With Russia attack, U.S., Europe ponder the end of the post-war world they created

For decades, helping foster a Europe “whole, free and at peace,” a phrase popularized by George HW Bush near the end of the Cold War, has been at the core of US foreign policy. As the project of democracy-building and consolidation extended deep into the continent, the last several US presidents have wanted to turn their attention to the Asia-Pacific, most specifically to China.

Last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Biden’s clear prioritization of the Pacific, had led Europeans to feel they were an afterthought — something they grudgingly accepted so long as their continent remained peaceful.

“There was always a question of how far that freedom and security would extend” in Europe, said Josh Shifrinson, an international relations scholar at Boston University. What now seems obvious is it has suffered a major, perhaps fatal, blow in Ukraine.

Rather than moving forward beyond the Cold War, the alliance seems poised to take a step backward into a deep NATO-Russia freeze. The result may be increasing division between those former communist states on the alliance’s eastern flank who want more American involvement in their defense, and those such as France, which has long argued for greater European self-defense.

Germany, by far Europe’s largest economy but one of NATO’s lowest defense spenders, may be faced with a particularly difficult decision.

“The shock of seeing a military campaign unfolding a couple of hours from Berlin is just immense,” said Liana Fix, a German historian and political scientist who is currently a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “This is such a strong reminder that military might and military force is back,” and the peaceful and prosperous island that most of Europe has been for the last several decades “doesn’t reflect reality any more.”

From Biden on down, Western leaders have declared that, far more than an attack on Ukraine, Putin’s move is an attack on the continent itself.

Russia’s incursion, Biden told reporters, represented a “dangerous moment for all of Europe.” Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “has decided to commit the most serious violation of peace and stability our Europe has seen in decades.”

Czech President Milos Zeman, previously an advocate for warmer relations with Russia, said just last week that there would be no invasion of Ukraine, and he called US warnings the “third fiasco” of American intelligence, after Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Czech media reports quoted by Russia’s Tass news agency.

In a speech Thursday, Zeman called the Russian action in Ukraine a “crime against peace” and called for the harshest possible sanctions, including cutting Russia from the SWIFT international payments system, a step Biden has so far declined to take in the face of resistance from several larger NATO members, Reuters reported from Prague.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala said Thursday that the Czech Republic stands firmly behind a free and independent Ukraine and has its own historic experience with “brotherly aid” from Russia, a reference to the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of the former Czechoslovakia to crack down on reformists.

The Czech Republic this week joined other former Soviet states in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, in requesting urgent alliance consultations under Article 4 of the NATO’s charter, which allows any member to call for a meeting when their territorial integrity or political independence is threatened.

Although Ukraine is not a NATO member — and the alliance’s refusal to rule out future membership was one of Putin’s stated reasons for invading — “this is a grave moment for the security of Europe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said following Thursday’s emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council. The political decision-making body decided to activate emergency defense plans, including the potential deployment of thousands more troops to NATO’s eastern flank.

“The Kremlin’s aim is to reestablish its sphere of influence,” Stoltenberg said. “Rip up the global rules that have kept us all safe for decades, and subvert the values ​​that we hold dear. This is the new normal for our security.”

While Biden has gone out of his way to reassure Europe that the United States has its back, some fear there are already signals that he wouldn’t do enough to reinforce the continent’s security. One European defense official found the president’s Thursday announcement of new sanctions against Russia “very disappointing.”

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid reaction, expressed concern that Biden’s emphasis that new US troop deployments to Europe were not intended to engage with Russia sent a green light to Putin, signaling that Ukraine was Russia’s for the taking. If Russia occupies Ukraine, the official said, NATO countries might be next.

An attack on a NATO country would risk a wider conflict with the entire military alliance due to its Article 5 collective-defense provision. But the Ukraine conflict may lead other European countries outside the alliance, such as Finland and Sweden, to grow more interested in joining, or less due to the very present risk of provoking a military confrontation with Russia. Leaders of both countries have been invited by Stoltenberg to attend a virtual NATO summit Friday.

Even as Biden and others have couch the Ukraine invasion as what the president called “an assault on the very principles that uphold the global peace,” others have pointed out that this is far from the first breach of a nation’s sovereignty under circumstances viewed as illegitimate or potentially illegal.

“Did 2003 shatter norms related to sovereignty? Did 2014?” said Shifrinson, the Boston University scholar, referring to the US invasion of Iraq and Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, the United States has used other, nonmilitary but devastating tactics to change the direction of sovereign countries, such as harsh sanctions against Iran Iraq, Cuba and others, as well as covert interference in years past.

As for NATO, Biden repeated his commitment to “defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power” if Russia expands its military operations beyond Ukraine.

While that commitment remains, some believe Ukraine will be a turning point in Europe’s defense of itself, leading to more funding and a more equitable division of responsibilities.

“For the Europeans, it’s deplorable, the bad shape we are in, because we are not united. There is chaos of foreign policy, there is disunity,” said Norbert Röttgen, a senior German lawmaker who was chairman of his parliament’s foreign affairs committee until October.

Germany’s newly elected coalition government “will be forced to live up to higher military spending as one basis of being effective in foreign policy,” Röttgen said. “There is momentum to explain to our population,” which has long been skeptical about military expansion.

“This will lead to a situation in Europe where security and defense becomes much more important than it has been in the past,” said Fix of the German Marshall Fund, even as it causes political turmoil. Russia, she said, will use “every opportunity to divide” Europe from the United States, including pushing more migrants westward, increasing disinformation warfare, and support for right-wing movements on the continent.

How much more skin Europe is willing to put into the game of equality within NATO will become clearer when the alliance holds its next regular summit meeting, in June in Madrid, where a new “strategic concept” is scheduled to be introduced.

Among the proposals under discussion is a sharp rebalancing of funding, roles and responsibilities within an alliance where United States defense expenditures, as a percentage of GDP, are more than twice that of the average of NATO’s European members.

“I think Ukraine reinforces the needs,” said Alexander Vershbow, former US ambassador to Russia and deputy NATO secretary general. “The needs in Europe are going to go up, dealing with a truly aggressive revanchist Russia, including the troop presence in the eastern flank.”

“The United States can do some of it,” he said. But with “demands for US forces to deal with China, it becomes almost a necessity for Europe to shoulder at least half the burden.”

Among the proposals being debated by the concept drafters are setting a goal of 50 percent for European contributions to NATO by 2030, and a reassignment of roles and responsibilities.

“The Europeans can’t do the defense of Europe alone. It will still be a transatlantic task,” Vershbow said. But with things like crisis management, strategic enablers such as refueling capacity, heavy lift and intelligence and reconnaissance, “they need to invest more so they don’t have to call the Pentagon” to fill such needs.

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