Russia-Ukraine war is Europe's hour to act - opinion

When diplomacy fails to deter a bully, a big stick is required.

 POLAND’S PRIME Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (left) and European Council President Charles Michel visit the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing Korczowa-Krakovets on Wednesday and meet with people fleeing Ukraine. (photo credit: Agencja Wyborcza.pl/Reuters)
POLAND’S PRIME Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (left) and European Council President Charles Michel visit the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing Korczowa-Krakovets on Wednesday and meet with people fleeing Ukraine.
(photo credit: Agencja Wyborcza.pl/Reuters)

“This is the hour of Europe,” Luxembourg’s foreign minister declared in June 1992, when civil war broke out in the disintegrating Yugoslav Republic. His statement proved hollow. When European diplomatic efforts failed, US bombing was what ended the Bosnia-Herzegovina genocide three years later.

When diplomacy fails to deter a bully, a big stick is required. Since the 1990s, European Union member states have hardly strengthened their armies and failed to translate their economic power into military might. They did not build a common European army, continuing to live peacefully and comfortably under the “perpetual peace” they created. 

In recent years, when Russian President Vladimir Putin, the regional bully, bit off big chunks of his neighbors’ land (Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine) and dispatched his soldiers to train in Syria and Libya, an angry EU mainly barked, but did not really bite.

Is this the hour of Europe? The EU insists on respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent country, and its right to chart its own course, foreign policy, and membership in international organizations, including NATO and even the EU. The 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea was a direct response to Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the EU.

The EU does not have a military force, relying instead on NATO, which is under US leadership. But for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed over three decades ago ending the Cold War, European leaders, including newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, agree that defense spending should be increased. They agree that the world order has changed, and that the EU must prepare. 

 German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia February 15, 2022. (credit: SPUTNIK/SERGEY GUNEEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS) German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia February 15, 2022. (credit: SPUTNIK/SERGEY GUNEEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)

While Merkel dragged her feet for years, Scholz announced an increase in Germany’s defense budget from 1.53% to 2% of its GDP for troop buildup and advanced rearmament.

Scholz also seemed to be aligning himself with French President Emmanuel Macron’s wish for the EU’s “strategic autonomy,” meaning the EU’s ability to act independently of NATO (i.e., the US). 

Europe’s “hour” in terms of military power is not imminent. Strategic autonomy is a goal that, even if agreed on by the 27 member states, will take years to achieve. But EU consensus on this matter in response to Putin’s aggression will add a further dimension to the changing world order observed in recent days. For now, Europe continues to dwell under NATO’s US-led umbrella.

THE EU – which seemed to be limping from crisis to crisis over the past 15 years, with its foreign policy in disarray – is shaping up in front of our eyes over the past two weeks as a significant proactive body, capable of adopting tough diplomatic decisions despite the harm they cause to its member states. Foreign ministers and heads of member states have consolidated an array of increasingly harsh sanctions as the war in Ukraine has escalated.

These financial sanctions are a double-edged sword. They will undermine Russia, but also hurt EU-member states. Severing Russian banks from the international SWIFT financial transaction network, for example, means Europeans will have trouble paying for Russian gas and oil. The already high European energy prices will go up and governments (at least in Germany) have already pledged to subsidize the rising electricity and gas costs of low-income residents.

Since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, we have been living in a world run in accordance with the slogan Bill Clinton minted to defeat George Bush Sr., “It’s the economy, stupid.” This aphorism applies mostly to countries living in peace, such as the EU members. China seemed to have adopted it too, becoming a market economy (under the eagle-eye of the authorities). 

Israel cannot afford to be governed by this dictate alone. It knows that without a strong, growing economy, it will be hard-pressed to maintain a powerful, advanced army. European leaders now realize that a strong economy alone is insufficient; military force is also required.

Since the end of the Cold War, global trade in goods and services has expanded significantly, as have foreign investments throughout the world. Interdependence among states has also grown substantially. According to certain international relations scholars, the greater the interdependence between states, the fewer the prospects of their waging war against each other. 

Russia is not dependent on Ukraine’s economy, on the contrary. Putin expects to take Ukraine over as he did Belarus. But Putin misjudged the resolve of the EU, on whose member states he does depend economically, to use this mutual dependence against him. 

Much of Russia’s export volume depends on EU energy purchases, chief among them Germany’s. Putin gambled that the states dependent on Russian energy would stand aside while he “gobbles up” Ukraine, as was the case (to a large extent) with his takeover of Crimea. 

He miscalculated. This double-edged sword is turning against him. The Russian army, too, marches on its stomach and is reliant on economic resources to renew its ammunition. To maintain a significant military force, Putin needs a high-yield economy.

THE EU is not sending troops, but it is willing to pay the economic price for Ukraine’s sake. It coordinated the economic and financial sanctions on Russia with the US, proactively leading the charge rather than being dragged along by the Americans. 

Putin – who for over a decade sought to divide the West, to turn the US and EU against the other, to throw a monkey’s wrench into the workings of the EU and NATO – has turned into a unifying factor.

How, then, is this Europe’s hour? Given the world’s democratic decline of the past two decades, the EU still has a potentially significant regional role to play. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, the European Community (precursor of the EU) helped Greece, Spain and Portugal stabilize their fragile democracies by conditioning its accession on such stability. 

The current decision to side with Ukraine is a stand in favor of a country’s right to choose its friends, to choose the democratic-liberal model. The invasion of Ukraine brutally tramples the principles underpinning the EU, which seeks to propagate peace, democracy, human rights, and adherence to the rule of law, including international law.

This is where the theory of democratic peace comes in as the only theory of international relations that can be considered a “rule” and has withstood repeated tests: democracies do not fight each other. By inference, that means that the more democracies there are (especially adjacent ones), the fewer wars will be waged. 

But researchers also have found that the most unstable stage, both domestically and in foreign relations, is the transition to democracy. This is the stage Ukraine is in. The EU’s assistance to Ukraine is assistance for the spread of democracy in a state that wants it and has chosen it (unlike states around Israel’s region that are not interested in such European intervention; and indeed, in the wake of the Arab “spring,” the EU’s democratic agenda in our region has been eroded in favor of an agenda of stability and good governance).

This is the hour of coordinated multilateral action by peace-loving democracies. This is the hour of Europe.

The writer is director of Mitvim’s program on Israel-Europe relations, a lecturer at Hebrew University’s European Forum, and at Tel Aviv University’s European Union Studies program.