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The Ukraine War: A Resilience Test for the European Union?

Interview with Ivan Kratsev

The Ukraine War: A Resilience Test for the European Union?
 Ivan Krastev
Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies

Russia's war against Ukraine is set to fundamentally transform the international order. Ivan Kratsev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, believes this crisis will test Europeans' readiness to defend the European security order. From the Balkans’'perspective, he reflects on the future - or lack thereof - of the European Union. For him, this region should participate in, and contribute to, the broader European reflection. His analysis for Ukraine Shifting the World Order follows Tuesday’s, published on September 13th, 2022.

If we look at how EU Member States are reacting (sanctions towards Russia, support to Ukraine, openness on the Ukrainian EU candidature), is it fair to say Europe is "having a good war"? Could it provide the basis for a new level of European integration? 

Determining whether the Ukrainian crisis was a "good war" for Europe can only be answered once the war is over. The unified European response after the Russian invasion was encouraging, along with EU states’ readiness to change their traditional policy toward Russia. However, the real test for Europe's unity lies ahead. The extent to which societies are willing to stand behind their initial posture remains to be seen. Initially, maintaining unity was easier because of the general outrage in Europe. But will member states be ready to pay the cost of this war, especially as Russia intensifies pressure and the conflict risks tipping into a prolonged stalemate? European societies are not only facing an economic and political challenge but a cultural and psychological one too. For the past three decades, the EU was illusioned by this idea of a post-war continent - suddenly discovering this reality to be untrue. The next six to nine months will determine whether or not public opinion is ready to stand. 

In the last 15 years, the EU demonstrated its capacity to adjust. From the global financial crisis to the refugee crisis, to Brexit, and then Covid, Europe became more integrated. But these events also triggered strong nationalist forces within member states. This war’s impact on European unity should hence be viewed cautiously. Playing as a geopolitical actor while simultaneously preserving the cohesion of EU legal space will be a challenge for the Union. Poland is the classical example of Brussels’ dilemma at the moment. It is a country of utmost importance when it comes to the EU’s policy with respect to Putin's invasion. Western military and humanitarian strategies with respect to the war are very much centered on Poland. At the same time, Poland clearly showed determination to challenge the primacy of the European legal order. If Brussels decided to close its eyes to Warsaw's behavior, the coherence of EU legal space could collapse. 

In the previous crises, the Franco-German couple led. Today the situation shifted, mainly because of the growing importance of Poland and other battlefront countries on the European stage. How do you assess the rebalancing of power within the EU?

First, instead of resolving crises, since 2009 the EU "dances with them". This allows the Union to sustain its unity while avoiding fundamental questions on the future of its course. However, the Ukraine war brought back all the previous crises Europe has faced. Economically, this war shares common features with the global financial crisis and the Covid crisis. European governments spend more responding to the rise of energy prices than compensating the population for Covid-triggered economic losses. On migration, Ukraine ushered twice as many migrants in comparison to the migration following the Syrian war. Each of these crises divided the EU: the global financial crisis exhibited a classical North/South divide whereas the migration one caused an East/West fracture. Now paradoxically, with the Russian war, the divide occurred within the Eastern part of Europe. Hungary and Poland had extremely different positions on the crisis for instance. 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed Europe's political geography, moving the center of gravity to the East.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed Europe's political geography, moving the center of gravity to the East. Central Europe regained new importance and the East-West divide got a new incarnation. Overall, it is mostly the moral legitimacy of the Franco-German couple that has been questioned. The words of the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki are striking: "We were right, you were wrong when it came to Russia'' and "Do you believe Europe would be a better place if we had followed what Germany advised us to do over the years?". 

The war also triggered a political identity crisis in Germany. German post-war policy was based on outsourcing security to the US, sustaining its competitiveness based on cheap Russian gas, and relying on China as a major export market - three pillars now are in crisis. After Trump's presidency, it was no longer possible simply to rely on US security guarantees. So, although Germany’s decision to massively invest in its defense capabilities is a direct reaction to Putin's invasion, this choice was also moved by the prospect and the uncertainty regarding who could be the next tenant of the White House. The second critical aspect of Germany’s policy was that cheap Russian gas was at the heart of its green transition. This resource is no longer available. Over-reliance on Russian gas has turned out to be the major vulnerability of German industries. Finally, in the context of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, the need for Berlin to de-couple, not only from Russia but also from China, does not look anymore like a distant possibility. 

Europe had its own reservation about US unipolarity but the fragmented and polarized world of today is miles away from Europe's hope for a multipolar world guided by international cooperation. Observing the situation today, the EU might be the biggest loser of the collapse of the post-Cold war liberal order.

The moral authority of Germany and France was challenged by these new dynamics. Paris and Berlin are no longer sure to what extent, and toward which direction, they should lead Europe. Moreover, while the Europeans understand how much the game is changing, they have not adapted their language to its new rules. Do we truly believe Ukraine (fighting for its independence) can be integrated similarly to Bulgaria or Romania? Are the current EU member states willing to open the Union for a dozen new members if all of these members will have the veto powers member states have today? The talk about EU enlargement in the Balkans, with respect to Ukraine, is covering a totally different issue. The urgent task Brussels is facing with Russia’s war in the post-Soviet space is the consolidation of the Western sphere of influence, which means that Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans should form part of the EU's common security and energy policies as soon as possible.

