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Ukraine War Blows Up EU’s Superpower Delusion
By Soeren Kern
Originally Published by the Gatestone Institute.
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy have jointly visited Ukraine in an attempt to present a unified European front regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. The one-day visit was long on rhetoric but short on substance: European unity remains elusive.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the European Union responded the following day with a package of unprecedented economic sanctions aimed at isolating Russia.
The EU, which was praised for displaying “determination, unity and speed” in its response to Putin, was said to be facing a “transformative moment” that would allow the bloc to become a “geostrategic actor” on the global stage. An observer claimed that the EU had become “a top geopolitical protagonist” and that Europe “discovered that it’s a superpower.”
On March 21, less than a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, European officials announced an ambitious plan for the EU to achieve “strategic autonomy” aimed at placing the 27-member bloc on equal footing with China and the United States. The implicit objective was to enable a “sovereign” EU to act independently of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in matters of defense and security. That plan is now in shambles.
As the war has dragged on, European unity has collapsed and efforts to transform the European Union into a European superstate — a United States of Europe — have been exposed for what they are: delusions of grandeur.
The EU’s largest member states — France and Germany — have sought to appease Putin at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty. French President Emmanuel Macron, the strongest backer of European strategic autonomy, insists that Putin should not be “humiliated” and has even called on Ukraine to make territorial concessions to help the Russian dictator save face.
Meanwhile, German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, for reasons that remain unclear, has stubbornly refused to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself against Russian aggression.
The Franco-German appeasement has infuriated most Central and Eastern European members of the EU and NATO. They rightly fear that if Putin’s imperial pretensions are not stopped in Ukraine, he will set his sights next on them.
Russian revanchism, and the EU’s divided response, has produced a clear shift in the bloc’s balance of power on security matters. France and Germany have long arrogated to themselves de facto leadership of the EU — and have expected other member states to fall into line. The failure of Paris and Berlin to confront Putin’s aggression has created an EU leadership vacuum that Poland, the Baltic states and other former communist countries have filled. A return to the pre-war status quo seems unlikely.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the indispensability of the United States and NATO for European defense and security. France and Germany, by failing to defend the most basic Western values, have undermined their own trustworthiness and dependability. Other EU member states can be expected to strongly oppose any efforts to develop an independent European military capacity that undermines the transatlantic alliance.
Macron and Scholz in particular have repeatedly sought to accommodate Putin. Both, for instance, have held numerous one-on-one telephone calls with the Russian leader — calls that other EU member states have criticized as counterproductive because such conversations may convince Putin that he can end the war on his terms. After one such phone call on May 13, Scholz called for a ceasefire in Ukraine but did not demand that Russia immediately withdraw all its troops from Ukrainian territory.
Germany, despite repeated promises, still has not transferred a single heavy weapon to Ukraine, according to the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. Some say Scholz is playing for time. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel recently reported that Scholz refuses to utter the words “Ukraine must win” because he believes that Ukraine cannot achieve victory.
Others think the German chancellor is waiting for the war to end so that German industry can resume doing business with Russia. Whatever his motivation, Scholz’s dithering has seriously damaged Germany’s credibility, according to policy experts from across the political spectrum. Scholz seems unable or unwilling to consider, after the lessons of Britain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, that if Putin wins in Ukraine, he might turn his sights next on Europe.
Meanwhile, Macron has clung to his pretense of turning the EU into a sovereign superstate. During a speech to the European Parliament on May 9, the French president called for building a “stronger and more sovereign Europe” that can become “the master of its own destiny.” He added that the war in Ukraine “must not distract us from our agenda.”
Macron, who has provided military support to Ukraine, also warned against humiliating Putin and called for reaching an agreement with Russia “to build new security balances” in Europe. That was widely interpreted as a call for Ukraine to make territorial concessions to Putin.
On June 3, Macron repeated his warning about humiliating Putin. Speaking to French media, he said:
“We must not humiliate Russia so that when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic channels. I am convinced that France’s role is to be a mediating power.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded:
“Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, said that the phone calls with Putin were akin to talking to Adolf Hitler:
“I’m amazed at all the talks that are being held with Putin at the moment. By Chancellor Scholz, by President Emmanuel Macron. These talks are useless. What do they do? They only legitimize a person responsible for the crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin. He is responsible for it. He made the decision to send the troops there. The commanders are subordinate to him. Did anyone talk to Adolf Hitler like that during WWII? Did someone say Adolf Hitler had to save face? That we should proceed in such a way that it is not humiliating for Adolf Hitler?”
John Chipman, head of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, tweeted:
“The end of French exceptionalism. Once you claim your main role to be a mediator between right and wrong, days of grandeur are over.
“‘Saving face’ is a weak diplomatic aim; Putin can take personal responsibility for his face.
“Humiliation: a mild punishment for war crimes.”
