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Europe in a Different World

Europe in a Different World
 Daniela Schwarzer
Open Society Foundations, Executive Director for Europe and Central Asia

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has upended Europe's security order, amplifying trends that are changing the world order. Daniela Schwarzer, the Executive Director of Open Society Europe and Central Asia, and currently Pierre Kelly Visiting Professor at Harvard University, shares her take on how the war is challenging Europe and shifting international power dynamics for Institut Montaigne’s latest series Ukraine: Shifting the World Order

Russia's attack on Ukraine has shaken the European continent, challenging the EU both internally and internationally. The war's consequences will accelerate the change of the global order, which has already been underway since the 1990s. 

For Europe, this moment in world history will prove to be a decisive one. Since the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022, the political West has stood together firmly, to unparalleled levels for over two decades, both in its military and financial support for Ukraine and in its sanctions against Russia.

European leaders have likewise understood that the EU needs to redesign its relationship with its Eastern neighbors, as neither enlargement nor neighborhood policy will provide much-needed support. 

But as the war lasts and its multiple costs are rising, the first cracks have become visible in the Western alliance against Russia. It is today uncertain whether the EU will stay united: energy shortage and high prices in the cold season may create social unrest and political conflict, with the potential to break EU solidarity and could strengthen authoritarian tendencies further within the EU. The midterm elections in the US further weaken the staunch support that Washington demonstrated since the outbreak of the war.

Internal tensions and reduced reliability in transatlantic relations would considerably weaken Europe at a moment in which the international order continues to change. Global power shifts away from the political West are well underway, and the gap between liberal democracies and fully or partially authoritarian regimes has deepened. The EU, the US and NATO have now all identified China and Russia as the most important systemic competitors and (potential) threats. 

The picture is still unfolding with regards to the question of how countries globally position themselves vis-à-vis Russia. On the one hand, many countries did not show solidarity with Ukraine when the war started, to the surprise of European and US leaders who had assumed global support for Ukraine. In a first UN vote on March 2, 2022, 35 countries, representing the demographic majority of the world, abstained. This included China, India and South Africa. On the other hand, key players such as China, India or Turkey have more recently warned Russia of escalation as the conflict’s European and global humanitarian, economic and political consequences are getting clearer, while other countries of the Global South don't clearly blame the global repercussions of the war on Russia.

This is the new context in which European and foreign policy strategies must be redesigned. From European and German perspectives, three dimensions of change are particularly important and require forward-looking political action.

The demise of the European security order

Europe’s post-Cold-War security order lies in shambles after crumbling for more than a decade. Territorial sovereignty, the absence of war as a means of conflict resolution and respect for international law today cannot be guaranteed everywhere on the European continent. Russia intervened in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, and again for a decade, starting in 1999 with an estimated 60,000 people killed. It attacked Georgia in 2008. Six years later, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and began supporting an insurgency of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas that killed more than 12,000 people. All this preceded Putin's larger offensive in February of 2022, which further violated Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty (it was initially designed by Putin to topple the Ukrainian leadership and take over the capital within days). 

Ukraine's recent territorial gains and Russia's losses have fueled fears that Putin could further escalate with non-conventional means.

After Ukraine fought back these attacks, surprising Russia with a strong military mobilization of civilians and arms supplies from the West, Russia focused on extending its occupation of Ukrainian territory in the East and South. It aimed to cut off Ukraine’s Black Sea access, while occasionally also bombing civilian and strategic targets in other parts of the country. Putin's decision to partially mobilize Russian reservists in late September 2022, is an escalation of his war against Ukraine. And Ukraine’s recent territorial gains and Russia’s losses have fueled fears that Putin could further escalate with non-conventional means.

Russia is an acute security risk that extends far beyond Ukraine. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly threatened to extend the war to other former Soviet republics, such as parts of Moldova. Belarus can already be considered Russian-controlled and in the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has used bases in Belarus for troops and aircraft.

Many European leaders now consider that if Putin is not defeated in Ukraine, Russian attacks will spread to other countries on the European continent. Moscow also employs means of hybrid warfare to destabilize democracies within the EU. It also tries to undermine support for Ukraine. While military deterrence has gained new salience on the European continent, NATO is likely to welcome Finland and Sweden as two new members which mean the security alliance will directly border Russia. 

Intensification of systemic conflicts

Russia’s war on Ukraine has serious global repercussions, well beyond Europe. Its attack and reactions to it are sharpening the dividing lines between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies. From a European and German perspective, this gives rise to several interconnected geopolitical risks amplifying the West’s marginalization. 

