How Putin’s War in Ukraine Is Transforming Europe

While it is hard to know exactly how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will impact upcoming elections in Europe, the continent’s politics and policy have been irrevocably changed

New realities. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi at a NATO summit on March 24, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. Image Credit: Henry Nicholls/Getty Images

Just as American politics is divided into a pre- and post-9/11 time frame, European politics is being similarly transformed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric second invasion of Ukraine. There is politics before Feb. 24 and there is politics after—the naivete or wishful thinking that many Europeans engaged in regarding the nature of the regime in Moscow has been put to rest. Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, his delusional rantings about de-Nazification, the deliberate targeting of civilians, and mass deportations of Ukrainians from occupied areas to Russian cities all carry haunting echoes of atrocities of the past and reveal Putin’s murderous and totalitarian heart. Europeans now know that Russia as it currently exists poses an existential threat to their security.

For the time being, this shock has created a unity of purpose and swiftness of action in Europe that was unthinkable just a little over a month ago. Examples include, the closing of airspace across the entire transatlantic community to Russian aircraft, unprecedented Western (here, this term also encompasses countries like Australia, Japan and New Zealand) sanctions on Belarus and Russia, and extensive humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. The tragic and shortsighted denial of lethal aid to Ukraine by countries such as Germany earlier this year now feels like a lifetime ago.

Today, Germany alone has provided Ukraine with 2,000 anti-tank weapons and nearly 3,000 surface-to-air missiles. And German contributions are merely the tip of the iceberg for the massive aid supplied by the transatlantic community to Ukraine. Even the European Union has opened its coffers in revolutionary ways, approving €1 billion in military aid to Ukraine since February. Meanwhile, NATO hosted an extraordinary summit in Brussels in March where members pledged additional support for Ukraine, including “detection and medical equipment to protect against the use of biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear threats.”

But beyond military aid and other actions aimed at immediately punishing Russian aggression, the war in Ukraine is transforming European politics in other concrete ways. Indeed, the only unknown is how long-lasting these recent changes will prove. Certainly, no one on the continent can harbor illusions any longer about the Kremlin. However, there is a risk that at some point in the future, some in Europe might slowly seek a return to the old ways of appeasement toward Russia, of promoting profit over principles, of arguing the moral equivalency of the supposed Western ills and missteps and those of Russia.

The West must be on guard, because this phenomenon will rear its ugly head again. The solution is to take difficult decisions now during a key moment of transatlantic unity, decisions that will ultimately make a return to business as usual with Russia more difficult in the future. This is already happening.

One particularly illuminating example is the speed at which Europe is moving to radically rethink its energy supplies. Long beholden to Russian imports of natural gas and oil, Europe is now grappling with the risks inherent in relying on energy from an adversary, to say nothing of the lingering feeling that every gas bill paid, every fill-up at the pump, is more fuel for Putin’s war machine. Europe is quickly seeking ways to slash its dependence on Russian energy, rethinking the time horizons of climate targets, restarting coal burning power plants, building new liquid natural gas (LNG) import terminals, and securing new LNG supplies from the U.S., North Africa and the Middle East, as well as from its own domestic energy production.

The wheels of this energy transformation in Europe are already turning, but the reality is that this change will be a long-term project. New regasification and storage facilities will need to be built, and difficult decisions still lie ahead. It’ll be a long slog and prices for consumers seem sure to rise. And while the arrival of spring has eased some urgency around supplies, some in Europe, such as the Italian government, have warned that while unlikely, it’s not inconceivable that they might need to ration gas supplies to companies if Russian gas deliveries are stopped before they can be fully replaced.

The War’s Impact on Europe’s Domestic Politics

Politically, Putin’s war against Ukraine has weakened and embarrassed often populist political forces in Europe, which are seen as being close to Russia. Consider the case of Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing Northern League or Lega party, who once donned a Putin shirt in a 2015 trip to Red Square as well as to the European Parliament. Salvini was caught off guard in March when a Polish mayor near the Polish-Ukrainian border where Salvini was visiting presented him with the now infamous T-shirt.

Salvini’s past praise of Putin complicates efforts to reenergize support for Lega in advance of next year’s elections. Lega, which was the most popular party in Italy until the middle of last year, has lost ground to Giorgia Meloni and his nationalist Brothers of Italy. The latter is now polling nearly even with the leading center-left Democratic party and has taken over the mantle of political outsiders. Lega has faced headwinds since its previous stint in the governing coalition, but since the invasion, its poll numbers have dropped even further.

Fan boy. Matteo Salvini in 2015 wearing his Putin t-shirt. Image Credit: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

For the current technocratic and unelected caretaker prime minister, Mario Draghi, the war likely solidifies his position. However, weaning the nation off Russian energy is sure to be a difficult slog and not especially popular, and Draghi’s current honeymoon with voters may not last.

In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman, who in the past has promoted stronger ties with Russia, has taken a marked shift since Feb. 24, calling the war a “crime against peace” and supporting the exclusion of Russian financial institutions from SWIFT.

Similar dynamics could factor into upcoming elections in France. Marie Le Pen, whose National Rally party (currently polling second) has taken positions supportive of Russia in the past, was recently caught in an awkward do-si-do over whether or not to attend a speech Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was giving to French lawmakers. And Eric Zemmour, the anti-establishment pundit and provocateur who before the invasion praised Russia and who once looked likely to replace Le Pen as the leader of the country’s far right, has seen his poll numbers drop in recent weeks.

Conversely, President Emmanuel Macron’s numbers have seen a slight bump since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. While his handling may not be considered deft (it was Macron after all who announced in early February in Chamberlainesque fashion that regarding Putin’s intentions in Ukraine, “I secured an assurance there would be no deterioration or escalation”), Macron is one of the few leaders still talking to Putin. As such, some in France perceive he is keeping the nation at the forefront of efforts to end the war.

