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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine war accelerates shift of power in Europe to the East

Ukrainian soldiers heading to the front line in the Donetsk region of Ukraine last month. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a shock to the complacent European order.


In August, in Prague, the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, said it bluntly: “The center of Europe is moving eastward.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a shock to the complacent European order, both to the European Union and to NATO. And it has underscored and enhanced the influence of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Poland and the Baltic states have driven the moral argument to support Ukraine, filling a near-vacuum early in the war, when Europe’s traditional leaders, France and Germany, appeared paralyzed. But the war has also brought new urgency and energy for the enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans and beyond, with offers of candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova.

Vocal pressure from Eastern and Central Europe was crucial to the decisions this week, after months of wrangling and resistance, to give Western tanks to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Scholz announced that his country would supply some of its Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to send theirs, and President Joe Biden said he would send Abrams tanks, which gave Scholz the political cover he wanted.

The war is also accelerating what Scholz implied: that the balance of power in Europe is shifting, too, along with its center, away from “Old Europe,” which valued and cultivated its ties to Moscow, to the newer members to the east and north, with their raw memories of Soviet occupation and their reluctance to cede chunks of their reestablished sovereignty to Brussels.

“Scholz is right,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a European historian at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. “The voices of Central and Eastern Europeans are being listened to more and taken more seriously in the councils of Europe, and there is a big eastern enlargement agenda on the table.”

With a major war within its borders, Europe is more about hard power now than before, he said. “So having a Central and Eastern Europe that takes security seriously has an impact.”

Poland has a rapidly expanding military — the government said last year that it planned to double the size of the country’s armed forces — and has ordered a large amount of sophisticated new arms, making it a more important player in both the European Union and in NATO.

Poland was a prime lobbyist to try to persuade a reluctant Berlin to send German tanks to Ukraine and authorize other countries to do so.

“Power has moved east, and Ukraine will cement this trend,” said Jana Puglierin, Berlin director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. One can extrapolate too much from the Ukraine war, she said, “but you see the clear pattern in moral leadership.”

Central and Eastern European countries, Puglierin said, see themselves as “the freedom fighters in the EU and defending its values, standing up to dictatorship.” They feel vindicated in their long-standing warnings about Russia’s neo-imperialism, its president, Vladimir Putin, and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy — in contrast to what they see as Western Europe’s naïveté about diplomacy and trade with Russia.

Acting early to provide Ukraine military support and to welcome refugees, these countries have helped shape the narrative for Europe, while “in Berlin and Paris, too, there was such a vacuum, negotiating with Putin to the last and surprised by the invasion,” Puglierin said. “The eastern countries were quick movers and much more credible, and we were speechless and frozen.”

Germany and France have also had to confront the failure of their traditional policy of European security with Russia, not against it. President Emmanuel Macron of France persists in hoping to be part of any future peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, going so far as to talk of giving Russia security guarantees, which has enraged many in Europe, not just in the east.

The war has also made Macron’s aspiration for an “autonomous” European defense seem hollow, given the sharply enhanced role of NATO and the United States in the past year.

“The eastern countries are not big fans of EU defense — they want the United States and NATO,” Puglierin said. Germany, too, wants to enhance the trans-Atlantic relationship and depends on Washington, even as it tries to rebuild its own paltry military. “So France will lose some allies and be outnumbered,” she said.

Weakened within Europe, at least for now, France will also be less influential in a more active and aggressive NATO. The alliance is more reliant on American arms and leadership than it was before the war, not less so, and it is expected to expand soon with the new membership of Sweden and Finland.

Germany’s new government, led by Scholz, was unprepared for war, let alone for a sudden cutoff of Russian energy and trade. With rising concern about similar dependence on China, Germany faces the need to reshape its export-driven economy, built on cheap Russian gas and unfettered trade with China.

In the longer run, “the prospect of a larger and more eastern Europe will be a source of great strength for the German economy,” Garton Ash said, with Ukraine representing a vast potential for development.

Still, France and Germany are on the back foot in Europe for the near future, at least.

Luuk van Middelaar, a historian of the European Union, notes that since the war began, both Poland and Hungary have been treated more gently by Brussels in the ongoing struggle with them over the rule of law. “Politically and morally, Poland is off the hook because of the role it plays as a front-line state, delivering arms and accepting refugees,” he said.

The power of the French-German “couple” has been waning for some time. Van Middelaar drew a comparison between the war in Ukraine and another tectonic shock to Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.

François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the French and German leaders in that earlier time, had fierce conflicts over reunification, but they had been working closely together for years. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Scholz, who had been in office less than three months, and Macron barely knew one another.

“There was no working relationship or professional intimacy, which you need at such moments,” van Middelaar said, so there has been “a lot of internal suspicion” and “underlying discomfort about how to deal with this new continent where Russia is a foe and Germany has to rethink its economic and political model.”

That has created a void in leadership that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have tried aggressively to fill.

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