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Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the School of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Scowcroft Strategic Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
The war in Ukraine is a decisive battle for the future of Europe, its geostrategic reconfiguration and, ultimately, its new security architecture.
It marks a tectonic shift in the continent’s evolution, caused both by Putin’s historic miscalculation and by the resistance of the Ukrainian people. And the quick, almost knee-jerk response of the United States to provide military and economic assistance only hastened this change.
This is a system-transforming war, as it has exposed the calcified skeleton of the distribution of power in Europe, seemingly submerged under an overlap of institutions, spawned by decades of supranationalism to compensate for the continent’s post-1945 military weakness. exposed competing intra-European alignments and interests, while raising the question of whether existing institutions are still up to the task.
Are NATO and the European Union capable of galvanizing Europe to stand up to Russia and exact a devastating price for starting a war unlike any the continent has seen since 1945? Or will Russian President Vladimir Putin succeed in his imperial reconquest of Ukraine, re-establish a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and, once his military has refitted in a few years, perhaps even challenge NATO? directly?
So far, the Western response to the war has been remarkable for both its generosity and its haphazard nature. It has also been defined by the political “muscle memory” of where the center of Europe is and where its periphery begins and ends.
Europe’s political argument on Ukraine is about what the endgame should be, or rather whether it is still possible to have an ending that is consistent with the existing state of affairs once the shooting is over. This is, in part, why the conversation about the future of Ukraine has been driven by the familiar nonsense of EU enlargement, and why fundamental security issues have so far been largely avoided. such as the country’s membership in NATO.
Ultimately, NATO is about hard power and collective defense, and it will be the post-war distribution of hard power that will drive the institutional framework and define the new architecture of a future Europe. As happened at the beginning of the Cold War, a new center of gravity will emerge in Europe, increasingly in the northeast. The decision by Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership is but the most obvious example of this unfolding change.
Historically, however, institutional solutions to security dilemmas look to the past, even though they claim to offer solutions for the future. Of course, institutional security arrangements can reinforce alliances, but only when those institutions reflect real power and interests. This reality has been brought home during this war. And while the danger of Russian revanchism in Europe has revitalized NATO politically, in the absence of a true European rearmament, the venerable alliance will be emptied to the point of irrelevance.
Today, Europe is at a tipping point because it remains committed to “institutional thinking” that is increasingly divorced from the realities of hard power on the ground. At the same time, the Continent’s political leaders feel that what happens in Ukraine, and ultimately where it ends up on Europe’s political map, will define the course of the evolution of Europe and, by extension, transatlantic relations.
However, whatever happens, one thing is certain: there will be real and lasting consequences for the future of Europe.
When a nation has won its freedom through horrific and bloody sacrifice, defending others on the continent in the process, it cannot be brushed aside as a peripheral state. A victorious Ukraine will thus claim its place in Europe by the sheer magnitude of its sacrifice, while both the United States and the European nations that played a key role in its victory, especially those along NATO’s eastern flank, will become much most influential.
Putin’s madness to go all out against Ukraine has set in motion a process that cannot be reversed. And it’s not just that Europe’s center of gravity will shift north-east, but also that the once nebulous concept of Eastern Europe as a backwater of the West, an image reinforced by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, has been practically dismantled.
Eastern Europe is now fully European, its history and heritage being discovered every day in American universities and think tanks, with images of Riga, Warsaw and Kyiv populating our screens. We see Eastern European politicians showing leadership and courage in a time of need, clearly articulating their national security imperatives and priorities, sticking their necks in the game and taking real risks to stop Russia and help Ukraine in its fight for independence. freedom and national sovereignty.
The war in Ukraine is not over, but Europe has already changed. And, indeed, their leaders so recognize it. It will simply take longer for all concerned to acknowledge it, as doing so will bury, perhaps permanently, the calcified skeleton of what the continent looked like until recently.
Opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or policy of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the US Department of Defense, or the US government..