Looking to rally support for his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled over the past 10 days to the capitals of Europe, as well as to the G7 and Arab League summits in Hiroshima, Japan, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, respectively. During stops in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, Europe’s leaders expressed their continued backing for Kyiv. After the Russian invasion last February, they’d quickly united on Ukraine’s side: Germany declared the attack a turning point for its foreign policy; NATO was re-energized; and to some, Europe as a whole started to realize its potential as a global superpower. But Germany has struggled since to live up to its promises; Italy elected a far-right government in September whose parties have long praised Russian President Vladimir Putin; and French President Emanuel Macron visited Beijing last month to promote relations with China—which has supported Moscow staunchly throughout the conflict. Where exactly does Europe stand now?
Ivan Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. To Krastev, the war has brought about fundamental changes in Europe’s politics, security doctrines, and self-image. Upending a longstanding conviction that a major war wasn’t possible on the continent after World War II, the Russian invasion has led to new uncertainties. European national governments are all behind Kyiv, but they’re divided on how much support to give it. Ultimately, Krastev sees the war as feeding opposing political tendencies: A widespread agenda of solidarity with Ukraine is strengthening calls for a pan-European identity, on the one hand; and a widespread admiration for Ukraine’s resistance is demonstrating the power of a committed independent nation-state, on the other. Out of this contradiction, Krastev says, is emerging a divided Europe, unsure about what its future holds—not least amid conflicting views about how much it can trust its longtime ally, the United States.
Michael Bluhm: After Zelensky visited Europe’s capitals in mid-May, and their heads of state all expressed support for Ukraine’s defense, it’s still unclear whether they’ll meet all his requests for material back. How strong is European support for Ukraine?
Ivan Krastev: It’s stronger than it was a year ago. When the war started, people had a very clear idea of who the victim and aggressor were. But they also had the idea that Moscow was going to win. Many discussing peace talks two or three months after the invasion weren’t friendly to Russia; they simply believed that Ukraine didn’t have a chance. So European support was tentative.
That changed, first, when Ukrainian forces managed to liberate some Russian-occupied territories last summer and fall. For Europeans, this was a miraculous success. They’d been dismissive of Russia’s economic power—but never questioned its military power.
A second reason it changed is that we Europeans surprised ourselves. If you had asked us before the war how Europe would react, people would have said we were going to end up deeply split: The war will matter a lot to some countries and not much to others, as every previous crisis had led to a lot of division like this.
The third reason was relations with the United States. In polling by the European Council of Foreign Relations, Europeans had been saying, in effect, Biden is back, but America isn’t. Something felt finished in transatlantic relations. In a way, the people saying this were right. The role of Europe in U.S. strategy and in the American political imagination had changed; everything had become about China. But suddenly, after the invasion, the United States came back to Europe.
Bluhm: You say Europeans surprised themselves. How’ve they changed?
Krastev: On the night of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, Zelensky spoke by Zoom to the EU Council of Ministers—the prime ministers of EU countries. He said, I’m probably seeing you for the last time. After that moment, people throughout Europe did things they’d never have imagined they could do.
The war was a turn from living in normal politics to living in extraordinary politics. People’s views of themselves changed. They grew up reading books about European history, but that wasn’t about them; now, this was about them.
Unity in Europe shouldn’t be taken for granted, though. It could be challenged by Ukrainian failure, and it could be challenged by Ukrainian success.
The war was a turn from living in normal politics to living in extraordinary politics. People’s views of themselves changed.
If the Ukrainian military’s coming counter-offensive doesn’t produce results, for example, the pressure to end the conflict is likely to grow. Or if it produces great results, and Russian military forces seem about to collapse—with everything that would imply about Russian domestic politics—different European countries could end up having very different ideas about what a Ukrainian victory should look like.
Bluhm: Thinking of Russia, EU countries went along with the unprecedented package of U.S.-led sanctions against it at the beginning of the war. How strong is the European resolve to isolate and punish Moscow?
Krastev: European governments and publics believe the relationship between Europe and Russia is broken—and will be for a long time.
But there’s a reluctance to cut off all exports to Russia on account of the economic costs that’d mean. A major difference between the United States and Europe is that, economically, Russia is totally unimportant to the U.S. economy, whereas it’s quite important to European economies. So European leaders can fear that if the economic costs of sanctioning Russia become too high, they’ll be punished by voters.
Our policies toward Russia aren’t about what we can do to them; they’re about what we can afford.
