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How Europe (sort of) found a backbone

The decision to change was the easy part. The harder hurdle will be adopting a strategic mindset and avoiding old habits. 

BERLIN — The European Union’s normal course of action is to muddle through. But Russia’s war against Ukraine has snapped the 27-member body to attention. 

Many European countries had let down their guard after the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in an era free of conflict on the continent.

Europe has pulled together — in close coordination with the United States — to unleash sanctions against Russia and to aid Ukraine with lethal weapons. Usual divisions among different groupings, such as the frugal northern states or central European countries once behind the Iron Curtain, are muted for now. Domestically, countries are rapidly reorienting to respond to the crisis. Germany, for example, is embracing hard power after three decades of staying oblivious to threats, while Poland has opened its doors to refugees after previously blocking E.U. requests to accept more refugees

Many European countries had let down their guard after the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in an era free of conflict on the continent. But Europe was quick to act after the invasion of Ukraine. Not since World War II has its security been so endangered. Once Europe grasped that its peace and stability could once again be threatened by a nuclear-armed Russia, it moved swiftly to respond to the current challenge and embarked on a road toward transformation.      

But confronting attacks from authoritarian powers like Russia in a sustained way will require enduring resolve and better threat perception on the part of Europeans going forward. The E.U. is realizing that when it acts as a bloc, it wields power. To be effective for the long haul, though, European countries must invest in their militaries and cordon off sensitive industries such as energy and technology from Russia, as well as China. The decision to change was the easy part; the harder hurdle will be adopting a strategic mindset and avoiding old habits.

So far, indications on whether this joint effort is here to stay are mixed. Take Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunified Germany felt secure in a Europe becoming whole and free, and shrugged off the need to invest in defense, often citing its history as a reason to refrain from military engagement. In 1990, its military spending was more than 2 percent of gross domestic product, which is the amount NATO has since said all member countries should contribute annually by 2024. In recent years, the amount has been well under 1.5 percent, presenting German policymakers today with the grim reality of a military lacking in resources and readiness. 

Instead, Germany emphasized economic leadership. But Europe’s largest economy didn’t see the pitfalls associated with establishing commercial links to authoritarian actors. Germany thought its policy of Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) was a means of deterring conflict — an idea now embarrassingly debunked with Moscow’s wanton aggression. Ironically, Germany’s deals for the Nord Stream Russia-to-Germany gas pipelines, which raised red flags from allies, didn’t change Putin but made Germany more energy dependent on Russia. Today 55 percent of Germany’s natural gas imports come from Russia.  

On the eve of the invasion, Germany halted certification of the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 pipeline and reversed its decision to prohibit lethal aid to Ukraine. With tanks rolling into Ukraine and women and children forced to flee, relations with Putin’s Russia were no longer tenable. Then Germany went one step further. Just days into the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a ramping up of military spending, causing shock waves in Berlin and beyond. By tying his decision to militarize with protecting freedom and democracy, he thus far has had the backing of a majority of Germans, who favor more involvement in international crises.   

But will Germany, usually comfortable with the status quo, stick to a path of change? Fearful of damaging its own economy, Germany is still putting the brakes on an E.U. energy embargo, championed by the U.S., to weaken Russia. This ambivalence over whether to fully cut off Russian energy is also on display in Italy and other European countries that pay Russian energy suppliers close to one billion euros a day.  

And other countries beyond Germany have also been unwilling to meet their NATO defense spending commitments. Only a third of the 30 NATO members have reached the target of 2 percent of GDP.      

Yet fear of Russian hostility has changed this attitude, at last in the short term. The war has spurred a rush to honor pledges, with Denmark, Belgium, Romania and several other states lining up alongside Germany to increase defense spending. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden, long nonaligned militarily, are contemplating NATO membership. In the past they were wary of antagonizing their neighbor Russia, but they look at Ukraine’s plight and see NATO as an insurance policy. Some 62 percent of Finns now favor NATO membership, according to Finnish broadcaster Yle, which said it was the first time the idea has had majority support.  

Europe clearly wants to turn the page on past blind spots. Building up military capabilities and isolating Russia are on the agenda, but this could still be stalled by politicians' fears over how voters will react when they realize the costs. European leaders must prepare their citizens for volatility and instill a culture of resilience for the sake of regaining long-term stability.

Europe must continue filling military voids and stop being dependent on autocratic actors. The challenge doesn’t end with Putin’s Russia; Europe can fall into the same trap when it comes to China.

One of the E.U.’s top two trading partners is China. Yet Beijing has announced a partnership without limits with Russia and has joined in on pushing negative narratives about NATO. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is consensus that Washington and its European partners must coordinate to ensure China plays by the rules. 

Yet though Europe has long been aware of China’s unfair trade practices and increasing use of disinformation to weaken democracies, it has allowed Beijing to invest in ports all over Europe. It has also been poised to expand China’s presence in 5G infrastructure via Huawei. The Chinese telecom provider is viewed as a security threat, and recently governments across Europe have taken measures to curtail its presence in the market. European policymakers need to get a better reading on China before the door of vulnerability opens wider.

Russia has revitalized the transatlantic relationship and has opened Europe’s eyes to strategic threats. The hope is that this level of cooperation and self-awareness will remain to deter a future crisis for transatlantic partners.