The very thing Europe considered unthinkable for the past 30 years has happened: Russia has launched a war that will reshape the balance of power and potentially transform the international system. Europe now finds itself confronted with first principles of state behavior. According to international law, Ukraine’s self-defense campaign against Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack checks all the boxes of a “just-cause war.” So regardless of how Ukraine’s tragedy unfolds, the West must ask, and honestly answer, how it got to the point where cities are being bombed, soldiers and civilians are dying, and options for response are limited.
Putin chose to attack Ukraine at what he must have judged to be the most propitious time for Moscow. The move was neither sudden nor provoked, as some have argued, by his fear of continued NATO enlargement or of democracy succeeding in Ukraine. Rather, it marks the culmination of almost two decades of policy aimed at reconstructing the Russian empire and bringing Russia back into European politics as one of the principal players empowered to shape the Continent’s future. To get to this point, Putin has exploited two trends: America’s post-9/11 preoccupation with counterterrorism campaigns and “nation-building” projects that ate up billions of dollars in spending, and Europe’s decision to move away from coal and nuclear power, while declaring natural gas a “clean” fuel and a “gateway to renewables,” as part of its climate policy. Most importantly, European discussions on how to address climate change set aside the national security considerations of such a radical realignment of the energy mix. The two gas pipelines, Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, which bypass ones running through Ukraine and Eastern Europe, have become practical and symbolic manifestations of a flawed EU climate policy.
The West’s geostrategic myopia has also paved the way for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. First, a majority of European governments had refused to recognize that Russia has remained a quintessentially revisionist state, intent on regathering the former Eastern Slavic imperial core (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia) and reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence in Central Europe and Central Asia. Putin’s recent military intervention in Kazakhstan was a clear message to the world—and to China and Turkey, in particular—that anyone interested in access to resources in the region must talk to Moscow first. In Eastern Europe, our failure over the past 30 years to compete for influence in Belarus has resulted in a de facto reintegration of that country into Putin’s empire. Should he succeed in breaking Ukraine’s resistance, he will attempt to do the same there and then move to pressure countries in the Baltic–Black Sea region inside NATO’s fence.
Putin’s vision for the future of the Continent is not one that accepts European economic and transatlantic security institutions. He seeks a new “Concert of Europe,” built on bilateral relations—one that does not include the United States. In this quest for empire, he has targeted Germany in particular, offering the nineteenth-century Bismarckian vision in reverse, with the goal of establishing clear spheres of influence in Europe. Yesterday, speaking at a special session of the Bundestag, German chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered an unequivocally negative answer to this “Russian question,” calling instead for rebuilding the armed forces, strengthening the NATO alliance, and building up Germany’s liquefied natural gas reserves.
Each time Putin has resorted to military power over the past two decades (Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015), he has notched major geopolitical wins. The West has proved unable to react. Like any backyard bully, Putin will continue until someone punches him in the nose. Either we stand tall and confront the man who has lit a fire in Europe yet again, or we prepare for more pressure and war in Europe.
Today, Europe is largely disarmed. For deterrence to hold along NATO’s eastern flank and for NATO to have the means to act, our European allies must rebuild their militaries. NATO should end its arguments over the requirement of member states to spend 2 percent of GDP; instead, each European ally should commit to fielding real, exercised military capabilities as part of NATO’s operational planning, with the United States providing the nuclear deterrent and high-end enablers.
If we want to stop Putin from further destabilizing Europe, Nord Stream 2 should not just be suspended but scratched altogether; other natural gas producers can replace Russian gas. Europe needs to revise its climate targets with an eye to national security—Fit for 55, the unrealistic plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 55 percent by 2030, should be shelved, and Europe should bring nuclear power back into its energy mix. A good first step would be to keep Germany’s remaining three nuclear reactors operational. Most of all, as long as Ukraine continues to fight, whether in this phase or next, it deserves Western help. This means weapons, money, supplies, and political support.
If anyone still dreams of a post-historical brave new globalized world, Putin’s invasion of a peaceful neighbor should serve as a decisive wakeup call. If we fail to heed this one, we will face worse times ahead.
Photo by Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images