Furthermore, a split on the political left and right in France has ceded his La République En Marche! party the center ground. Seven candidates from the French left are running in upcoming elections, siphoning votes from one another. Le Pen, the usual standard-bearer of the political right, is facing a weakened but still not insubstantial challenge from Zemmour.

Macron appears confident of victory, so much so that he recently introduced a plan to push the nation’s retirement age back from 62 to 65, a politically fraught move in any country, but especially so in France before an election. Clearly Macron is feeling bullish on his chances of winning a second term.

In the U.K., the ongoing war has calmed the waters (for the time being at least) swirling around the administration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his attendance at a number of 2020 holiday parties in violation of his own COVID-19 rules. The U.K. has been one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine, marrying diplomatic support with significant aid deliveries, and so far, Partygate (as the holiday party affair has been dubbed) has faded and stayed in the background.

In Germany, the ongoing war has ushered in stunning policy reversals at breakneck speed. In Berlin, the government, under recently elected Chancellor Olaf Schölz, has reversed years and in some instances decades of government policy on issues including Nord Stream II, delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine, and cutting Russian financial institutions out from SWIFT. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under Schölz has also revisited its opposition to committing 2% of the country’s GDP to defense spending and the use of armed drones.

Schölz also has announced procurement of 35 F-35 aircraft, which means that Germany will remain within NATO’s nuclear sharing structure. Nuclear sharing is the ability of aircraft from NATO allies without nuclear weapons of their own to carry a U.S. nuclear weapon stored on the continent. NATO describes the importance of nuclear sharing by noting, “These arrangements demonstrate unity and cohesion amongst all Allies—by sharing both the political burden and operational risks involved with the nuclear deterrence mission.” These decisions in Germany are especially unexpected under a government led by the Social Democrats, which is traditionally the party of dialogue over confrontation with Russia and one that is reticent to prioritize the military.

Hungary’s Upcoming Election

The war in Ukraine has also upended the final weeks of the ongoing election campaign in Hungary, where Victor Orbán is seeking a fourth consecutive term as prime minister (and his fifth overall) when voters head to the polls on Sunday, April 3. Orbán’s center right Fidesz party, which won a parliamentary supermajority in 2018, is facing a tight race against United for Hungary, an alliance of six disparate parties, ranging from the nationalist Jobbik to the Greens.

Dead heat. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s opponents have pulled roughly even in the polls, with elections scheduled for April 3.
Image Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP

United for Hungry had been keen to make the election a referendum on Orbán himself, accusing his party of corruption and the prime minister of tamping down on domestic dissent. However, facing headwinds, the alliance has been bickering over allocation of seats on national voting lists, to say nothing of differences on policy that remain. For its part, Fidesz has sought to focus the election on social issues, including whether schools should ban materials that promote gender reassignment surgery. Normally, this would be a good strategy for the party, since its socially conservative policies are in line with the views of many Hungarians.

The Russian war in Ukraine, however, has upended these narratives, thrusting Hungary’s relations with Russia onto center stage. Orbán is attempting to walk a fine line on Russia, not blocking EU sanctions (at least to date) but not allowing the transit of lethal aid to Ukraine over its airspace and opposing the extension of sanctions to cover Russian energy exports. Whether this balancing act will keep him in power is unknown. Still, the campaign’s shifted focus is not helping the incumbent, with a new poll showing United Hungary moving three points closer to Fidesz (41% to 39%) than in February –  a statistical dead heat.

What’s Next?

While Russia’s war against Ukraine will strengthen the case for NATO expansion, it is unlikely to lead to the much talked-about creation of a pan-European or EU Army. President Macron, who has long supported the idea, might believe the war strengthens the case for an independent EU military capability, but among the leaders of the continent’s other major powers, he’s probably nearly alone in that view.

The EU was virtually absent from discussions during Russia’s buildup along Ukraine’s border, highlighting its impotence in averting the war. Now, European nations who rightly see an existential threat from Russia, such as the Baltics, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, can breathe a sigh of relief that they are members of NATO. These countries know that the EU can’t save them from the ravenous appetites of Russian expansionism. Further proof can be found in the fast-moving debate inside non-NATO but EU member states Finland and Sweden regarding potentially joining the NATO alliance.

Finally, while the security dimensions of Putin’s war against Ukraine are rightly the heart of today’s policy discussion, the human dimension should not be overlooked. The war has sparked thousands of human tragedies in Ukraine, with wide-ranging impact. For instance, a quarter of Ukraine’s population (over 10 million people) have been displaced since the war began, and over a third of those displaced have fled the country. Over 2 million Ukrainians have entered Poland, over 300,000 are now in Hungary and Moldova, over 200,000 have gone to Romania and Slovakia, and smaller numbers have fled to other nations like Estonia and Germany.

In the case of a small nation like Estonia, a country of around 1.3 million, the arrival of 24,000 Ukrainian refugees is equivalent to nearly 2% of the country’s population. For the U.S., that would be akin to 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees arriving here. Even if the war ends and Ukrainians can return home, many will likely choose to stay in their adopted homelands, altering the societies where they have settled.

Make no mistake, European politics and policy have been irrevocably changed. The shock of Putin’s barbarity against Ukraine will not fade quickly and could (if unity and sense of purpose prove lasting) usher in transformational changes. These could include an enduring return to European NATO allies prioritizing defense investment as well as Europe ending its addiction to Russian energy.

How long-lasting and thorough these changes prove remains to be seen. Yet, Putin has miscalculated, giving Europe a window of opportunity to institute changes that will strengthen the continent as well as the transatlantic community and make future Russian aggression against other European nations much less likely.

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