there was no outcome in which Europe could simply go back to the way things were.

If Ukraine falls, then a belligerent Russia will have greatly expanded its land border with the European Union.

But if he were to hold his ground and expel the Russian troops, then a wounded and unpredictable Putin sits back and broods in the Kremlin. And as former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill told Politico this week, when asked if she thought Putin would use his nuclear weapons, in her assessment, “yes, he would”.

A senior Brussels official told CNN that even now its member states find Russian influence too close to be comfortable. “Finland shares a huge land border with Russia. The Romanian fleets share the Black Sea with the Russian Navy. After months of people saying he wouldn’t go to Ukraine, he did. It’s really a very scary situation.”

The official explained that over the past week, “decisions that would have taken years have only taken days because Europe has changed forever. We just don’t have time to inaction and complacency”.

Another notable change that has taken place behind the scenes in Brussels is the attitude of the so-called “neutral nations” of the EU (Austria, Ireland, Finland and Sweden). These are countries that consider themselves militarily non-allies, even though they are politically allied with the EU and its global allies.

“I think we now understand that making it a point to be neutral and not be in NATO doesn’t mean you’re safe,” a senior EU business adviser told CNN. foreign.

One of the main reasons why the Western response, particularly in Europe, has been so unusually coordinated is that the EU and NATO have acted in unexpected ways. Officials from both institutions said it was because, for the first time many of them could remember, the two institutions were sticking to their skills and working closely together.

Firefighters work to contain a fire at the complex of buildings housing Kharkiv's SBU regional security service and regional police, which were reportedly hit in recent bombings by Russia, in Kharkiv on March 2, 2022.

Brussels has resisted using the crisis to call for an EU army, which has historically led to bitter disputes between member states. Some believed it would undermine NATO and make Europe less secure, while others suspected those most in favor would use it to advance a particular vision of Europe as a federal state.

A government official from one of the EU’s neutral member states said most people now accept that there would be “no added benefit to an EU army. Our strongest weapon is the economic sanctions, while NATO can do the political and military strategy”.

They added that “the important thing right now is to make sure that relations between the EU and NATO continue to work well” in the months to come, calling the combined response to the Ukraine crisis “a plan ” for the future.

European thinking on defence, security and foreign affairs has evolved light years away in a few days. He is now waking up from a decades-long dream that the stability provided by an interconnected world would prevent war from breaking out and that, if the worst were to happen, America would fix the problem.

There are many painful months ahead, regardless of how this crisis ends. And if Europe wants to emerge stronger and safer, it must capitalize on the progress made in recent weeks.

If he fails to do so and reverts to the wishful thinking of the past, he may find that the next crisis to hit the continent cannot be solved by quickly putting in place sanctions and pouring money into a third as it did with Ukraine. And especially if this crisis occurs within the borders of the bloc.

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