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As a new Iron Curtain descends, Europe is already irreversibly changed

Short of an overthrow of Putin, we will be very far indeed from the post-Cold War vision of “Europe whole and free”.

By Jeremy Cliffe

“There are decades in which nothing happens, and there are weeks in which decades happen.” Attributed to Lenin, the saying captures the speed of events since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. This conflict may have terrible months still to run. How it will conclude is unclear. But it is worth drawing back from the rush of news and attempting a panoramic view. From west to east, the contours of a new map of Europe are emerging.

In the west, this new Europe is one of improved relations between Britain and the EU. Signs of a post-Brexit thaw in the heat of events, such as Liz Truss attending the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on 4 March, may be early hints of a deeper change. When, last March, London published its Integrated Review of foreign, defence and security policy I criticised it for almost entirely overlooking European security: “Global Britain will be decided not in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea, but in the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.” This reality is now dawning on Westminster and Whitehall. Closer UK-EU defence coordination looms, while the Integrated Review looks unlikely to survive unrevised.

What Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, calls the present Zeitenwende (historical turning point) is transforming the EU. The bloc has moved with surprising speed and unity to impose tough sanctions on Russia. At a summit in Versailles on 10-11 March, leaders will discuss a 5,000-strong EU rapid deployment force, greater alignment of the weapons and technologies used by national armed forces, more common procurement and, most notably, a new fund backed by common debt to finance investments in defence, energy and food independence. All of which may open the door to EU taxes and from there greater political integration. Having long thrown resources at Eurosceptic parties throughout the union, Vladimir Putin appears to have given the idea of a more federal Europe its biggest boost in decades.

Germany is now emerging as a serious military player. In mere days, the mild-mannered Scholz has transformed the federal republic’s old foreign-policy sacred cows into a steaming pot of goulash. Out with the old complacency and caution, out with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the taboo on exporting weapons to war zones; in with a big hike in military spending and new ambition to match. Germany’s new €100bn defence fund is about twice the size of the country’s current annual defence budget. And Scholz’s commitment to raise that budget to more than 2 per cent of GDP would on present numbers take Germany from being the world’s seventh military power to its third, behind only the US and China.

[See also: In the face of Russian aggression, the West can and must rediscover its strength]

Moving eastwards over the redrawn map of the continent, we hit a much more militarised eastern border of Nato. The alliance is reinforcing its presence there with a doubling in size of its battlegroups in the Baltic states to more than 6,000 troops. New battlegroups are planned for Romania and possibly Slovakia, and the US ground-troop presence in Poland is due to double to 9,000. Heightened sensitivity marks potential flashpoints along that frontier: to the north, the missile-bristling Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the narrow “Suwalki gap” linking the Baltic states to the rest of the EU and Nato; and to the south tiny Moldova, where Russia-backed separatists threaten a pro-European government. Sweden and Finland are tilting away from their traditional non-alignment and towards closer Nato integration.

The most alarming uncertainty is where poor, bloodied, defiant Ukraine ends up on the new map. Does Russia eventually succeed in toppling the government? Does that result in the country’s partitioning –  a Nato-backed rump in its west and a Kremlin-puppet government ruling the rest? Or is a humiliated Russia forced into retreat, perhaps amid turmoil in Moscow? It is hard to imagine Ukraine’s courageous people giving up their ambition of integration with the West – not least given the roughly two million estimated to have fled to the EU, where many will doubtless stay and build new lives.

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East of Nato and Ukraine a new Iron Curtain has descended and sealed off Russia and Belarus. Western sanctions have caused direct flights between Russia and the EU to be grounded, Russia’s banking and payments systems to be largely cut off, thousands of Russians to flee and hundreds of big Western firms to pull out of the country. On 8 March Joe Biden banned Russian oil and gas imports. Whether or not others follow suit, Russia’s westward energy exports look set for a sharp long-term decline, with Europe now hurrying to wean itself off them. The Russian government has cut other channels of exchange: blocking Facebook and Twitter, crushing the last outposts of media dissent and forcing out foreign media such as CNN.

Is this the future of our continent? A more united and armed western part; a tense and highly militarised frontier; and beyond it an increasingly totalitarian and fragile Russia economically reliant on China? It is early days in this Zeitenwende. The new map is only starting to emerge. But what seems clear is that – short of an overthrow of Putin and a transition to a friendlier regime in Moscow – it will be one very far indeed from the vision of “Europe whole and free” celebrated when the last Iron Curtain fell.

[See also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror