Europe in “Decline” in the Time of the Russian War against Ukraine

The events of February 24, 2022, unrelentingly exposed that, while a typical classic war of aggression had been waged on the twenty-first-century European continent, Europe had no means to stop it.

By Atsuko Higashino


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“Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free. The violence of the first half of the 20th Century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history. The creation of the European Union (EU) has been central to this development.”

This is the introductory section of the “European Security Strategy—a Secure Europe in a Better World,” released by the EU in December 2003, exactly 20 years ago.

The Collapse of the Premise: “Peace and Stability in Europe”

The document gained attention as the EU’s first security strategy. It portrayed the EU as the promoter of peace and stability, that overcame the long-standing Franco-German feud, controlled Europe’s East-West divide by post-Cold War EU expansion, and also deterred the disputes among the European neighboring countries with its soft power. And Russia was one of the countries the EU had named as a “strategic partner” for Europe to further promote its security and prosperity. The strategic document had claimed the EU should continue to work for closer relations with Russia while respecting “common values.”

Russia’s invasion against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, crushed not only the hope of cooperation between the EU and Russia but also the overwhelming euphoria in the European Security Strategy. It is true, the “Europe with peace and stability” self-image had already been fading with souring Europe-Russia relations following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the escalating fighting in Donbas. However, the events of February 24, 2022, unrelentingly exposed that, while a typical classic war of aggression had been waged on the twenty-first-century European continent, Europe had no means to stop it. This single fact shows that the invasion was not only the biggest setback for Europe since World War II but also shattered the premise of Europe’s security order built up to that point.

Moreover, for the European countries, the invasion meant a serious loss of initiative and decision-making power in their own security order. Take the post-Cold War enlargement of the EU and NATO for example, which became their paramount project. European neighbors can express their intentions to join, yet the final decision is left to the member states. The ones with the final say in establishing the European order and system were the EU and NATO members.

However, what was most distinct about the latest Russian invasion against Ukraine was that, in face of this dire situation, the EU and NATO nations decisively lacked their own means of resolution. It starkly revealed that, once Russia, a nuclear superpower, is intent on invading another country, no nation could stop it. Again, such a situation was not foreseen by Europe. Or, to be more precise, this deterioration of European security could have been anticipated, taking account of Russia’s behavior since 2014, but the concerned voices of Poland and the Baltic states largely fell on deaf ears in Europe. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is the only one who can decide to end this aggression.

It is no exaggeration to say Russia’s invasion decisively “peripheralized” the EU, NATO, and their member states, which had long enjoyed the exclusive order-making status in Europe. As it stands, the EU and NATO nations have failed to even intermediate a ceasefire in the 15 months since the invasion. For the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a cease-fire in a short period of time, and in response to intensifying battles in Donbas from 2014, the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel coordinated the Minsk II agreement by visiting all the involved nations. In comparison, it is noteworthy that no European leadership equivalent to Sarkozy or Merkel has arisen in the case of Russian invasion against Ukraine. Today, the European countries cannot even achieve a temporary cease-fire, nor stop the bloodshed at hand. Since they cannot hold back nor end the Russian invasion, the European countries had to choose between wait-and-see and consequently abandon Ukraine (allegedly the initial response by major European countries at the onset of invasion) or go all the way in support of Ukraine. In the end, the EU and NATO chose the latter.

The Conflicts and Solidarity in “Peripheralized” Europe

However, while the European countries are “peripheralized,” it is also crucial they have kept up the support for Ukraine and unity up to this point. In responding to the Russian invasion against Ukraine, the European countries themselves have gone through unprecedented hardships, sometimes experiencing domestic strife. Yet they have made a succession of difficult political decisions to maintain the solidarity. We should note this was by no way a natural consequence.

Since the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, Ukraine has prepared for Russia’s expanded aggression by modernizing its military. But it is extremely difficult for Ukraine forces alone to hold out against this invasion and drive Russian troops outside its borders. And Ukraine’s economy is suffering evermore severe blows with the prolonged aggression. That is precisely why economic and military support from European countries is essential for Ukraine, aiming to regain its territory. In this process, Germany, which had been extremely wary of providing arms to other countries, has agreed this January to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Germany itself acknowledges that the level of the change is “a turning point of the times.” 

Central and East European countries like Poland, Czech, and the Baltic states that had expressed support for Ukraine at the onset of the invasion, have continued to commit in tight circumstances while facing various difficulties. In particular, Poland has maintained its stance of being the European leader in providing arms to Ukraine, such as tanks and fighter jets. Such military assistance has been made in parallel with the aid towards Ukrainian refugees, who have flooded into Poland right from the outset of the invasion. Also, since the Russian blockade of the Black Sea prevented grain exports from Ukraine, the influx of Ukrainian farm products has weighed on Poland’s agriculture, resulting in economic difficulties for the country.

Japanese news coverage of the Russian invasion tends to emphasize the “disarrayed response” of the European countries. However, the EU has already imposed the 10th package of sanctions on Russia and is now considering the 11th—a situation totally unexpected at the start of the invasion. They include sanctions through the SWIFT international payment system, sanctions against the National Central Bank of Russia, and sanctions on Russian energy trade. Some of these were considered almost inconceivable before the Russian aggression. Every time a new sanction is tabled, media reports show heated clashes among the European nations, but in the end, the solidarity is narrowly maintained to date. Previously the promoter of “peace and stability” and the exclusive bearer of order, the European nations now must lobby to improve the situation from a “peripheral” position. Here, they experience antagonisms, distress, and seek unity along a fine line. Even the Europeans themselves are perplexed by this tumultuous shift in Europe. Yet, it is also true that Ukraine’s existence depends on the measures produced in this contradicting situation, and in face of this unprecedented adversity, the European countries still provide unwavering support for Ukraine.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 79 (May/Jun. 2023) of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Atsuko Higashino earned a Ph.D. on political science at U.K.’s University of Birmingham. After serving as an expert researcher at the Japanese Delegation to the OECD and an associate professor at Hiroshima City University, she is currently a professor at the University of Tsukuba. She specializes in international relations and European international politics. She is the author of Kawariyuku EU [The Changing EU], EU no kihan to pawa [The EU Norm and Power] and other books.


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