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BERLIN — Vladimir Putin just achieved the impossible: genuine European unity.
The Russian president’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has united Europe and the transatlantic sphere like nothing since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as even his erstwhile allies on the Continent abandoned him over the weekend.
From Sofia to Stockholm, Europe’s internal divisions over how to react to Putin’s aggression have melted away in recent days as the historic dimensions of the invasion — the greatest challenge to the West’s security architecture in decades — sank in.
As images of Russian tanks rolling over the Ukrainian border and families huddled in subway stations filled the airwaves, concerns in national capitals about the local impact of tougher measures, such as barring Russian banks from SWIFT (a linchpin of the global interbank payment infrastructure), gave way to a shared resolve to do whatever it takes to halt Putin in his tracks.
Faced with the cold reality of what the invasion means not just for Ukraine, but also for the security architecture across Europe, parochial objections, whether Italy’s desire to keep selling luxury goods to Russians or Germany’s to maintain easy access to Russian gas, evaporated.
Even Putin’s staunchest allies abandoned him, from Czech President Miloš Zeman to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.
By Sunday, Europe had not only agreed to impose sweeping financial sanctions on Russia and Putin, but most countries — including neutral ones such as Austria and Sweden — had closed their airspace to Russian planes or were preparing to do so. The EU even decided to ban Russian broadcaster RT, the Kremlin’s main conduit for sending propaganda abroad.
“It is now absolutely necessary to proceed with further measures to isolate Russia,” Swedish EU Minister Hans Dahlgren told Swedish radio.
The most dramatic shift, however, occurred in Germany, a country whose leaders pursued fruitless “dialogue” with Putin for years, despite loud warnings from allies who insisted he couldn’t be trusted.
Following Germany’s decision to indefinitely suspend the operation of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Berlin buckled to pressure from allies and agreed to take a tougher stance toward Russia across the board.
On Saturday, Germany dropped its resistance to suspending Russia from SWIFT and announced that it was also giving up its longstanding refusal to send arms to Ukraine.
On Sunday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, marking nothing less than the most dramatic political shift in modern German history, outlined a sweeping reversal of the country’s position on defense spending with the announcement of a €100 billion fund for new weaponry that he said would enable Berlin to fulfill its NATO spending commitments over the long term.
After years of dragging its feet on defense spending, Berlin committed to even go beyond what its allies were asking when it came to investing in the Bundeswehr, the German army.
During a special session of the German parliament, Scholz, a politician not known for hyperbole, left no question about the gravity of the events that prompted the shift, calling the Russian invasion “a turning point in the history of our Continent.”
Just two weeks ago, some German leaders were still downplaying the threat of the Russian move, dismissing incessant warnings from Washington and other quarters as hysteria. Senior German diplomats had even avoided meeting with Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s outspoken ambassador to Germany, who had been trying for months to convince Berlin to drop its export ban on weaponry to his country.
In a poignant moment during Sunday’s parliamentary session, MPs gave Melnyk, who was seated in the Reichstag building’s VIP section, a standing ovation and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock personally thanked him for coming. Baerbock, whose Green party is rooted in pacifism, made no secret of how the events in Ukraine in recent days had forced her to confront uncomfortable realities.
“That could be us in the subway tunnels, those could be our children,” she said. “What’s happening in Europe right now has been unthinkable for someone of my generation.”
Putin’s war in Ukraine serves as a reality check on other fronts as well.
That is especially true of ambitions of so-called “strategic autonomy” for the EU — the idea that Europe could decouple itself from the U.S. on security matters. If anything, the Ukraine crisis will make Europe even more dependent on the U.S. security umbrella, a reality that will also force Washington to reassess its ongoing strategic shift to focus more on threats it sees emanating from China.
Even as events in Ukraine force the West to question its own strategic and political shibboleths, it is the man who set it all in motion who is likely to experience the rudest awakening. Putin clearly believed he could drive a wedge through Europe with the invasion — as he has done with success on other fronts over the years.
But this time, instead of dividing and ruling, the Russian leader has inadvertently created the greatest challenge to his hegemony he has ever faced — a united Continent.