In your important piece for the Financial Times of August 2022, you underline that the real test for the European Union is precisely to develop a strategy toward the Balkans. Why is that, and why do you believe the EU is failing? 

The critical importance of the Balkans goes beyond its geopolitical weight - economically or demographically speaking. It is the only area of European foreign policy in which the EU is in the driving seat. So, it is in the Balkans that the EU should exhibit its capacity for strategic autonomy. It is also there that European leadership should demonstrate it has grasped the dramatic changes the old continent is going through. This region highlights the limits of European transformative power. What changes dramatically is the time dimension, which has always been at the heart of the EU's policy for the Balkans. For years we knew these countries would probably end up entering the EU; the underlying question remains when exactly. Are we talking about 10, 20, or 30 years? With the Ukraine crisis, the waiting room has suddenly become an emergency one, and the question is what we are able to deliver now.

You are insisting on public opinion and were notably involved in the "peace versus justice" debates dividing the European public. Where do you stand here? 

Putin's invasion was "Europe's moment" of critical importance for unity. Many were surprised by the unity of the EU's response. As time passes however we are going to see diverging public opinions emerge.

Neither the "justice" camp nor the "peace" camp will be able to achieve their end goals the way they declared them. Contrary to what would be the wish of the "justice" camp, Ukraine probably will not succeed in getting back the entirety of its territory without risking nuclear war. The main reason is that the legitimacy of the Russian regime is based on the control of Crimea. If Putin loses control there it would be tantamount to suicide.

Ukraine probably will not succeed in getting back the entirety of its territory without risking nuclear war.

Regarding the objectives of the "peace" camp, a peace settlement is not to be expected. Ceasing fire now does not mean peace. No Ukrainian government could agree to give Russia the territory Kremlin currently controls. The war could be frozen but it is unlikely to end with any negotiated peace settlement. In fact, there will be no such agreement. A "Korean-type of solution" could however take place, with a scenario involving a divided battle line and ceasefires. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely that the EU could be the mediator of this peace process. 

A Korean-type of peace solution translates into a state of confrontation and tension for years to come. The resilience test between Russia and the West is hence here to stay. What does it mean for Russia? 

There are important costs on both sides. In the short term, the EU is more vulnerable, but it remains in a much better position than Russia in the long term. So far, Russia has been economically more resilient, but Moscow will be left with many questions. 

The first question relates to the identity of the new nation-state but also of Russian society. Russia transitioned from a multi-ethnic empire into an imperial nation-state. Despite all odds, Russia has always been part of European culture. Although it could move further East economically and politically speaking, that shift would be difficult for Russian society. Second, the Russian political regime is centered around a "one and only" personality and is therefore very different from the Chinese one. The longer Putin stays in power, the deeper the post-Putin crisis becomes. Finally, the level of trust between China and Russia is not so high. For Russia, the partnership with China is of utmost importance to keep its status as a great power. In short, Putin brought Russia closer to China but is Russian society ready to follow him? 

Strangely, the war brought on changes diametrically opposed to what President Putin would have wanted in the first place. Primarily, because the war focused mainly on Ukraine, Russia has become more of a regional power than it was before, de facto losing its global influence. The objective of the war, in the way it was framed by the regime, was to keep NATO the furthest from its borders. The reality is the opposite: with Finland and Sweden joining it, Russia is now going to share a 1,400 km border with the transatlantic organization. 

The EU will be in a much stronger position than Russia in the next decade.

Moreover, the paradox is that Putin is trying to hide those realities from the Russian people - especially because he knows that a majority of Russians support the war but are not eager to be part of it. There are very few volunteers in the Russian army (unlike in Ukraine). Even if the majority of Russians support their army, they are not so enthusiastic about it. In Ukraine, on the contrary, the conflict is considered a very patriotic war. 

If the EU manages to survive this resilience test in the next year and a half, it will need to find a new balance within the Union, with a new economic model decoupled from Russia. Nevertheless, the EU will be in a much stronger position than Russia in the next decade. The challenge with losing access to Russia’s gas resources is that it will completely shift its relations with the rest of the world. The EU will have to become much more critical regarding the countries from which it is importing, whether Saudi Arabia or Qatar. This shift in the EU from being a transformative power to a "realpolitik" one in a world of polarization and fragmentations, will be decisive. 

The countries of the South hesitated to condemn Russia. Going forward, Moscow will be more focused on its internal affairs and its quarrels with the West, and therefore less critical in its calculations in the Global South. But China will be in a different position, with expected allegiance competition in Africa. How do you assess this? 

It is unlikely that the international relations coming out of this new world order will follow a Cold War framework (i.e. a battle between democracy and totalitarianism). What we are witnessing is the rise of identity politics on a more global level. The post-colonial framework, especially for the Global South, is increasingly more relevant than the previous ideological divide. This explains why African countries found it so challenging to position themselves in the conflict, and why they were unwilling to do so. 

