The war of aggression that Russia is launching against Ukraine has several repercussions, some of whom will only be made clear over time. Others are already visible to the naked eye, affecting different powers in different ways.
The war at the heart of Europe has helped bridge the widening transatlantic divide, as Washington and Brussels are coordinating a sanctions-based response towards Moscow. Russia has solidified its reputation as a revisionist power, whose economic decline and authoritarian makeup seek refuge in acting as a troublemaker in the wider Eurasian space. For the United States, the war acts as one of the very few, maybe the only, common denominator between Democrats and Republicans, who are otherwise as divided as ever on any number of issues, including the legitimacy of President Biden’s election in 2020. For emerging market economies, the war is a mixed bag: on the one hand, they refuse to side with the west in seeking to punish Russia, not least due to their high energy and goods’ dependence on Moscow. Some of them are also motivated by their desire to weaken a western world order that appears to them as unjust and one-sided. At the same time, however, many of them maintain rhetorical (and in cases such as that of Turkey, practical) solidarity towards Kiev. They are aware that Russia’s actions threaten to open Pandora’s box – and may come to haunt them in the not-too-distant future if the principle of non-aggression and respect for the territorial integrity of UN members is undermined once and for all. Here, a speech of Ursula von der Leyen’s dated back to 27 November 2019 is worth to mention: “My Commission will not be afraid to speak the language of confidence. But it will be our way, the European way. This is the geopolitical Commission that I have in mind, and that Europe urgently needs”.
In the first six months of the conflict and from a raw power/hard materialist perspective, Russia has been substantially weakened, despite the inroads on Ukrainian territory and a few ephemeral gains. It is true that Putin’s regime remains solidified behind the leader’s agenda and internal resistance has been effectively mute, as Russia’s elites hesitate to challenge Putin’s decisions. It is also accurate to suggest that by using the dependence of numerous states to products that Russia exports, and which are necessary for production and consumption to keep the world economy going, Russia positions itself as an indispensable state whose choices are critical for the stability of the international system. Nevertheless, Moscow is now forced to spend energy and resources to a war that is largely unwinnable, given western support to Kiev, and which has undermined Russia’s great power pretense for at least a generation. The United States has also had a good war, higher gas prices at the pump notwithstanding: its overall energy autarchy and increasing volume of LNG exports as an alternative to Russian gas has underlined its dominant economic position, despite its limited capacity to affect the outcome of the war on the ground due to its reluctance to directly confront Moscow. President Biden’s diplomatic overtures in the Middle East and Asia have borne little fruit to date but help underline Washington’s continuous desire to (re)build an effective alliance against Putin’s ambitions.
Where does all this leave Europe? How has the war affected Brussels, and what does the prolongation of the conflict mean for European integration? Three years ago, then Commission President-elect von der Leyen stressed the need for a rebalancing of (mostly economic) integration with a geopolitical orientation. The war has opened a window of opportunity in that direction, given Europe’s dense relations with Moscow as well as its clear denunciation of the war, which will hopefully lead to Europe’s decoupling from Russian oil and gas. What the war has not done, however, is to shift Brussels’ way of thinking about the tools at its disposal and their best use. A geopolitical Europe has yet to emerge.
The Short Term: Sanctions on Russia
The comprehensive package of sanctions imposed on Moscow, rolled out over time and intensifying in their reach and content, was originally meant to stop the war. Given how intertwined Russia’s economy is with that of several EU member states, the rationale espoused by Brussels was that attacking Ukraine would be clearly counter-productive for President Putin. The Russian leader’s rationality was seen as key here. That rationale has clearly failed: the sanctions did nothing to deter Putin, whose war aims appear to have expanded over time, while the intensity of the conflict remains at high levels, continuing to cause the death of innocent civilians.
Given how intertwined Russia’s economy is with that of several EU member states, the rationale espoused by Brussels was that attacking Ukraine would be clearly counter-productive for President Putin.
Six months on, the argument has now shifted: maybe Russia could not be deterred from starting the conflict, but maybe the sanctions will help end it? After all, Europe was and will remain the largest importer of the precious raw minerals that have allowed Putin’s regime to claim economic recovery since the early 2000s, and the return of great power status for the Russian Federation. In that sense, Brussels has leverage and Putin, will come to acknowledge that fact, sooner or later.