Some observers have speculated that Macron’s obsession with Putin’s humiliation stems from a faulty understanding of the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I. Long-standing orthodoxy has held that the terms imposed on Germany were humiliating and fueled the nationalist sentiment that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II, but contemporary scholars have challenged that narrative: the Treaty of Versailles, they say, was not tough enough on Germany.
Others suspect that Macron and Scholz are seeking a new 19th century-style Concert of Europe in which France, Germany and Russia agree to divide Europe into spheres of influence. Such an agreement would, presumably, turn Ukraine into a vassal state of Russia.
Still others believe that France and Germany are primarily concerned with protecting national business and financial interests in Russia.
German Member of the European Parliament Reinhard Bütikofer noted:
“As Moscow hardliners question whether Europe will ‘survive’ the current crisis, President Macron says: ‘We must not humiliate Russia.’ Macron appears not to realize that defending Ukraine against Russia’s aggression is also about defending Europe’s common security. Putin wants more than just to dominate Ukraine. Macron sees France’s interests decoupled from those of Eastern and Central Europe.”
Bütikofer’s comment goes to the heart of the issue: national interests still matter. One of the EU’s founding myths has been that national sovereignty is an outmoded concept and that the national interests of the EU’s 27 member states can be subsumed under a new “European interest.” The war in Ukraine and the differing responses to it have proven that national interests still matter and will continue to do so.
Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, in an interview with Politico, argued that the only way to achieve lasting peace and security in Europe is for Russia to lose the war in Ukraine:
“The difficulty is that some of my colleagues have a false belief … peace at any cost. Peace at any cost is what we have done for 20 years with Putin. Peace at any cost means Putin wins. We end up losing. Now, in the self-interest of Germany, and France and Italy and everyone else, if we really want security in Europe, Russia has to lose, they finally have to realize they cannot operate in this way. And collectively, we have the ability to make that happen.”
Meanwhile, transatlanticism is enjoying a surge in popularity. A new survey by Globsec, a think tank based in Bratislava, found broad support (79%) across nine countries in Central and Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) for NATO’s role as security guarantor.
The survey also found significant growth in the CEE countries’ perception of the United States as a strategic partner. In Poland, for instance, such perceptions increased from 54% in 2021 to 73% in 2022. By contrast, Polish perceptions of Germany as a strategic partner plummeted from 48% in 2021 to 27% in 2022.
“The perception that the US is a strategic partner has soared by 10 percentage points since 2021,” according to the report. “Washington is now viewed as a key ally in NATO by 3/4 of respondents in the CEE region.”
German analyst Marcel Dirsus noted:
“Without American support, Ukraine would already be done. Countries like Germany and France have made European autonomy even more difficult because nobody east of the Oder River trusts them to come through when things get rough….
“What good are more German tanks to Poland or Estonia if neither they nor Russia thinks that Berlin would be willing to use them to defend Warsaw or Tallinn?
“I very much doubt central Europeans who were already skeptical about European autonomy or sovereignty or whatever the phrase of the day is are looking at Macron and Scholz and think now is the time to rely more on Paris and Berlin. If anything, they’ll double-down on America.”
Polish analyst Konrad Muzyka agreed:
“Ukraine’s shown that France and Germany are unwilling to increase costs on Russia for its attack on Ukraine. Paris and Germany are unwilling to send equipment to Ukraine, what makes people think its soldiers will die for Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga or Warsaw?”
American foreign policy expert Elliot Cohen concluded:
“President Macron continues, perversely, to talk about an exit from the war, to include European security guarantees for Ukraine. Why on earth would any Ukrainian think France or Germany could or would fight on their behalf? This is vanity, not statesmanship, at work.”
Rhetoric versus Substance
On June 16, Macron, Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv for the first time since the beginning of the war. The visit was designed, apparently, to dispel criticism of European disunity and inconsistent support for Ukraine.
The leaders pledged that the EU would not force Ukraine to surrender or give up territory to end the war. “Ukraine will choose the peace it wants,” Draghi said. “Any diplomatic solution cannot be separated from the will of Kyiv, from what it deems acceptable to her people. Only in this way can we build a peace that is just and lasting.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was also invited to attend the G7 Summit to be held in Germany on June 26-28, and the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 29-30.
The three leaders expressed support for Ukraine to be given candidate status for EU membership, but Macron stressed that such status would be accompanied by a “roadmap” that would include “conditions.” Previously, Macron, Scholz and Draghi all said that Ukraine’s EU bid could take decades.
German MP Norbert Röttgen criticized Scholz’s trip to Ukraine as political showmanship:
“Chancellor Scholz created high expectations for his trip to Ukraine. He did not fulfill them with the ‘yes’ to EU membership and the invitation to the G7 summit. Ukraine needs quick help now, we owe it. EU membership is a matter of decades.”
