The war in Russia created an energy vacuum in Europe

At the start of 2022, the future of Europe seemed to be in the hands of Berlin and Moscow. They became the arbiters of Europe. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has changed the geopolitical map of the continent: the Germans and Russians are out, the British and Poles are uprising, and the Americans are back, at least for now.

Germany’s economic power has shaped the lives of eurozone countries, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Berlin’s decisions – on immigration, energy, tax policy and diplomacy – have been criticized, but few Europeans could afford to oppose the continent’s largest economy outright. At the same time, in eastern Europe, Russia had re-inserted itself into European politics through a combination of military might, internal interference and energy supply. Following a long tradition of good relations with Russia, German leaders were eager to do business with Moscow. Germany became Gazprom’s best customer, supplied the Russian economy and military with essential technology, and hoped that Moscow would perform well.

Europe’s great peacemaker of the 20th century, the United States, seemed less interested in the continent. The perception that Europe was the great post-Cold War geopolitical success story meant that Washington could focus its attention elsewhere. America’s wars since 9/11 have further diverted its attention and resources from Europe. Finally, the rise of China has made the Pacific region its main priority: American strategy has shifted towards a sequence of Asia first, then Europe.

At the start of 2022, the future of Europe seemed to be in the hands of Berlin and Moscow. They became the arbiters of Europe. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has changed the geopolitical map of the continent: the Germans and Russians are out, the British and Poles are uprising, and the Americans are back, at least for now.

Germany’s economic power has shaped the lives of eurozone countries, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Berlin’s decisions – on immigration, energy, tax policy and diplomacy – have been criticized, but few Europeans could afford to oppose the continent’s largest economy outright. At the same time, in eastern Europe, Russia had re-inserted itself into European politics through a combination of military might, internal interference and energy supply. Following a long tradition of good relations with Russia, German leaders were eager to do business with Moscow. Germany became Gazprom’s best customer, supplied the Russian economy and military with essential technology, and hoped that Moscow would perform well.

Europe’s great peacemaker of the 20th century, the United States, seemed less interested in the continent. The perception that Europe was the great post-Cold War geopolitical success story meant that Washington could focus its attention elsewhere. America’s wars since 9/11 have further diverted its attention and resources from Europe. Finally, the rise of China has made the Pacific region its main priority: American strategy has shifted towards a sequence of Asia first, then Europe.

Today, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Germany’s very timid response are reshaping the European chessboard. The two aspiring arbiters of Europe’s fate in the 21st century, Russia and Germany, are on the wane – the former rebuffed by Ukrainians and the latter opposed and shamed by most other Europeans. Britain and Poland, along with a few other Central European countries and the Baltic states, fill the void by leading the West’s approach to the Russian invasion. And the United States, albeit reluctantly, is deploying more troops to Europe’s eastern border and slowly increasing its arms shipments to Ukraine.

Russia is the most immediate loser. Prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia was on a gradual path to restore its level of influence over Europe that it had not enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. Moscow openly meddled in the domestic politics of several European countries by funding populist political parties, spreading disinformation through social media and Kremlin-run news providers, and funding a host of former European leaders. Russia has become the indispensable energy supplier to many European countries, fueling Germany’s economic wealth with cheap gas. And by brute force, Russia has re-emerged in the Mediterranean region, controlling the taps of mass migration in Syria and North Africa.

By defending their country, the Ukrainians halted Russia’s westward push to become a great power in Europe. Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine militarily and restore its own imperial status in Europe has so far failed. Moreover, Russia’s war crimes have made it difficult for even its friendliest European supporters to defend Russia’s place in Europe. Only long discredited figures – like the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, enriched by Russian money – can continue to plead publicly for the restoration of good relations with Moscow.

The war left Russia isolated in Europe. But Germany is not far behind, squeezed out by countries that could not compete with it economically but now lead the European response to Russia.