Here again, problems amount: first, sanctions on Russian oil and gas have been delayed due to the urgent energy needs of several influential EU member states, removing the stick of immediate revenue loss for Russia. This was important, given that natural gas is tied to European markets and creating alternative routes to send it to non-European destinations is a long-term, risky, and uncertain investment on the part of Russia. Second, quietly but clearly, EU states have backtracked on their refusal to satisfy Putin’s demand that oil and gas payment be made in rubles. Following an initial flurry of denials, EU policymakers gave into the inevitable and made sure that payments be made in Russia’s currency, thus offering Putin another symbolic victory in this parallel war of symbols. The Russian currency has not only recovered initial losses in its value but is now stronger than before the war. It is true that this means little in the medium term, and sanctions will have a devastating effect on the long-term capacity of the Russian economy to remain integrated in global value and supply chains given the extent of the sanctions imposed by the west. For now, however, the European Union has yielded to Putin’s demands. Moreover, the widening of sanctions that go well beyond Russia’s complicit political and economic elite are already influencing the Russian population by driving down its living standards, as poverty is set to double compared to 2021 and following an estimated 15 percent GDP contraction in 2022. What this may mean once the conflict comes to an end in terms of re-establishing some sort of normal relations between Europe and Russia is, at this stage, anyone’s guess.
What is certain is that Brussels cannot afford the same type of sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on Moscow, and this fact must be spelled out clearly by its leadership. Attempting to do so in an indirect way, seeking to bypass sanctions when convenient and then continuing to claim the high moral ground, is a recipe for disaster in that it can, and will, be perceived as hypocritical by the not insignificant minority of Europeans who, as time goes by, will become more skeptical as to the effectiveness and appropriateness of the sanctions regime. Consider a recent poll, for instance, which suggests that Europeans are increasingly divided between a “peace camp” that wants a cessation of hostilities as soon as possible, and a “justice camp” that supports Ukraine and its defense efforts no matter the cost. In addition, remaining united in the face of Russia’s war is becoming ever more difficult given the energy blackmail that Russia seeks to impose on its biggest European buyers, and the asymmetrical dependence on Russian gas within the EU. The recent proposal by the Commission to reduce gas consumption by 15 percent was rebuked by a number of states, such as Spain, Portugal Greece, Denmark and the Netherlands, eventually leading to a classic EU compromise that includes the target goal as well as a number of exceptions and voluntary gas reductions by member states.
The biggest problem with the sanctions, however, is neither their practical application nor their normative results. It is their reach in the international community and, more specifically, the very limited extent to which Europe (and the United States and Britain) has been able to bring along other states. Given that only 16 percent of the world’s population participates in the sanctions regime, the ability of Brussels to set the tone of this conflict and dictate terms is minimal. Again, this is not to say that imposing sanctions is a mistake, nor is it an argument in favour of apathy and business as usual with Russia. It is, however, to state that if Europe is serious about playing a geopolitical role that allows it to translate its economic power to a politically influential role it ought to be deeply disappointed with how few states have followed its lead and do its utmost to persuade the international community to co-contribute to the immediate cessation of hostilities and a peaceful future for the people of Ukraine. After all, sanctions have no positive record in altering the policy behavior of authoritarian states.
The Mid-Term: Enlargement and Further Integration
Beyond the war’s immediate consequences lies the prospect of further European integration and enlargement, especially to the western Balkans. For some time now, Russia has sought to undermine the EU by funding, supporting and/or abetting hard far right and anti-EU forces within the Union and outside it. Its goal has been to divide the Union and to reduce its appeal to cajole Moscow-friendly forces to its own wishes. The Union ought to be in a position to respond to such moves. The western Balkans have been victims of Russia’s propaganda and activism in the past, and the EU ought to take steps to counter Russia’s influence. Its record to date is mediocre to say the least.
All countries in the region face severe problems of maladministration and corruption, and joining the Union cannot be achieved overnight. Yet the signals Brussels has been sending appear almost designed to alienate local populations and reduce their wavering enthusiasm for EU membership. First was the decision to reconfigure the enlargement process and change the methodology of enacting and implementing reforms. Regardless of the new approach’s merits, it has led to confusion and long faces in the western Balkans, since it was perceived as an attempt to keep the door of enlargement firmly shut. Second was the long delay in opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, which finally materialized in the summer of 2022. Both countries are far from perfect, and their recent political past is troublesome, suggesting there is a long way to go before joining the institutions. However, both have embarked on far-reaching reforms in recent years, have established good relations with all their neighbors and can count on public support for a better future from within the EU. Objections raised by the likes of the Netherlands, Denmark or France have a lot more to do with domestic political power games and little to do with these countries’ reform prospects. The reason why this matters is because it suggests that thinking geopolitically remains elusive in Brussels. Those who oppose EU values and principles, however, are perfectly capable of setting long-term goals and working slowly but decisively to implement them.
All countries in the region face severe problems of maladministration and corruption, and joining the Union cannot be achieved overnight. Yet the signals Brussels has been sending appear almost designed to alienate local populations and reduce their wavering enthusiasm for EU membership.
