Friday marks one year since a war began in Europe — one that would have far-reaching consequences across the entire continent.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, European countries scrambled to present a united front and tackle the massive challenge of standing firmly behind Kyiv.
But their decision to support Ukraine brought internal wrangling and questions about what that stance against Putin would mean for Europe — given, for instance, their crucial energy relationship.
“When Russia invaded, it wasn’t just Ukraine being tested,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday during a trip to Warsaw, Poland. “The whole world faced a test for the ages. Europe was being tested. America was being tested. NATO was being tested.”
A year into the war though, Biden said, the international community has remained united behind Ukraine.
Here are some of the most significant ways that the conflict drastically impacted the European continent.
Europe Cut Its Reliance On Russian Energy
For decades, Europe relied on Moscow for its supply of oil and gas. Germany, the continent’s biggest economy and the world’s fourth-largest, used to depend on Russia for over half of its gas and over a third of its oil supply.
Following the Cold War, German leadership believed that the best way to ensure peace in the region was to pursue ties with Russia, including on energy.
However, the invasion proved that Moscow could no longer be a reliable partner and supplier, prompting the continent to seek alternative sources of energy, such as the Middle East. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the Persian Gulf region in September, signing deals for liquefied natural gas deliveries with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Putin regularly used energy as a pressure lever in a bid to intimidate Europe ahead of what was predicted to be a tough winter, with potential energy shortages looming.
“He thought he could weaponize energy to crack your resolve — Europe’s resolve,” Biden said in Warsaw this week. “Instead, we’re working together to end Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels.”
The European Union managed to make up for 80% of the natural gas it got through Russia by cutting consumption, sharing supplies within the 27-member bloc and creating new liquefied natural gas facilities, according to the Guardian.
The continent’s focus on maintaining strategic independence has also accelerated efforts to ramp up green energy production, said Philipp Lausberg, a policy analyst in the Europe’s Political Economy Program at the European Policy Centre.
What’s more, the war has caused Germany to reconsider its trade relationship with China ahead of a potential conflict with Taiwan. Germany is a crucial partner for China, especially in the car industry, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Germany’s reliance could inhibit its ability to respond together with Western allies to an attempt by China to retake Taiwan by force, for instance by imposing sanctions,” wrote Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at CFR.
Eastern European Countries Gained More Influence Within The EU
Central and Eastern European countries that expressed outright support for Ukraine and condemned Russia’s invasion gained more sway within the European Union, at times sidelining traditional powers such as France and Germany that adopted a more conservative approach.
Lausberg told HuffPost that countries like Poland and the Baltic states were outspoken against Russia even before its invasion of Ukraine. They opposed building the Nord Stream pipelines running from Russia to Germany and called for a stronger eastern flank of NATO, as well as higher defense spending.
The fact that they were proved right in their concerns now “gives them more clout and more credibility in the EU,” Lausberg said.
France and Germany proceeded more cautiously.
French President Emmanuel Macron insisted on maintaining an open channel of communication with Putin, and he had visited the Russian leader prior to the invasion in hopes of persuading him against such a move.
Germany, especially reliant on Russian energy, was more skeptical about directly confronting Putin.
This gave countries in Eastern and Central Europe a platform to push for a hard-line tack with Russia and more support for Ukraine.
Poland recently upped the pressure on Germany by requesting to send Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv. Warsaw needs Berlin’s support to do so since the tanks are German-made. But Scholz insisted that Germany would grant approval only if the U.S. would also send M1 Abrams tanks, which Biden eventually agreed to.
The war has led Germany to change its militarily cautious approach, marking “a profound turning point in German foreign and security policy” in terms of weapons deliveries, Scholz said last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Following the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Germany had pledged to not send weapons to active war zones. But Russia’s bloody conflict in Ukraine caused the German government to shift its position and also increase its defense spending.
Poland’s Military Profile Grew
Meanwhile, Poland has vowed to grow its military presence, potentially elevating its roles both in the EU and NATO.