On one level, this crisis is definitely a colonial war, especially when looking at how Russia is trying to take back its position in Ukraine. But for the Global South, this is not a colonial war they can relate to because Ukraine’s supporters are the same powers that have colonized the Global South.

In this context, instead of waiting for the return of geopolitical blocs, we should expect a surge of middle powers’ influence on the global stage. Countries like Turkey, but also India or Israel, are still defined in a regional context, too powerful not to do anything, yet not powerful enough to radically shape the world order. However, they will show greater activism compared to the US or China, more constrained in their actions. In a way, the EU can also be considered as one of these "super middle powers", and accordingly, will have a crucial role to play. 

On one level, this crisis is definitely a colonial war, especially when looking at how Russia is trying to take back its position in Ukraine.

The aforementioned rise of new identity geopolitics is driven by identity crises already at work within the countries. From this point of view, Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan is a move toward China but also toward Trump voters. New dynamics between domestic politics and foreign policy underlines how important public opinion has become since the end of the Cold War and the 20th century. This new order rejects classical realism, picturing states as not driven by internal matters. The idea that NATO will define how states' policies on the international level will be shaped is very much an ideological one.

In such a world, is China better equipped to attract the willing allegiance of countries?

China is positioning itself as an advocate of the sovereignty of other countries. Its experience in trying to export its power outside has never been so successful until now. Under Mao, China did have a "missionary" momentum, but traditionally, it aimed at creating a kind of vassal leadership rather than truly exporting its model. 

The success of China's charm offensive depends not so much on what Beijing says but on what others hear - and many hear imperial ambitions. China's influence can also be challenged by the internal instability of China’s client states. China insists that they can endorse any political status quo, yet they cannot guarantee these will survive. Compared to China, the West is much more used to dealing with countries much more different from itself.

If this is the case, it means the West keeps its ability to play its cards. To what extent is a "restoration" of the liberal international order possible? 

China and Russia are not as much coming up with a competing model as they are attacking Western hypocrisy over the normative order it is based on. We are witnessing a "new world disorder" rather than a "world order". The West's biggest problem is not its relationship with the outside world but within its countries. Fixing this is a precondition for the reconstruction of the liberal order.

The West's biggest problem is not its relationship with the outside world but within its countries. 

The attractiveness of the Chinese model should not be overstated. At first, the success of the zero-Covid policy was an argument in favor of authoritarianism. But now this policy is politically and economically hurting the country; a backlash questioning the attractiveness of those regimes.

We will not live in a world directly divided between totalitarianism and democracy, especially because of the existence of an important gray area between those two types of regimes. Greater internal instability should be expected. Unfortunately, China and others will be tempted to compensate for domestic difficulties with a more assertive foreign policy.

Coming back to Europe, what role should we play in this chaotic world? And how would you suggest positioning ourselves vis-à-vis the US?

Europe is one of the places where the change is going to be the most dramatic. One century ago, Europe was the center of the world. World War I was dubbed the "European war" because of the European empires fighting. During the Cold War, even if the major powers were not European, Europe was the place where the conflict had to be decided, in Berlin especially. After the Cold War, Europe reinvented itself, not as the main stage of world politics, or as a central power, but as the laboratory of the world to come. Europe thought its post-modern understanding of politics and statehood would be attractive and suitable to the whole world. 

In the last years, Europe considered the features of its model to be universal when they were exceptions - exceptions forged by a long history, a collection of small and medium-sized countries, economically developed and with an aging population. So Europe should first and foremost focus on what the European order is going to look like.

Regarding the EU-US relationship, challenges lie in the unpredictability and instability of US politics, since every election looks like a (potential) regime change. The US has become a "civil war state". Making alliances with such a state is much more difficult. Yet the transatlantic relationship is fundamental if Europeans want to shape the global order and not only the European one. 

Our relationship with our European neighbors is also going to be challenging. We used to think that the EU was simply bordering future member states. But it is no longer the case, as some of our neighbors have different identities and ideas themselves now. 

Are we not facing the risk of a "clarification war", maybe a global one? As far as Europe is concerned, even if the Germans were to push the button today for one hundred billion more defense expenditures, could Europe cease to be protected by the US soon?

The European project was built on the assurance that no country would have to fight a war again. The Ukrainian crisis marks a dramatic shift. The oblivion of war, in some circles, was perceived as a cultural decay of the West, especially in Europe. It was particularly striking to see people suddenly ready to sacrifice their life for the stake of their state, which is basically the Ukrainian story. It created a true shock, reminding the Europeans of a different type of understanding of the world. 

In the short to medium term, Europe will not have sufficient capabilities to be able to engage in a major conflict. But current dynamics should not lead to the kind of total war that people feared in the 1950s. What we should expect is to see major powers engaged in almost never-ending military operations. The century of wars can be followed by centuries of "special operations''.

Copyright: JOHN THYS / AFP

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