Russia is no longer a partner of the European Union; Ukraine has been accepted as a candidate member; the United States supply weapons and advanced intelligence to an ex-Soviet Union member; NATO is back on the front stage; the UK and Turkey are part of a new ‘European Political Community’… Nobody, a year ago, could have predicted these dramatic changes on the European chessboard. And Vladimir Putin’s behaviour is making these changes increasingly irreversible.

An assessment follows about the current situation, what it means for the transatlantic relationship, what it changes in the debate on enlargement in the European Union and what might be its implications for the future.

The war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine did not start in February 2022. It started in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched military operations in the Eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. But the reaction of the world at the time was rather subdued: the Obama administration condemned the annexation of Crimea but let France and Germany alone participate in the ‘Minsk process’ with Russia and Ukraine in the so called ‘Normandy format’. This process quickly entered into a deadlock – with Ukraine’s military  only discreetly supported and supplied by Western countries – and Putin concluding that there was therefore no real obstacle to the restoration of Russia’s lost Empire.

The scenario completely changed on February 24, 2022. What Russia called a ‘special military operation’ was seen by the rest of the world as a massive invasion of an independent country, the first ‘war of aggression’ in Europe since the end of world two and a violation of  the most basic principles of the UN charter and the current world order.

Global opinion was clear from the start that Putin did not expect Ukraine to have the capacity to resist. He underestimated the level of support Ukraine would be offered by the Western world.  He certainly did not expect the strong involvement of the United States, a little more than one year after Trump’s departure and six months after the Afghanistan debacle. He probably did not expect the old and the ‘new Europe’ to rally as entity in support of Ukraine. But once its troops engaged on Ukraine’s territory, it was too late for him to withdraw. He had put himself into a corner and seems to feel that he has no other choice now but to escalate the conflict – using the only tool that still renders Russia a superpower: the threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

Eight months after the start of  the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, this is now the situation. Putin seems to have deliberately renounced talking to any leader of the Western world – and has seemingly lost also the support of the other members of the BRICS…He has scared the rest of the world in waging a war of the past, at a time when nuclear weapons, globalization, the world wide web and the threat of climate change are good enough reasons to organize a ‘durable peace’ on earth. This explains why his war is quickly moving pawns on the European chess game.

The revival of the Atlantic relationship

Nobody today, and certainly not president Macron of France, fears the ‘brain death’ of NATO. The US were the first to warn the Allies of the upcoming Russian operation and did not hesitate to supply advanced intelligence to the Ukrainian military. Two days after the invasion, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the US would give lethal military assistance, including anti-armour and anti-aircraft systems. The UK and EU member states made a similar announcement the day after.

There was also a coordinated action by the Allies on the sanctions to be imposed on Russia, in order to deprive it of the resources to contribute to the war effort. These sanctions are regularly refined and target individuals, banks, businesses, bank transfers, exports, and imports. The sanctions cut major Russian banks from SWIFT, the global messaging network for international payments. Sanctions also include asset freezes on the Russian Central Bank, which holds $630 billion in foreign-exchange reserves. Embargoes were imposed on the import of Russian oil and gas (in the US and the UK) and of Russian oil in the EU. The new North Stream 2 pipe line, bringing Russian gas to Germany, which had provoked frictions with the US, was halted.   

The war also allowed a major change in NATO’s membership: two traditionally neutral European countries, Finland and Sweden, decided to join the Alliance. They simultaneously sent their official letters of application to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on 18 May 2022 and NATO Heads of State and Government invited them to join the Alliance in a Summit in Madrid on 29 June.

In Madrid, the Allies also approved a new ‘strategic concept’, reflecting the new security reality that has emerged since the previous Strategic Concept was agreed in 2010: Russia, earlier presented as a ‘strategic partner’ is now identified as ‘the most significant and direct threat to Allied security’ . The new strategic concept also mentions for the first time China as ‘a challenge to allies’ ‘interests, security and values’. Defence plans are upgraded, with more forces at high readiness, specific forces pre-assigned to defend specific Allies and more troops, equipment and weapon stockpiles based in Eastern Europe.

What about accession ?

As is well known, except for the Baltic countries, accession to NATO has not been offered until now to any country that had been part of the Soviet Union. In a NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, Georgia and Ukraine had asked to be awarded a ‘Membership Action Plan’, the first step towards NATO accession. Russia lobbied extensively against it, and a compromise had to be found through ambiguity. NATO Secretary General declared in a press conference that Ukraine, together with Georgia, would ‘someday join NATO’, but neither would begin Membership Action Plans.

The ‘grey zone’ has been maintained until now, but as expected, on September 30, 2022, the day Putin announced the ‘annexation’ of four Ukraine provinces to Russia, Ukraine formally asked for NATO membership. The reaction was positive in a few Eastern European members, but more than cool in other members of the Alliance. Indeed, NATO Allies are very careful not to extend the theatre of the Ukraine war: they do not send to Ukraine any troops or certain types of weapons which could easily hit the (internationally recognized) Russian territory itself.

It is clear that this issue can only be dealt with at a further stage, after the war ends and according to the evolution of the situation. The old concept of ‘neutrality’ might then, indeed, come back to help find a final solution of the crisis.

A new approach of EU enlargement

Since the decision to accept Croatia as a member in 2011, and even if a promise of accession had been extended to all countries in the Western Balkans, the process of enlargement of the European Union had slowed down dramatically in the last ten years.

This is for various reasons, some of which are related to historical tensions between neighbours – Greece and Macedonia, later Macedonia and Bulgaria, also Serbia and new states formerly part of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. But the main reason was the ‘fatigue’, as a result of tensions from within the Union itself. Populist regimes in some new member states, tensions with Poland and Hungary about the respect of the rule of law, divisions about migration policy and other issues fuelled public opinion in western member countries of the Union to fear that further enlargement would aggravate the East-West divide inside the EU and make it dysfunctional.

Further enlargement was only envisaged for the Western Balkans: as was the case for NATO, countries having been part of the Soviet Union were not encouraged to apply for accession to the EU. Indeed, contrary to what Putin might believe, EU step- by-step enlargement has never been related to imperialism. It aims only at reinforcing the stability of the continent. And, until this year, the dominating view in the EU (except in the East) was that, if it intended to take over not only countries which were in the Soviet Empire but also parts of the ex – Soviet Union itself, the EU would go too far in  ‘humiliating Russia’ – and thus destabilizing the continent.

The war in Ukraine dramatically changed this perception. In the European Council of June 24, 2022, ‘candidate status’ to the EU has been offered to Ukraine and Moldova and a ‘membership perspective’ to Georgia. A meeting with the leaders of all Balkan countries also revived their hope for a reinvigoration of their own accession.

This decision brings an end to all ambiguity about the future of the ‘grey zone’ mentioned above. Clearly, there will be obstacles for these three countries on the long journey towards EU membership. The European Council was careful to remind that ‘The progress of each country towards the European Union will depend on its own merit in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, taking into consideration the EU’s capacity to absorb new members’ – this last point referring apparently to the ‘enlargement fatigue’ of the last ten years.

But the most relevant is the message addressed to Russia: because of Russia’s aggression against an independent state, in violation of international law, the EU no longer takes into account the fact that these three countries were part of the Soviet Union. The Union now clearly denies Russia the right to reconstitute its old Empire by force.

The ‘European Political Community’

On October 6, 2022 in Prague, the Czech Republic holding the current EU rotating presidency, the first meeting took place of a new ‘organization’ at European level called the ‘European Political Community’. Its declared purpose is ‘to foster political dialogue and cooperation to address issues of common interest and strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of the European continent’.

The idea had been launched by president Macron in the June European Council. All European countries would be invited – except Russia and Belarus – and it would be purely ‘intergovernmental’. The meeting was organized by the EU presidency but the European Commission would not have any organisational role.

Most observers were sceptical. Some noted there was already a Council of Europe, established in Strasburg (from which Russia recently ‘withdrew’ after having been suspended) and the OSCE in Vienna (of which Russia is a member and which includes also the US and Canada). Others, notably the candidates for accession to the EU , were afraid it would dilute the enlargement process. And what if some – the UK, Turkey…- refused to attend?

