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  1. The Weekend Essay
29 June 2024

How Ukraine shattered Europe’s balance of power

The European Union was impotent in the face of crisis, while Britain remained agile.

By Maurice Glasman

Editor’s note: this is an abridged version of a lecture delivered in Vienna on 24th June 2024.

Lenin once observed that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation on February the 24th 2022 was one of those moments. Within days France and Germany lost their ascendancy, Poland and Britain came to the fore, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries gravitated towards the new coalition, leaving Germany isolated within northern Europe, with southern Europe reduced to the status of sullen onlookers. 

The Russian invasion was the trigger that finally shattered a thirty five year consensus in Europe. It happened, as Hemingway describes in The Sun Also Rises, like bankruptcy: gradually and then suddenly. This crisis has been building for years, but we are now moving fast.

There are two supranational political institutions in Europe. One is the European Union, with its shared leadership between France and Germany. France takes the predominant military and diplomatic role and Germany the economic one. The other is the Russian Federation, which includes Kaliningrad and, since 2014, Crimea. Georgia, Armenia and Belarus remain closely aligned, politically, economically and militarily. There is no disputing the primacy of Moscow within this alliance. The religion is Orthodox and the language is Russian.

The comparative agility of the Russian Federation, compared to the stasis that has beset the European Union, has been a decisive factor in this rebalancing of power across the continent. My favourite political philosopher, Muhammad Ali, once said that you never get knocked out by a punch you see coming. And despite being telegraphed for months, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had that effect on both Germany and France – and two years later they are still wobbling, stumbling around the ring while the blows rain on their heads. Still not knowing whether to throw in the towel or come out swinging. 

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This was always going to happen. Germany has long been vulnerable, due to vain and cowardly tendencies that do not point to good political judgement. That the only serious industrial economy in Europe decided that it would eliminate entirely its national fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources is evidence enough of this. They did it for environmental reasons, supposedly. And they claimed that renewable energy would fill the gap. In reality, Germany became entirely dependent on Russian gas, oil and coal. Think about it as Schroeder, Merkel, Nord Stream. For some reason no one really talked about it.  

It was left to Donald Trump to point out the contradictions and dangers in that position. When he did, everybody laughed and pointed to it as proof of what an idiot he was. And all those people are still in power. Mr Putin once publicly set his German Shephard on a terrified Angela Merkel at one of their “summits” and this did not disturb the flow. Berlin and Moscow held the fate of central Europe in their hands at this point in time. The poodle and the Alsatian. 

Metternich once said that “the obvious is often the least understood”; the balance of power in Europe is dependent on access to natural resources. The magnitude of German contradictions and confusion is leading to it being unable to lead itself, let alone build a coalition around the protection of its fundamental interests (not least because it no longer knows what they are). Dependent on Russia in its economy and dominated by the United States militarily, Germany is now experiencing its biggest crisis since 1945.  

This is what made the status of Ukraine so explosive. As the only serious industrial economy within the EU, built upon cheap energy imports from Russia, the Ukraine War is hostile to German interests. And it is unable to act, immobilised by conflicting domestic and international pressures. All manner of morbid symptoms pertain. 

The European Union and the Soviet Union have a great deal in common, in heritage and practice. Despite the EU’s remorseless grind of unaccountable power (not to mention the infernal stasis of unresolved conflict enshrined by eternal treaties), somehow it was widely assumed within academic and elite political discourse that Brexit would lead to the marginalisation of Britain within Europe, and to the consolidation of the Franco-German axis within the EU. The opposite has been the case.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Britain took an unambiguous position of military and political support for the beleaguered Ukrainian state. While the US was offering Zelensky asylum, Britain immediately transferred weapons and led the Western European political response with an unprecedented array of economic sanctions and military support. Brexit strengthened its freedom of action at a time of war.

It revealed a new coalition between east and west, and isolated Germany in northern Europe. The Baltic states immediately gravitated towards the Anglo-Polish position, as did the Scandinavian countries. Sweden and Finland abandoned 70 years of neutrality when they joined Nato. Meanwhile, in the first nine months of the war, President Macron engaged in telephone conversations Mr Putin while Germany was reluctant to provide anything more than helmets.

Machiavelli wrote that political leadership is the ability to “act in time”. Britain and Poland both did this, France and Germany, and therefore the EU, could not. Their interests and analysis impeded their ability to understand and act. This opened the space within Nato for the US to take a more active role and for northern European states to join the strengthened military alliance. Nato founder members such as Italy became irrelevant; France and Germany lost trust and confidence.   

The post-war settlement is only now truly dissolving, its legacy institutions incapable of political action. Mr Putin meanwhile understands The Act; he invaded Ukraine with overwhelming force, he crossed the Rubicon. Metternich also said that “stability does not mean inaction”. The reality is that the European Union is an unholy combination of instability and inaction. Many meetings, charity events, a process, an extended consultation, there was even a “summit” recently. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine emerged as a military actor in its own right. It was widely assumed that Russia would crush it in a matter of days – but it did not. This opened the space for the British initiative and particularly its alliance with Poland. Northern and Eastern Europe are acutely alert to the violence of Russia’s intent. Ancestral memories were stirred by the horrific scenes in Ukraine, at Bucha, Mariupol and Bakhmut, and the response was immediate: conscription and intensified military alliances. There was no internal dissent. 

The EU is not shaping the direction of this war in a significant way: it has not doubled its weapons production since the beginning of the war as Russia has. It has barely increased its own production at all, preferring to go shopping, with the US its preferred destination. Who needs metaphors? Ukrainians are producing more effective drones in their basements with 3D printers and a sack of explosives than the EU. And at a tenth of the cost. Techno and deep ambient is the soundtrack. They’re up all night. 

What does the EU mean when it repeatedly says that it supports Ukraine in the restoration of its 1991 borders? The Russians have already effectively rebuilt and repopulated Mariupol with “Russians” having expelled Ukrainians. It controls the Azov Sea. Kharkiv is only holding on due to the basement drones. The dynamics and direction of this war are obvious and ominous. As Stalin said, “scale has its own force”. The Tartars have been expelled once more from Crimea. The old is the new. If you want the restoration of the 1991 borders then you have to go to war. Russia is not going to submit to the authority of international law. It never ever has. There is no restraining order. 

The New Balance of Power in Europe is going to look a lot more like 1848 than 1948. In place of the Austrian Empire, however, will be the alliance of the UK and Ukraine, bound in a hundred year Covenant to secure the peace of Europe.   

Ukraine has treasure above and below the ground. Above ground it has a skilled workforce and brave soldiers. Below it has the largest deposits of titanium, lithium, uranium and graphite in Europe. This needs to be brought to bear as the fulcrum of the partnership with the United Kingdom in terms of military and industrial production. The two countries at its furthest east and west, that lie outside the EU retirement home, will liberate Europe from its sclerotic slumber.

Metternich said that “any plan conceived in moderation will fail when the circumstances are extreme”. I consider the present circumstances to be extreme. I do not believe that the EU, and most particularly Germany have any realistic plan that matches the extremity of the circumstance and enjoy neither stability nor mobility. Just a resentful drift towards slow motion defeat. 

When the new Concert of Europe is eventually convened, Ukraine and the UK will certainly be present at the top table as the new balance of power in Europe is enforced. Maybe it should be held in Vienna once more, they don’t see to have anything else to do. 

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