Another significant aspect of European reluctance is uncertainty about America. Paradoxically, it was the United States that managed to keep Europeans together in the first two or three months of the war. But the fear now is that the U.S. might change positions if there is a change in its presidency—and so, that the cost of isolating Russia might not end up being that high.
Another reason still for European reluctance is that they see the rest of the world divided. Europeans, more than Americans, are afraid that many outside the West see Western unity as a threat, especially in India and China. These Europeans are thinking, If you want to confront Russia, that’s fine, but we should be sure we aren’t confronting everybody at once.
Bluhm: Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised a turning point for Berlin, with Germany substantially increasing defense spending, working more closely on security with its NATO partners, and getting tough on Russia. But Scholz hasn’t managed to keep many of those promises. Liana Fix said in November that this was because Scholz and German elites feared the war might spread beyond Ukraine. How do you understand the behavior of Europe’s most powerful country here?
Policies toward Russia aren’t about what we can do to them; they’re about what we can afford.
Krastev: It’s very hard for people from outside Germany to grasp how major a change this war has meant for the country’s post-World War II identity, its economic model, and its political model. In a way, the war is changing Germany as much as it is changing Ukraine and Russia.
All the major assumptions German foreign policy was based on have been called into question. Germany was blind to what Russia was going to do, because everything that Germany believed it had learned from World War II had convinced them that a major war couldn’t happen in Europe anymore.
Germany also believed it had learned that economic interdependence was a major source of security: The more we trade with somebody, the less of a risk they’ll attack us. But all of a sudden, this source of security became a source of insecurity.
At the same time, Germany had convinced itself—particularly after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—that military power doesn’t go far in the modern world. They thought economic power and soft power mattered more. But suddenly they understood that military power really does matter. Meanwhile, when the war started, Ukraine had ammunition for only six weeks—and Germany had ammunition for just two days. It exposed how vulnerable they were to this new world.
Germany deciding to invest €100 billion on defense represents a huge cultural change. Traditionally, members of the German military go to work in civilian clothes and put on uniforms when they get to their bases—because Germans don’t want to see people in uniforms on the street.
Germans used to believe in the quote from their poet Bertolt Brecht that he feels pity for nations that need heroes. But suddenly they understood that there are moments when you need heroes.
Bluhm: How well is Germany following through on these big changes?
Krastev: Better in some areas than others. In cutting off Russian gas, Germany has been much more successful than anybody expected. In making investments in defense capabilities, though, they’re not over-performing.
In military deliveries to Ukraine, Germany is the second-biggest supplier after the United States. The Ukrainians were critical of the Germans early in the war but have since realized that Berlin is one of their most reliable partners: It’ll never send them tanks that don’t work—like some other countries are doing.
The war has caused a major crisis of confidence for Germany. It’s caused a crisis of moral authority, which is an important thing for Germany. It’s caused a crisis in its economic model, because of the importance of Russian gas to Germany. And it’s caused a crisis in relations with China, because of China’s pro-Russian position on the war.
In a way, the war is changing Germany as much as it is changing Ukraine and Russia.
So when we’re judging how Germany is doing, we have to keep in mind that we’re talking about the country most affected by the war after Ukraine and Russia themselves.
Bluhm: There’s of course variation among European countries in their positions on the war. The former Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe have tended to be the most ardent supporters of Ukraine and the most hardline opponents of Russia. How are differences of opinion on the war affecting relations among European countries—and their responses to the war?
Krastev: It’s a great question. If you go beyond government policies and look at public opinion, you might be surprised at how divided Eastern Europeans are.
The divisions follow the maps of the three former continental empires: Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian. Poland and the Baltic republics are taking in the most refugees and giving Ukraine the most support. These countries of Eastern Europe that were part of the Russian Empire are the strongest supporters of Ukraine and the strongest critics of Russia.
But in Bulgaria, almost 60 percent of the population is against giving any weapons to Ukraine. Romania is not a pro-Russian country—it has a major conflict with Russia over Moldova—but people’s views there aren’t like people’s in Poland.
Countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire—Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians, and Serbs—aren’t particularly supportive of Ukraine; and countries that were part of the Habsburg Empire—Austria, Hungary, Slovakians, and Croatians—are in between. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself is at the pro-Russian end of the spectrum there, on account of his friendliness with Moscow.
The communist period seems almost irrelevant. If a shared communist history were decisive, the ex-communist countries would all be responding the same way. But history is just another name for geography; and the longer histories these geographies represent are critically important.
