war in ukraine has changed europe for good

No event has transformed the continent more profoundly since the end of the Cold War, and there is no going back now.

HELSINKI — A year ago, the day Russia invaded Ukraine and set in motion a devastating European ground war, President Sauli Niinisto of Finland declared: “Now the masks are off. Only the cold face of war is visible.”

The Finnish head of state, in office for more than a decade, had met with President Vladimir V. Putin many times, in line with a Finnish policy of pragmatic outreach to Russia, a country with which it shares a nearly 835-mile border. Suddenly, however, that policy lay in tatters, and, along with it, Europe’s illusions about business as usual with Mr. Putin.

Those illusions were deep-rooted. The 27-nation European Union was built over decades with the core idea of extending peace across the continent. The notion that economic exchanges, trade and interdependence were the best guarantees against war lay deep in the postwar European psyche, even in dealings with an increasingly hostile Moscow.

That Mr. Putin’s Russia had become aggressive, imperialist, revanchist and brutal — as well as impervious to European peace politics — was almost impossible to digest in Paris or Berlin, even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. An increasingly militaristic Russia might swim, quack and look like a duck, but that did not mean it was one.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia addressing a rally this past week in Moscow.Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

“Many of us had started to take peace for granted,” Mr. Niinisto said this month at the Munich Security Conference after leading Finland’s abrupt push over the past year to join NATO, an idea unthinkable even in 2021. “Many of us had let our guard down.”

The war in Ukraine has transformed Europe more profoundly than any event since the Cold War’s end in 1989. A peace mentality, most acute in Germany, has given way to a dawning awareness that military power is needed in the pursuit of security and strategic objectives. A continent on autopilot, lulled into amnesia, has been galvanized into an immense effort to save liberty in Ukraine, a freedom widely seen as synonymous with its own.

“European politicians are not familiar with thinking about hard power as an instrument in foreign policy or geopolitical affairs,” said Rem Korteweg, a Dutch defense expert. “Well, they have had a crash course.”

Gone is discussion of the size of tomatoes or the shape of bananas acceptable in Europe; in its place, debate rages over what tanks and possibly F-16 fighter jets to give to Kyiv. The European Union has provided some $3.8 billion in military assistance to Ukraine.

Overall, European states, as part of the union or individually, have pledged more than $50 billion in various forms of aid to Kyiv, imposed 10 rounds of sanctions, absorbed more than eight million Ukrainian refugees (nearly the population of Austria), and largely weaned themselves off Russian oil and gas in a sweeping shift under acute inflationary pressure.

“Zeitenwende,” or epochal turning point, is the term Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany used almost a year ago in a speech announcing a $112 billion investment in the German armed forces. He meant it for Germany, a country traumatized by its Nazi past into visceral antiwar sentiment, but the word also applies to a continent where the possibility of nuclear war, however remote, no longer belongs in the realm of science fiction.

The post-Cold War era has given way to an uneasy interregnum in which great-power rivalry grows. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” President Biden said this past week in Warsaw. He spoke as China and Russia held talks on their “no limits” partnership and Mr. Putin suspended Russian participation in the last surviving arms control treaty between the two biggest nuclear-armed powers.

It is the Age of Reordering, and Europe has been obliged to adjust accordingly.

“The war has sent Europeans back to basics, to questions of war and peace and our values,” said François Delattre, the French ambassador to Germany. “It asks of us: Who are we as Europeans?”

President Biden tried on Tuesday to rally allies’ resolve in a speech in Warsaw.Doug Mills/The New York Times

In Mr. Putin’s telling, with his self-image as the macho embodiment of Saint Russia, Europeans were part of a decadent West, stripped of any backbone. He was wrong, one of several mistakes that have undercut a Russian invasion that was supposed to decapitate Ukraine within days.

Still, if Europe has held the line, its acute dependence on the United States — nearly 78 years after the end of World War II — has been revealed once more. America has armed Ukraine with weapons and military equipment worth some $30 billion since the war began, dwarfing the European arms contribution.

Without the United States, the heroic Ukraine of President Volodymyr Zelensky may not have had the military means to resist the Russian invasion. This is a sobering thought for Europeans, even if Europe’s response has exceeded many expectations. It is a measure of the work that still needs to be done if Europe is to become a credible military power.

So, as a long war looms along with a possibly protracted stalemate, the European Union will grapple with how to reinforce its militaries; how to navigate tensions between frontline states intent on the complete defeat of Mr. Putin and others, like France and Germany, inclined toward compromise; and how to manage an American election next year that will feed anxieties over whether Washington will stay the course.

In short, the war has laid bare the path before Europe: how to transform itself from peace power to muscular geopolitical protagonist.

“Even if the war ends soon, there will be no going back,” said Sinikukka Saari, a Russia expert and research director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Not on Finland’s decision to join NATO, and not to Europe’s status quo ante.

Before the war began last Feb. 24, the idea of a wealthy and complacent Europe, sapped by consumerism and bureaucracy, had gained traction as hard-line nationalists, often with financial and other links to Moscow, attacked the European Union.