Europe analyst David Herszenhorn, writing for Politico, noted:
“Despite the encouraging rhetoric, the trio of leaders — representing the EU’s biggest, richest and most powerful countries — did not announce any dramatic new military or financial assistance for Ukraine, which might help tip the war in Kyiv’s favor.
“By contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced an additional $1 billion in support for Ukraine….
“While Ukraine has been pushing hard to win candidate status, that designation alone offers little indication about when, or even if, Ukraine would ever formally become a member….
“Many EU officials and diplomats said it is difficult to imagine Ukraine making much progress toward actual membership until it is no longer at war, and Macron has said that the overall process could take a decade or longer.”
Correspondents Guy Chazan, Roman Olearchyk and Amy Kazmin, writing for the Financial Times, concluded:
“French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi did not just have warm words for Ukraine — they also backed its bid to join the EU.
“But once the euphoria wore off, some Ukrainians wondered whether the visit of the three leaders, who were also joined by Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, marked a triumph of ceremony over substance.
“Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin, summed up the ambivalence. EU membership for Ukraine lay far off in the future, he told Germany’s ZDF TV. ‘But right now what we need is to survive,’ he said. ‘And for that we need heavy weapons.’
“Anyone hoping the visit would break the logjam in the delivery of such kit will have been disappointed. The only new pledge came from Macron, who said France would supply six additional Caesar howitzers, on top of the 12 it has already given Ukraine….
“The issue of weapons continues to loom over relations between Ukraine and its allies. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted earlier this month that Ukraine needed 1,000 howitzers, 300 multiple rocket launchers, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones to achieve parity with Russia and ‘end the war.’ The equipment western countries have committed to provide so far falls far short.”
Irish analyst Judy Dempsey, in an article — “German Ambiguity Is Deciding Ukraine’s Future” — published by the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe, wrote that Scholz’s delay in sending heavy weapons to Ukraine was hurting Kyiv’s chances of preserving its sovereignty, and that it was damaging Germany’s standing across Europe:
“Scholz’s position reveals a lack of leadership and with it a lack of conviction and consistency. It is also about a fear of antagonizing the Kremlin. The German political elites that grew up during the Cold War don’t want to give up their special business and political ties to Moscow. They are still reluctant to accept Russia’s motives in Georgia, Syria, Belarus, and now Ukraine.
“These motives are about Russia positioning itself to reshape Europe’s post–Cold War order. The longer Scholz continues his ambiguity toward Ukraine, the greater the likelihood that Putin will use the German chancellor and French President Emmanuel Macron to push Ukraine into a compromise and ultimately change Europe’s security architecture.
“In practice, that would have devastating consequences for the transatlantic relationship which Putin has long sought to weaken. It would divide Europe. As it is, Poland and the Baltic states are deeply distrustful of France’s and Germany’s relations with Putin. They are also frustrated that Paris and Berlin do not take the Russian imperialist agenda seriously.
“Beyond Ukraine, Scholz’s ambiguity is hurting all of Europe. Putin will not hesitate to exploit it both militarily and politically.”
Former MI6 head John Sawers, in an article — “Macron is Playing a Risky Game on Ukraine” — published by the Financial Times, warned that the French president’s insistence that Putin should not be humiliated could lead to a premature ceasefire that locks in Russian gains:
“The west has two goals in the war in Ukraine: to uphold Ukrainian sovereignty and to deter Russia from any similar assaults on European countries in the future.
“However, the fighting in the Donbas region is ugly and it is tempting to support any move that would bring it to an end. Unsurprisingly, there have been calls for an early peace initiative, while French president Emmanuel Macron has said that it is important not to ‘humiliate’ Russia over its invasion — a remark that drew a frosty response from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff.
“The problem is that a ceasefire now would lock in Russia’s military gains on the ground. There is no reason to think that Vladimir Putin would agree to pull back….
“If another round of European diplomacy leaves Russia once again sitting on its military gains in Ukraine, then Putin will regain political strength at home and feel empowered to launch new military adventures in the future. The Ukrainians want to fight on and they need our continued support — advanced weapons and ever tougher sanctions on Russia. That means several more months of ugly fighting. But a premature ceasefire will help Putin snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. No western leader should be his enabler.”
Austrian political scientist Ralph Gert Schöllhammer, in an article — “Why Europe Hedges Its Support for Ukraine” — published by The Wall Street Journal, argued that Paris and Berlin worry that an EU with Ukraine could lead to a competing Warsaw-Kyiv axis:
“Despite the supranational ambitions of the EU and its most ardent supporters, national interests still dominate the political calculations of member states. For Paris and Berlin the Ukraine crisis isn’t only a security issue, it could also determine the EU’s future power distribution.
“The most prestigious positions in the EU are held by Western European politicians, reflecting a power imbalance between Eastern and Western Europe, from Ms. von der Leyen (Germany) and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde (France) to the high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (Spain) and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel (Belgium). Eastern European governments have made clear that this status quo is increasingly unacceptable to them, and the war in Ukraine has given them additional confidence to change it.