The country said it will expand its military spending budget from under 2.5% of its gross domestic product to 4% by the end of this year.
Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a senior member of Poland’s ruling party who serves in the European Parliament, said Americans should pay attention to the country’s expanding presence on the geopolitical stage.
“If you look at how different European states behaved in this situation, how Poland supported Ukraine versus how Germany and France did … it is clear that this is a division line which is permanent,” Krasnodębski told HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed.
Biden’s trip to Warsaw this week followed a historic visit Monday to Kyiv, where he reaffirmed that the U.S. would support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
In Poland, Biden then held meetings with Polish President Andrzej Duda and the Bucharest Nine, a group of Eastern European NATO allies that was created following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, in an effort to sustain momentum for Ukraine. The B-9′s members are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Poland and Slovakia.
“Ukraine is exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against the Russian aggression to regain full control of its territory and has the right to liberate occupied territories within its internationally recognized borders,” B-9 leaders said in a joint statement after meeting with Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “We will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to this end, as long as necessary.”
However, Gwendolyn Sasse, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the director of the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin, cautioned that Central and Eastern European countries don’t necessarily represent a united bloc, “as Hungary’s continued attempts to slow sanctions against Russia have demonstrated.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister have not traveled to Ukraine since the start of the war. While Orbán has singed on to EU sanctions packages targeting Moscow, he has blasted such measures as ineffective.
This reluctance to sever ties with Moscow has made Hungary, a NATO and EU member, an outlier within the continent.
Though the country endorsed the B-9 statement condemning Russia, Hungary’s foreign minister had previously called for peace negotiations in the war — a position that seemed to contradict its neighbors’ hopes for Ukraine to prevail in the conflict.
Calls Intensified To Expand The EU And NATO
Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine has also appeared to strengthen Western alliances, including NATO and the EU.
The war prompted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to apply for EU membership, with the union now officially considering the country a candidate.
The EU has also approved the candidacy of Moldova, which borders Ukraine and has expressed fears it could also be attacked by Putin.
In September, Ukraine applied for fast-track NATO membership. Its candidacy was a tricky subject for many, as Russia says it would be threatened by a potential expansion of the military alliance to its east.
But the conflict in Ukraine has left this concern largely abandoned.
“Before this war, I was opposed to membership of Ukraine in NATO, because I feared that it would start exactly the process that we are seeing now,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the World Economic Forum last month. “The idea of a neutral Ukraine under these conditions is no longer meaningful.”
In April, Finland and Sweden requested to join NATO as well, but so far Hungary and Turkey have not approved the membership bid. All NATO countries must sign on for new nations to join the alliance.
Stoltenberg last week expressed confidence “that both will be full members and are working hard to get both ratified as soon as possible.”
What Is Europe’s Role In The War Going Forward?
Fix, the CFR fellow, told HuffPost that European countries disagree over how much of a threat Russia currently poses, with traditional powers perceiving Eastern European countries, like Poland, as overly hawkish.
She said the continent will have to address that internal wrangling and assume an enhanced leadership role if the war continues into 2024 — the year of the next U.S. presidential election.
“At the moment, the differences within Europe are basically papered over by U.S. leadership, because the United States is holding the coalition together and is sort of the main arbiter if there are any disagreements among European countries,” Fix told HuffPost.
This, coupled with GOP protests over high spending in Ukraine, could mean the U.S. will no longer be able to continue the “alliance management” it has been doing.
Sasse echoed this, telling HuffPost that the U.S. would have preferred to see the EU and its European NATO partners assume a more independent role in helping Ukraine. But it is now clear that support from both the U.S. and Europe as a whole is extremely important for Kyiv.
“The level and continuation of this support is critical,” Sasse said. “Ukraine’s chances of regaining territory and securing a position from which the country can eventually negotiate an end to this war depend on this consensus.”