But the Russian invasion has had a galvanizing and generally unifying effect. For Mr. Putin, the unintended and undesirable consequences of his war have multiplied.

Finland is a case in point. Its fears of Russia run deep. From 1809, for more than a century, it was part of the Russian Empire, albeit as an autonomous duchy. In World War II, it lost 12 percent of its territory to Moscow.

If compulsory military service was maintained throughout the postwar years, as most European countries abandoned conscript armies, it was not, as former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb said, “because we were afraid of Sweden.”

“Every family has war memories, and history tells us of the danger,” said Emilia Kullas, the director of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum. “Yet we were hesitant. We thought being neutral served Finland best.”

The Russian forest, seen in the distance through trees in Vaalimaa, Finland.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Even last January, a month before the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Sanna Marin, the Social Democratic prime minister, told Reuters it was “very unlikely” that Finland would apply to join NATO during her term. Opinion polls consistently showed that support for joining the alliance was no higher than 20 to 30 percent.

The curtain came down on all of that within days of the Feb. 24 attack. “Popular sentiment led the way,” said Janne Kuusela, the policy director at the Finnish Defense Ministry. “Usually, politicians change and people follow. This time, the people led.”

Finns saw their own Russia-plagued past in Ukraine’s suffering. They saw the impossibility of a workable relationship with the Putin regime. Old assumptions — that a strong defense ability, close cooperation with NATO and a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia could be combined — crumpled.

Support for NATO membership surged to over 70 percent. Finland was suddenly too small and too vulnerable to hold that long border.

Within three months, Finland, along with Sweden, had applied for NATO membership, a process expected to be completed by the next NATO summit, in July in Vilnius, Lithuania, although Turkish objections to Swedish membership persist over Sweden’s openness to Kurdish refugees.

Flanked by Magdalena Andersson, the Swedish prime minister, Ms. Marin said this month at the Munich Security Conference that Finland had asked itself, “What is the line that Russia will not cross?”

The answer was clear: “That is the NATO line.”

So much for Ms. Marin’s prior hesitations.

For Sweden, too, the choice had become evident, even for a country that has not fought a war for over 200 years.

“The Baltic Sea has become a NATO pond,” said Thomas Bagger, the German ambassador to Poland. “That is a big strategic shift.”

Front lines have been drawn. The space in Europe for the places in between has disappeared. “There is no more room for gray zones,” said Mr. Korteweg, the Dutch defense expert. “That is why Zelensky wants to be in the E.U., and, if possible, NATO, as quickly as possible.”

Leaders from Sweden, Finland and Germany last week at the Munich Security Conference.Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

This will not be easy. Ukraine was rapidly accorded formal candidate status to the European Union last year, but big problems, including endemic corruption and a weak judicial system, remain for a process that generally takes several years.

As for NATO membership, it seems inconceivable so long as Ukraine is at war with Russia.

“I don’t think any NATO country thinks that a country fighting a war in Russia can join NATO,” said Petri Hakkarainen, the chief diplomatic adviser to Mr. Niinisto, the Finnish president.

Here lies a European dilemma that seems likely to grow. “A frozen conflict suits Putin,” said Mr. Delattre, the French ambassador to Germany. “A partially occupied, dysfunctional Ukraine cannot advance toward Europe. So of the three possible outcomes to the war — a Ukrainian victory, a Russian victory and a stalemate — two favor Putin.”

Of course, an increasingly repressive Russia under severe sanctions and a leader who is a pariah throughout the Western world, with no path to economic reconstruction, will also suffer from a prolonged conflict. But the limits to the Russian capacity to absorb pain are not easily discerned.

“Russia is not willing to lose, and human life does not matter to Mr. Putin, so they can keep the war going for a long time,” Mr. Kuusela said. “Ukraine, in turn, will remain in the fight as long as the West supports it.”

He paused before concluding, “It will be a hard stalemate to break.”

The contrast between the post-World War II narratives of Poland and Germany, former enemies and still tense partners, is striking. Poland has never been less than acutely conscious of the Russian threat. Germany, racked by guilt, bought cheap Russian gas and waved away the threat of Mr. Putin.

Anti-German sentiment has swept Poland, which sees Berlin as too hesitant in its support of Ukraine, to the point that Germany’s supposed fickleness, at least in the eyes of the nationalist ruling party, is now a central theme of this year’s Polish parliamentary election.

European unity in the face of the war does not mean fissures have disappeared. Nowhere has the war in Ukraine been more challenging or transformative than in Germany.

In Poland — a nation held captive in the totalitarian Soviet imperium for decades before leading the struggle to break those chains and rejoin Europe — ideas of heroism and sacrifice endured. By contrast, a thoroughly post-heroic Germany, healing slowly from the Nazi horror, was unable to imagine the idea of a just war.

“Now in Germany, we have discovered a Ukraine fighting a just war, and a reinterpretation of the post-1945 lessons is underway,” said Mr. Bagger, the ambassador. “It involves changes of policy in defense, in energy, but, at the deepest level, a change in mentality.”