First, Germany lacks moral authority. The reluctance to arm the Ukrainians is ultimately recognized as a sign of moral weakness in the face of Russian brutality rather than a policy of wise abstention leading to stability. Although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promised a substantial increase in defense spending, Germany is reluctant to supply heavy weapons to kyiv. Fear of Russian retaliation may be one reason, but the rest of the world will not lose sight that tiny Estonia – which has been repeatedly identified in Moscow as another candidate for a Russian takeover – is ready to risk much more than Germany. . Most likely, powerful domestic forces in Germany continue to favor appeasement with Russia and the purchase of cheap gas.

Second, due to its recent policies, Berlin has disqualified itself as a trustworthy arbiter of European politics. In particular, over the past decades, Germany has pursued a pro-Russian policy, seeking to side with Moscow and disregarding the interests of the Baltic and Central European countries. The current war has revealed the failure of this German approach in violent and tragic ways. Moreover, Berlin’s relentless unilateral decisions – whether on Russian gas or immigration – have not won many friends in Europe. Berlin has a long way to go to rebuild some semblance of diplomatic authority in Europe.

France is also in retreat. French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to convince Putin to change his intentions by talking have failed. In retrospect, they seemed naïve at best and selfish at worst, interested in promoting a French role as an intermediary with Moscow at the expense of Ukraine. France has also distanced itself from other European powers, notably Italy: since France’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011, the two countries continue to support opposing factions there. Finally, France’s persistent desire to become the main security actor in Europe and to diminish the role of the United States on the continent – expressed in the diplomatic euphemism of “European sovereignty” – has again clashed with the harsh reality that without the United States, Europe The Union is at the mercy of intra-European disputes and external powers, such as Russia.

Russia’s offensive against Ukraine also creates an opportunity for the UK and Poland to show leadership. Until the war, these two countries had been relegated to European purgatory for the alleged sins of Brexit as well as Poland’s conservative domestic politics, placing them, as then US President Barack Obama put it, , in reference to Britain in 2016, “at the back of the queue. Progressive Europeans and Americans saw the two countries as being on the wrong side of history, with Britain opposing to further political and economic integration with the rest of Europe and Poland implementing conservative social policies and resisting a uniform model of liberal democracy.

Britain was one of the first countries to ship large quantities of anti-armour weapons to Ukraine in late January. Poland also supplies weapons, including tanks, while serving as a logistical hub for Western supplies and hosting several million Ukrainian refugees. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled separately to Kyiv to show their support. (German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close aide to Schröder and long one of Russia’s strongest supporters in Berlin, was understandably disinvited by Kyiv.)

Finally, the United States is back, at least for now. It sent about 20,000 troops back to Europe, mostly to NATO’s eastern frontline countries: Romania, Poland and the Baltic states. American arms continue to flow into Ukraine. US President Joe Biden visited Poland and, tellingly, did not criticize the conservative policies of the government in Warsaw. At least for now, a Democratic administration has decided that going after an ally for policies not aligned with progressive liberals is counterproductive and does not advance regional security.

There is, however, lingering doubt about the ability of the United States to reassert itself as Europe’s key arbiter. The Biden administration hoped to replicate Obama’s approach of outsourcing regional balances to one partner while resetting relations with rivals. In Europe, this meant giving Germany the role of regional leader while resetting relations with Russia. Such an approach is currently problematic, if not impossible. Germany has no continent-wide authority to lead Europe after decades of failed policies and a morally bankrupt stance on Russia’s war. And there is no way to restore relations with Russia without abandoning both Ukraine and the eastern NATO allies.

Ultimately, the contest for Europe’s arbiter – a power or group of powers that decides the continent’s political dynamics – is wide open. The hero of the day is, of course, the brave people of Ukraine. But the role of the Ukrainians on a broader geopolitical level has been to make it absolutely clear that the main aspirants of the past, Russia and Germany, are particularly unsuited for this role. The United States remains an unavoidable power but must act through its European counterparts. It remains to be seen whether Biden is willing to bet on Britain, Poland and other NATO allies who now defend European security against Russia but are not at the forefront of political projects favored by the own Biden’s party – and to what extent other European countries will follow the example of the United States.

About Mallory Brown

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