While enlargement is an important element in the Union’s cohesion and geopolitical weight, internal political reform to allow for more efficient decision-making and enhance the Union’s credentials remains as important as ever. In the aftermath of the war the Union has shown resilience by immediately condemning this act of aggression and remaining largely united in doing so. Nevertheless, headwinds are getting stronger: in France President Macron has had to settle for less than a majority in parliament, while Italy’s latest episode in its ever-lasting political drama saw Draghi ousted and new elections called for. Such instability in major EU states suggests that the Union may be unable to devote enough attention to urgent institutional reform, such as abolishing the national veto on foreign and security policy, as suggested by the concluded Conference on the Future of Europe and endorsed by Commission President von der Leyen. Yet it is precisely such reform that will make the rest of the world pay serious attention to initiatives such as EU Strategic Autonomy and start counting Brussels among the key players in international mediation, conflict resolution and dispute settlement. Moreover, it is precisely through such initiatives that Europe’s partnership with the United States will become more stable in the years to come.
The Long Run: How Far is Beijing from Brussels?
Russia’s war in Ukraine has put to sharp focus Moscow’s revisionist attitude but has also pointed to Moscow’s vulnerability and long-term decline. China, the country whose decisions and political attitude in the South China Sea and beyond will shape the international balance of power in the coming decades, is aware of that. Its cautious approach to the war suggests both long-term thinking, a refusal to open a wedge with Moscow and a simultaneous desire to maintain a degree of cooperation with the west, at least on specific issues.
Washington knows that the 21st century will be shaped by its relations with Beijing and is devoting vast amounts of resources in seeking to shape its relations with China according to its own priorities. Even a new long telegram has been penned, suggesting the seriousness with which Washington sees the potential for strategic competition with China across a range of policy issues. The EU, on the other hand, has so far not done so. Granted, it has taken steps in regulating relations with Beijing through its favorite policy tool, a trade agreement, but the implementation of the accord remains frozen due to recriminations on human rights’ abuses in Xinjiang and China’s reciprocal sanctioning of EU academics and lawmakers. The Union has also called Beijing a “systemic rival”, language that is usually seen with skepticism in Brussels.
Yet the key question remains unanswered: what sort of relationship does the EU want to have with China? Does the compartmentalization of relations along the lines of politics, economics, and civil society work, or has the war, China’s increasing authoritarianism and its ambitions in its region and beyond changed that calculus, suggesting that a “big picture” approach is better suited to today’s realities? We do not know yet, because the various set of interests that underpin the foreign policy priorities of member states vis a vis Beijing push Brussels to different directions. Save for rather empty sloganeering, the Union has yet to formulate a clear and coherent vision as to how it envisages relations with China to evolve in the short and medium-term. It is time for the EU to at least try and set the tone of that relationship. The absence of such a concrete yet necessary vision undermines both its much taunted strategic autonomy, and any pretense towards a geopolitical presence that will be complementary and yet distinct from that of the United States.
Conclusion: Geopolitics is Easier said than Done
Russia’s war in Ukraine is but the latest episode in a series of events that have shaken Europe as of late. From inflation and the energy crisis to climate change and a post(?)-pandemic recovery, the EU is facing an unprecedented number of challenges. Its record to date, for all the criticism it has received, remains positive. The Union is a frontrunner in the politics of climate change, setting ambitious targets and taking concrete steps towards achieving them. Inflationary pressures are being dealt with by the ECB by combining interest rate hikes with a new policy instrument to keep spread yields under control and thus ensure the viability of the Eurozone. Post-pandemic, the Union can look forward to stable growth across much of the Union, not least thanks to its rightly celebrated Recovery and Resiliency Fund. The energy crisis is real, and will get worse during 2022, but the decisiveness that Brussels has displayed in liberating itself from unreliable Russian energy supplies will benefit its firms and consumers in the long run.
Nonetheless, the EU cannot afford to rest on its laurels and this article has attempted to demonstrate why. Making the transition from a political B-actor to a geopolitical heavyweight with genuine role and influence, in its neighborhood and further afield, is fraught with difficulties. Some of them tend to be of a short-term nature, and can therefore soon be overcome, given shrewd maneuvering and a bit of luck. Others, however, pose bigger questions that Brussels has skillfully avoided so far but which are becoming increasingly pressing: how will relations with Russia look like once the war comes to an end, and what sort of post-Putin Russia is the EU willing to settle for? How can integration be combined with enlargement in a way that strengthens the Union’s cohesion and adds value to its geopolitical presence? Most importantly, how does Brussels intend to entice Beijing towards forms of cooperation compatible with its normative predisposition? Is that possible given Beijing’s increasingly fraught relations with its neighbors, and what does it suggest regarding the Union’s desire to both strike an autonomous foreign policy path from Washington while strengthening the vulnerable transatlantic partnership? The EU and its important achievements over a period of 70 years are worth some answers.
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