The first is that Russia and China engage in closer cooperation. Economically, energy ties have been strengthened, and military cooperation continues despite the war, even though China is neither officially supplying weapons nor helping Russia circumvent sanctions. Xi Jinping even criticized Putin for the war, but in a UN vote on September 29, 2022, condemning the annexation of four Ukrainian regions after fake referenda as illegal, China, alongside India, again abstained. Meanwhile, Russia and China are closing ideological ranks, and, like the political West, are trying to draw undecided states to their side. Shortly before the start of the war, Xi and Putin laid out a shared authoritarian worldview as Putin visited Xi in Beijing, designed to challenge the existing international order based on Western liberal norms (the s-called "no limits" partnership). 

Second, economic relations between authoritarian states and the West are loosening because of sanctions, because some Western corporates seek to minimize the political risk that close trade and investment relations with authoritarian regimes entail - and because authoritarian regimes themselves reduce exchange, as plummeting gas deliveries to Germany show. This adjustment of economic and energy ties challenges the European economic model. Germany has been particularly affected: its growth in recent decades was based on cheap energy supplies and open markets, in Europe and worldwide. Putin's at least temporary cutting off gas supplies not only risks having destabilizing sociopolitical effects, but it could also drive large corporates (in the gas-heavy chemical industry) out of the country with domino effects on other segments. This would further increase the already high economic and social costs of the conflict. 

Today, Germany's dependency on Russian energy and its close trade relations with China represents security and economic challenges, in addition to limiting Germany's capacity to act autonomously and strategically. To overcome this, businesses and policymakers have to reduce existing political risks and their own vulnerability, for example, by diversifying their own competitiveness and self-sufficiency in critical sectors such as IT or health. Equally important is preparing for a situation in which authoritarian states decide to drive decoupling.

Today, Germany's dependency on Russian energy and its close trade relations with China represents security and economic challenges.

Just as Russia could cut its energy supplies to build up further pressure on German leadership, China may also decide to reduce its dependencies on Europe and the US to gain maneuvering room in foreign policy and become less vulnerable to sanctions in the event of a conflict. 

The crises have dire humanitarian consequences and impact the Global South. Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are among the most important exporters of grain, vegetable oil and fertilizers. The slump in exports is driving up prices, causing food shortages and famine. This hits the Global South the hardest, as millions of people are already affected by hunger, the pandemic and the effects of climate change. Today, there is a serious risk of political instability and human catastrophe in more than 100 countries. 

Ideological opponents of the political West will exploit the situation to further weaken the Western-style international order, China and Russia foremost, but also others. More and more countries get pressured to position themselves in the systemic competition between China and the political West. Many feel abandoned by Europe and do not count democracies around the world as allies, despite the financial support they have received, for instance, to fight the effects of climate change. Decision-makers in the Global South sense a lack of support as they are dealing with suffocating over-indebtedness or trade imbalances, developments viewed as more pressing which caused political instability in many of the Global South's states. Many see Russia's war as a European problem, with global consequences indeed, but stop short of meeting the violation of global norms such as sovereignty or territorial integrity with outrage. Europe has to recognize this divergence in perceptions and should seize the moment to self-critically rethink its approach toward the Global South. 

Political responses

Given the Russian threat to the existence of Ukraine - and beyond - Europe pursues a three-pronged strategy since the beginning of the war, in close cooperation with the United States.

First, it seeks to protect itself and build greater military deterrence against an aggressive Russia. NATO has strengthened alliance defenses on its Eastern flank because of the security risk to the Baltic states and Poland. Finland and Sweden's accession to the transatlantic security alliance will increase the overlap between EU and NATO countries, a useful step as EU defense cooperation may become more effective to respond to rising security threats, making the best use of synergies and strengthening the European contribution to the transatlantic alliance.

A number of European states have indeed increased their defense spending, with Germany being the most notable example.

A number of European states have indeed increased their defense spending, with Germany being the most notable example. In a special session of the Bundestag on February 27, 2022, three days after the beginning of the war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described Europe's situation as a "turning point in time". Recognizing that the times of the "peace dividend" are over, Germany now outspends France and the UK. 

It has the third largest defense budget in the world after China and the US, due to a special fund of €100 billion approved spring of 2022. Rising national defense budgets entail political trade-offs as spending more on security means deprioritizing other policies - or running higher deficits. 

Second, Europe continues to support Ukraine militarily and financially alongside the US, which as of October 2022, is the largest individual donor. European support comes not only from individual EU states but also from European Peace Facility (EPF) aimed to step up the EU's support for capabilities. As Ukraine is making territorial gains and Russia retreats, the political challenge is to sustain the military support, while handling the risk of a Russian escalation with all possible caution. Moreover, preparations to rebuild Ukraine and sustain its democratic solidification, including the fight against corruption, are needed.