The Prague meeting was however a success. Forty four countries participated; Liz Truss and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were present and a second meeting will take place in Moldova in six months (the next two will be in Spain and the UK)

As Macron summed up at the end of the meeting: ‘we have very clearly displayed the unity of 44 European leaders in condemning Russian aggression and expressing support for Ukraine’. Indeed, the main, if not the only reason, for the success of the European Political Community is that it unites all European countries and, except Belarus which was not invited, they all condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine. For the rest of the world, – notably China, India and ‘neutral’ countries in Africa – it also demonstrates symbolically that Putin is isolated on the European continent. 

A new Europe?

It is not easy at this stage to assess how the Ukraine crisis will evolve and how long it will dominate international relations.

Indeed nobody knows how the war itself will evolve – even if a Russian ‘victory’ seems already excluded. How hard will the winter be in Europe and will there be enough gas and electricity? Will Putin be challenged in Moscow if his troops continue to perform badly? Will something unexpected happen in Beijing after the Communist Party Congress? And, in a more distant future, what if Trump or one of his clones becomes president of the United States in two years’ time?

The relationship with Russia and its place on the world scene might evolve in the years to come, according to future developments. But it could be assumed that some new realities will definitely impose themselves on the European continent.

They could be summed up like this:

  • first, the ‘grey zone’ between Russia and the European Union will disappear. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will (after a long negotiation process) join the EU. Other ‘Eastern Partnership’ countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan (which are part European – part Asian) might also join at a later date. Even Asian ex-Soviet Union countries like Kazakhstan, who are scared Putin might want to ‘reintegrate’ them also in a new Russian Empire, will make efforts to get as close as possible to the EU
  • EU members like Germany and others, who until recently were reluctant, will reinforce their military capabilities. The proximity of a real war (for some EU members across their borders) has not only revived the NATO commitment. It has also helped EU members to be more serious about their defence budgets and more supportive of a genuine European defence  
  • The Union itself might come out of the crisis with a (real) common energy policy. Currently, most policy competencies in relation to energy remain at national level and progress at European level requires voluntary cooperation by members states. As is was the case for vaccines during the Covid crisis, the current energy crisis, with sky rocketing prices for gas and electricity and threats to energy security, is forcing the EU Commission to take the initiative. Decisions which will (hopefully) have been made this fall in this field, will probably be translated into a real common policy
  • …and the UK will probably be inclined, not to reverse Brexit, but to be more European and less global than the Brexiteers had envisaged. Truss’ presence in Prague, statements by the new British Foreign Minister and by some old Brexiteers, as well as genuine efforts on both sides to solve the Northern Ireland Protocol, are positive signs of a ‘rapprochement’ after six years of tensions. 

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Photo of Jean De Ruyt Jean De Ruyt

Ambassador Jean De Ruyt is a senior public policy advisor in Covington’s EU public policy team.  Ambassador De Ruyt, a non-lawyer, is among the most experienced diplomats in Europe.  Most recently, he served as the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union…

Ambassador Jean De Ruyt is a senior public policy advisor in Covington’s EU public policy team.  Ambassador De Ruyt, a non-lawyer, is among the most experienced diplomats in Europe.  Most recently, he served as the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union and was chair of the Committee of Permanent Representatives during the 2010 Belgian Presidency of the Council.

Ambassador De Ruyt works with Covington’s transatlantic government affairs team, which includes experienced lawyers as well as former senior policymakers.  The team advises clients on a range of European public affairs issues, including the EU policy-making processes, functioning of the European institutions, development of EU legislation and accession of new EU members.  Ambassador De Ruyt has particular expertise in the workings of the EU Council and EU institutions more broadly, transatlantic relations and United Nations development policy.

Ambassador De Ruyt was closely involved in Europe’s response to the financial crisis and the resulting legislation at the European level.  He was instrumental in the creation of the European diplomatic service and, as the Permanent Representative, facilitated the resolution of a variety of state aid and competition policy disputes for Belgian companies.

Ambassador De Ruyt was involved in the negotiation of the European Single Act and the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, in initiatives relating to the implementation of the Oslo agreements in the Middle East and in the rebuilding of peace in Central Africa.  He also participated in the stabilisation of former Yugoslavia and the development of NATO and European Defence.