“The EU is built around Germany and France, and both states have jealously guarded their position as the ultimate decision makers in Europe. Policy makers in both countries are aware that an EU with Ukraine could lead to a competing Warsaw-Kyiv axis, something neither France nor Germany wants. Ukraine is politically and culturally closer to Poland than Germany, meaning that German power in the EU could be diminished significantly and replaced by growing Eastern European influence.
“These thoughts might seem cynical in light of the heroic struggle of Ukraine and its people, but it would be a mistake to believe that power politics has been replaced by universally held ideals.”
Europe expert Stefan Auer, in an opinion essay — “Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom Exposes ‘Sovereign Europe’ as a Delusion” — published by the Financial Times, wrote that Central Europeans understand better than France or Germany the connection between national independence and security:
“The shared outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine initially strengthened European unity. But the challenges that the war has generated appear to be reinforcing European disunion. Central and eastern European states, with the notable exception of Hungary, strongly support Ukraine’s fight for territorial integrity, while Germany, France and Italy seek ways to accommodate Russia.
“For the EU, the return of sovereignty is unexpected. European integration supposedly made nation states increasingly obsolete. Dialogue, not threats of violence, would uphold peace….
“Rather than enemies, Europeans thought they had partners, competitors or at worst rivals. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced an abrupt re-evaluation of this view….
“It was once a truism that France needed the EU to conceal its weakness, while Germany needed it to hide its strength. In relation to Russia, one could argue that Germany uses the EU’s relative weakness to justify its own inaction….
“But when it comes to assisting Ukraine in the war itself, it is national capitals that matter, not Brussels. What Moscow wants and many of Putin’s western supporters appear willing to accept is the division of Europe into spheres of influence. This is redolent of the Grossraum thinking articulated by the crown jurist of Nazi Germany, Carl Schmitt: a theory of large economic spaces controlled by major powers….
“German chancellor Olaf Scholz echoes such arguments when he declares that ‘Russia must not win this war,’ rather than unambiguously advocating a Ukrainian victory. This is as logical as it is misguided. Where there are no enemies, there can be no victors.
“By contrast, leaders in central and eastern Europe are not afraid to combine the language of values with power politics. The French and German visions for peace imply Ukrainian territorial concessions. Such ideas are foolhardy and will not ensure security for Europe or Ukraine. A sovereign Europe must not be pursued at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty….
“In fact, for Europe to have a future in freedom, Ukraine must win this defining battle of our times. The losers will include not just Putin’s Russia. The defeat of Russian imperialism should finally put to rest Franco-German delusions, whether they aim at a sovereign or a post-national Europe.”
German analyst Ulrich Speck, in an essay — “The Ukraine War and the Rebirth of NATO” — published by the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, concluded that the actions of Macron and Scholz has cemented NATO, not the EU, as the cornerstone of European security:
“Three developments have catapulted NATO back into the center of events.
“First: Russia’s open attack on Ukraine in February 2022. This time, not only East Central Europeans, but also West Europeans and North Americans were shocked by the breach of all norms on which the European peace order is based: an open war of aggression and conquest with countless atrocities and war crimes. It is therefore clear that Putin is ready to implement his project of a new Russian empire, even at great expense. It is also clear that if he is successful, he will probably not stop at Ukraine.
“The second reason for the renaissance of NATO is that the United States is fulfilling its classic leadership role in the Western alliance. For the Biden administration, the revival of alliances is at the center of foreign policy: close cooperation with allies is seen as providing a decisive advantage over China and Russia, which allows it to deal with the autocratic challengers from a ‘position of strength.’
“The third reason is that the EU leaders, France and Germany, have been very reluctant to react to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. While the United States made decisive progress on arms deliveries and sanctions, flanked by a resolutely acting Great Britain, it seemed that Paris and Berlin were hoping to the last to be able to change the mind of the Russian President. Both are reluctant to supply arms to Ukraine, and they are more likely to play along than lead when it comes to sanctions. The fact that Macron and Scholz have not been in Kyiv since the beginning of the war underscores the distance they maintain from Ukraine.
“With this attitude, Berlin and Paris have discredited themselves in the eyes of East Central Europeans and Scandinavians as reliable partners in the event of a Russian threat. More than ever, Eastern and Northern Europe will rely on the United States and Great Britain — that is, on NATO — for security policy.
“This means that there is no alternative to NATO — at least as long as Russia takes a revisionist stance, does not respect borders and does not recognize the reorganization of the region after the end of the Cold War. The lesson of current experience is that only the United States is capable of holding Russia in check. The vehicle for this remains NATO, which has not outlived itself, but is more important as the security policy core of a free West than it has been for decades.”
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.