Third, European governments and the EU need to develop new policies for the increasingly crisis-struck Eastern neighborhood. The European Political Community summit on October 6, 2022, can kick off a potentially useful geopolitical forum. A recommitment to advancing enlargement and putting inner EU reforms on track without which enlargement will not be politically acceptable is the bigger challenge.

Fourth, the EU has approved six comprehensive sanctions packages at an unusually fast pace since February 2022. The economic sanctions include measures against the financial sector and Russia's central bank and a far-reaching technology embargo designed to weaken Russia in terms of industrial development and most of all militarily. They need to be upheld and potentially sharpened.

The EU's policy turn comes with a price. High energy costs and sanctions are a major challenge for the EU. The fact that energy sanctions were at all imposed, shows how seriously the dangers emanating from Russia were taken. Oil imports are now gradually being restricted by the fifth sanctions package adopted in May 2022, with country-specific exemption rules needed to be able to pass a resolution. Russia meanwhile faces its deepest economic crisis since the 1990s because of the sanctions and the cost of the war, although it may benefit in the short term from sharply higher energy prices.

The fact that energy sanctions were at all imposed, shows how seriously the dangers emanating from Russia were taken. 

The war and sanctions are weighing on the global economy at a time when it is still recovering from the effects of the COVID pandemic. The surge in commodity prices, which is benefiting Russia, is placing a particularly heavy burden on the global economy and consumers via high inflationary pressure. 

In the EU, the war brought to the fore discussions on Russian energy dependence, already a key issue at the time of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Immediately after the outbreak of war, Chancellor Scholz announced plans to overcome Germany's dependence on imports from individual energy suppliers. Joint energy purchases led by the European Commission are the right way forward to leverage Europe's purchasing power in price negotiations and increase the security of supply. If, however, the EU succeeds in taking further steps toward a genuine energy union, this crisis, too, is more likely to strengthen the Community in the medium term if this dimension is added to the internal market.

Moreover, it is long overdue that economic and foreign policy cooperation with the states of the Global South evolves. The repercussions of Russia's war on Ukraine have added urgency. Ukraine and its closest partners need the practical support of the Global South, for example, to ensure that sanctions on Russia are effective and Moscow is not helped to undermine them. At the same time, the political West must do what it can to alleviate the high humanitarian costs for the Global South. It must also show that the accusation of applying double standards no longer applies. For example, the EU's agricultural policy, which allows European producers to sell cheaply on the African continent while at the same time blocking market access for African producers, would have to be changed. 

The EU needs to do much more than consider Global South countries as alternative providers of energy and raw materials. Europeans need to listen to the concerns and interests of countries in the Global South, and treat them as partners to engage with and invest in, in the quest for sustainable development and clean energy, rather than as places from which to extract resources. The Global Gateway initiative with its €300 billion budget is a tool to display the EU is serious, but it may not be big enough, as Europe competes with China's Belt and Road Initiative and other policies in countries across Europe's East and South, including Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

European strengths, European weaknesses

With the Ukraine war, the EU is faced with comprehensive challenges - globally, regionally and internally. The European and transatlantic peace order is shaken, and the international economic system, on the openness of which the European (and thus German) growth model is based, is changing. As systemic competition accelerates globally, Europe must defend its own model and its value base. 

The war underlined the significance of EU integration and NATO, both entities are growing. 

The war underlined the significance of EU integration and NATO, both entities are growing. The aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to become EU members point to the relevance of the community of democracies. At the same time, however, it is clear that the EU needs to reform to enhance its decision-making power and develop the necessary mechanisms for critical areas such as energy, economic and social policy.

This will enable it to maintain long-term cohesion within its current 27 states, and allow greater capacity to absorb new members while maintaining governance capability. 

As much as Russia's attack on Ukraine and the reactions of Europeans, Americans, and other states have made clear that the political West is ready to stand together, Western values such as the rule of law and democracy must be defended inside the EU, and ever more so as Russian and Chinese intervention continue while there is a war on Europe's doorstep. The 2022 report on the rule of law in the EU highlights that Hungary is no longer seen as a full liberal democracy, and Poland is limiting the independence of its judicial system - two issues that require utmost political attention as the EU needs to uphold its transformative power if it wants to support building a more stable neighborhood.

The importance of the EU's constituent principles has clearly been underscored by Russia's attack on Ukraine. Europe must defend these more effectively at home to be able to better abide by them externally. Here, too, lie major tasks for the community as the stand-off between democracies and autocracies sharpens. Partnerships with like-minded states such as Japan or Australia should be further strengthened, while relations with states in the Global South are solidified. These are critical steps to sustain a reformed international order that respects international law and rights capable of enduring as a relevant framework despite authoritarian attempts to push alternative models.


Copyright: NASA /AFP

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