German soldiers at a military training area last month near Moeckern, Germany.Ronny Hartmann/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The most powerful country in Europe, Germany has had to reimagine itself overnight, abandoning a peace culture by arming itself and Ukraine in the name of a war for European freedom. It has had to eliminate its dependence on Russia for 55 percent of its gas. It has been forced to contemplate a partial decoupling from China, an enormous market for German cars, to reduce its strategic vulnerability.

To Mr. Bagger, it appears that “Germans had internalized the wrong lessons from 1989 and the fall of the wall.”

They had convinced themselves that West German “Ostpolitik” or, loosely, détente, toward Moscow, had been the key to winning the Cold War and achieving reunification. In fact, President Ronald Reagan’s determination to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in West Germany, beginning in 1983, was critical.

“The peaceniks of the Social Democratic Party did not win the day alone,” he said.

A central question for Europe is how effective the German transformation will be. Can Germany at last match its economic might with military heft, and how, in the end, will the rest of Europe feel about that?

Mr. Scholz, the Social Democratic chancellor, is a prudent politician, determined to avoid escalation of the war, acutely aware of lingering German anxiety over militarism. Like Mr. Macron, who this month warned of the dangers of “crushing” Russia, he leans toward the need for peace talks.

His hesitancy was evident in the long debate over providing Leopard tanks to Ukraine, finally approved last month. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party foreign minister, is more hawkish, inclined toward pursuit of a complete victory over Mr. Putin. “We are in a war against Russia,” she said last month. The tensions between her and Mr. Scholz have been evident.

They will persist. So, too, will tensions between a Germany intent on moving in lock step with the United States, as was clear in the tank debate, and President Emmanuel Macron’s France.

Mr. Macron sees Europe’s military dependency on Washington as further proof of the need for “strategic autonomy” — a phrase many nations closer to the Russian border, like Finland, reject in favor of “strategic responsibility” because they want no hint of decoupling from the United States.

A year into the war in Ukraine, Europe finds itself at the outset of a difficult journey toward that strategic responsibility. Credible deterrence won the Cold War, but credible deterrence eroded sharply in its aftermath as defense budgets were cut.

“Europe took a holiday from defense for 30 years,” said Mr. Kuusela, the Finnish defense official. Still there are many Europeans, in Italy and elsewhere, who believe sending arms to Ukraine is a mistake.

At a minimum, an alliance determined to deny Mr. Putin victory will have to be in a position to secure the Ukrainian sovereignty and independence that Russia is determined to quash.

“We will not have sustainable peace in Europe unless there is credible deterrence in Europe, said Ms. Saari, the Finnish Russia expert. “That is the bottom line.”

“Even if the war ends soon, there will be no going back,” said Sinikukka Saari, a Russia expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

For Finland and Sweden, that deterrence cannot be less than NATO membership. For Europe and the United States, the question in the coming years will be how to assure Ukraine of equivalent security and ironclad defense against Russia, short of NATO membership. That difficult debate is underway, but far from resolution.

“We have to come to terms with the fact the world has changed,” said Mr. Hakkarainen, the adviser to the Finnish president. “The change in us must be material and mental. We need to make it quickly and sustain it.”

Mr. Putin’s war has cast an ominous shadow across the Europe “whole and free” of which President George H.W. Bush spoke in 1989, with “borders open to people, commerce and ideas.”

The line of fracture is not as hard as the Berlin Wall once was, and it is farther east, but it is there.

There is no mistaking it at Vaalimaa, the crossing on the Finnish-Russian border about halfway between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Once notorious for its long lines, it is today a ghostly place. Its multilane approaches are empty, its vast nearby shopping emporiums deserted.

No longer a place of connection, it speaks of new European division.

With travel from Russia severely restricted by the Finnish government, only a few people trickled across the border this past week.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

With travel from Russia severely restricted by the Finnish government, a few people trickled across the border in the early-morning winter mist this month. I fell into conversation with Aleksandra Scherbakova, a Russian resident in the Netherlands, who had come from a visit to her 78-year-old father in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

“He is suffering from dementia, so I try to see him when I can,” she said. “All anyone wants is love and family.”

Her own family story is difficult, as is often the case when war cuts hard lines through emotional bonds. Her father grew up in Lviv, then part of the Soviet Union and now a major city in an independent Ukraine.

Ms. Scherbakova took out her phone to show me a video of her ailing father, in Siberia, singing the Ukrainian songs of his youth with her during her recent visit. At the same time, she has Ukrainian cousins in Lviv who are now refugees in Poland.

So this Russian woman who has long had a job selling cosmetics at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam finds herself tugged in various directions in a Europe adapting to a war in its midst.

Vaalimaa was once a bustling border town. Today, its shopping emporiums are deserted.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“I have no idea when the war will be over,” she said as she boarded a bus to Helsinki Airport. “All I know is that it is such a waste.”

Beside her stood two Russians, Keivan Shakeri and Ibrahim Rastegavi, Iranians who moved to Russia decades ago to study and stayed on. They had used their Iranian passports to get two-year visas enabling them to enter Finland. It is now easier for an Iranian than a Russian to enter the European Union.

“Life in Russia is boring, bad and difficult,” Mr. Rastegavi said. “You can start a war, but it’s not easy to finish.”

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