Europe’s assertive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented an opportunity that was hard to imagine a month ago: the European Union as a superpower that can change the world order and promote liberal-democratic values worldwide.
Before the war, the EU focused largely on economic growth. It resisted calls, especially from the US, to increase its military spending and become more self-sufficient in defending Europe.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion drove European countries to become more aggressive. They imposed severe sanctions, paralyzing the Russian economy, and they are working to cut off trade with Russia. They have sent weapons and other aid to Ukraine. Several have increased military spending, and EU leaders have been meeting in France in recent days to coordinate their efforts. Leaders of France and Germany urged Putin in a phone call yesterday to agree to a ceasefire.
Europe’s new pledges could help reverse the global democratic decline of the past 15 years or so. The failure of democracies to stand up for themselves partly made that shift possible. But a tougher Europe, as well as other countries’ fierce reaction to the Russian invasion, shows that democracies are still willing to wield power to counter autocratic governments.
“Democratic nations and people are sending a united message to Putin that democracy matters and that authoritarians cannot act with impunity, and that is powerful,” said Michael Abramowitz, the chairman of Freedom House, which tracks the state of democracy around the world. .
The EU is often disrupted, made up of nations and ethnic groups that have been at war with each other for centuries and have different, sometimes competing, interests and values. Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the union shows how far such divisions can go.
But the EU has moved in a more united direction over time. Although it is not a single country, it behaves like one country in many ways. What started as a loose organization of six countries now comprises most of the continent’s population, with 27 countries as members. Most share a currency and open their borders to each other, and all send representatives to the legislature, executive and judiciary with powers over all aspects of European life.
The EU’s response to Russia’s invasion was another unifying step – one that could push Europe from its passive role to an influential democratic power around the world.
A sleeping Europe
Europe’s previous passivity is rooted in the Second World War. After the atrocities of war and the Holocaust, Germany tended towards pacifism, refusing to build up its army or ship its weapons to conflict zones. As the most populous and wealthiest member of the EU, its approach had a major impact on the continent.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine suddenly forced the continent’s leaders to face the prospect that their position was inconsistent with one of the EU’s fundamental goals: to prevent war in Europe. In what sounds like a paradox, the EU may need more military power to deter more war.
“Peace came naturally,” Jana Puglierin, a senior policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. That is no longer the case, she added.
Germany moved within days of the invasion to spend more on rebuilding its army. Others have made similar pledges in the past week, including Austria, Denmark and Sweden. More EU and NATO members are likely to follow suit, experts said.
Another super power
In the longer term, a revived Europe could help renew a wounded world order led by a democratic West.
One way this could happen is for Europe to protect itself more aggressively. That could help free up US resources now earmarked for European security, which in turn would allow the US to begin a long-promised refocus on Asia to counter China. (White House officials say the war has already persuaded some Asian governments to work more closely with the West to defend democracy, my colleagues Michael Crowley and Edward Wong reported.)
As the world’s second largest economy, Europe could also use its wealth to counter threats to itself or to democracy abroad – through sanctions, financial investment and trade policy.
The EU has previously played a role in building a global democratic order. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the EU’s embrace of Eastern European countries gave power to new democracies, from Bulgaria to Lithuania. That “was one of the greatest democracy promotion projects in recent history,” Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash told me.
The future is not as simple as another Cold War between democracies and autocracies. India, the world’s most populous democracy, is friends with Russia and has refused to condemn Putin’s war in Ukraine. The US is dealing with its own illiberal movement. Within Europe, democratic institutions have deteriorated in Poland and more severely in Hungary. “There are serious internal problems within Europe,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the Eurasia Group.
A big unanswered question remains: will Europe’s new assertiveness last? Europeans are facing a refugee crisis and rising food and gas prices as a result of the war and sanctions against Russia. That could lead to a backlash against politicians who have aggressively supported Ukraine — shortening the path Europe is now on.
State of the war
Russian warplanes hit a base near the border with Poland, Ukrainian officials said, killing at least 35 people and drawing the war even closer to NATO.
Russian troops staged bombing campaigns aimed at destroying the cities and towns of Ukraine. Soldiers fought street-by-street battles in a suburb of Kiev.
Russian troops have detained the mayor of the captured city of Melitopol, Ukrainian officials said, prompting hundreds of outraged residents to protest.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of embarking on a “new phase of terror” designed to break the will of the citizens.
Attacks in two cities shattered the relative sense of security in western Ukraine.
More about Ukraine
The coming week
The Sunday Question: Has Cultural Resistance Against Russia Go Too Far?
Isolating Russia by banning its athletes, throwing out its vodka and rejecting its performers could help turn the population against Putin. Yasmeen Serhan say. slate Dan Kois disagrees, arguing that stigmatizing innocent Russians hurts Ukraine’s cause. (Times Opinions) Spencer Bokat-Lindell has more.)