There’s also an East-West divide. When we ask people what they fear, Eastern Europeans say, We fear occupation. The French and the Germans say, We fear nuclear war. This is why it is so difficult to sustain European unity. Europe is very large and has a very diverse history. And while there’s not much of a divide on who’s to blame for the war, there are certainly different perspectives on how or when the war should end.
Bluhm: You co-authored a book in 2020, The Light That Failed, about the rise of illiberalism and authoritarian populism in post-communist Europe. How’s the war affected the trend toward anti-democratic behavior in these countries?
The communist period seems almost irrelevant. If a shared communist history were decisive, the ex-communist countries would all be responding the same way.
Krastev: It’s a very interesting question, because the war is having two contradictory effects on European illiberalism. On the one hand, it’s pushed some illiberal forces toward more mainstream views. The best example is Italy’s Prime Minster Giorgia Meloni from the fiercely nationalist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a direct descendant of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. The war reconciled this kind of party—Euro-skeptical and always trumpeting national sovereignty—to the idea of Europe. They now see Europe under threat, so support for Putin has declined among the European far right.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian resistance is a strong manifestation of the transformative power of civic nationalism—and nationalism is a core principle for Europe’s authoritarian populists. Ukrainians are dying for a country that was until recently dysfunctional and corrupt. But now they’re able to self-organize and more or less defeat the second-strongest army in the world.
So this war is at once a European moment and a nationalist moment—and both sides of the political spectrum are trying to build their identities on it. You can see this contradiction in the discourse on Ukraine: Its national flag is everywhere—including throughout Europe—and yet Ukraine now wants to become a member of the European Union, a post-national organization, as soon as possible.
Bluhm: Many have described this emerging global political dynamic as a new Cold War, split into a bloc of democracies, led by the U.S. and Europe, and a bloc of authoritarian regimes, led by China and Russia. How do you see this?
Krastev: It’s an important question, because the differences between democracies and totalitarian regimes are real. But you can’t really divide the world into democracy vs. autocracy today in the way that you could divide it during the Cold War. The reason is very simple: Authoritarianism is not an ideology; communism was.
Countries like India, Brazil, and Turkey don’t see the world as polarized in this way. They see an opportunity for themselves; they see the potential for their increased relevance. One facet of the war is the rise of these middle powers.
This war is at once a European moment and a nationalist moment—and both sides of the political spectrum are trying to build their identities on it.
These countries look at this crisis as an opportunity to gain more sovereignty, more room for maneuver, and more influence. India is now buying Russian oil at discounted prices. Brazil is trying to show itself as speaking on behalf of Latin America. Even China has managed to position itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
To some extent, the Cold War is back in Europe, because the West and Russia are facing off again. But this isn’t what the other parts of the world feel. These middle powers aren’t a bloc of their own. This isn’t the resurrection of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Cold War-era group of countries from the Global South that refused to side with either Washington or Moscow.
But we’re also not in the ideological politics of the Cold War. We’re in the identity politics of today, where the major struggle is countries pushing each other to perceive them in the way they see themselves.
Bluhm: Last April, Moisés Naím said that one of the most important outcomes of the war to that point was how European countries had united and coalesced into a superpower. He attributed the change largely to Germany’s declared historical turning point away from pacifism and toward supporting Ukraine—its Zeitenwende—and the unity on imposing major economic sanctions on Moscow. How globally powerful do you see Europe being today?
Krastev: It’s a good question, and I don’t think we yet know the answer. The war has put an end to the idea of European exceptionalism—the idea that the European order is very different from the global order. We were convinced, with the idea of European exceptionalism, that a major war was impossible in Europe. There could be small conflicts or frozen conflicts—or even the disintegration of Yugoslavia—but not a major war.
The big problem for Europe, though, is its future relations with the United States. Another thing the war has shown is that, in terms of security, Europe is still a protectorate of the United States. Yet Europeans are less sure now than they were before the war that they really know what American policy is going to look like over the next decade.
This is what’s driving the differences in how European countries are behaving. Macron is going to China and saying, Europe is a third power pole, along with the U.S. and China. The Poles and others are saying, There is no Europe; there’s only the West, which will be the player in this new international order.
Europe hasn’t made up its mind. The ultimate outcome is going to be the result of domestic politics, in Europe and in the United States. My view would be that if we want to understand what’s going to happen in Ukraine in 2023, we should think about the most important elections in 2024: There will be elections in Russia, in Ukraine, in Taiwan, for the European Parliament, and for the American presidency. Unlike during the Cold War, today—even in countries that aren’t democracies—people vote.