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Russia’s War Has Created a Power Vacuum in Europe

Moscow’s war and Berlin’s morally bankrupt response to it leave Europe without a leader.

By , a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a session of the Bundestag in Berlin on March 23. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

At the beginning of 2022, the future of Europe looked to be in the hands of Berlin and Moscow. They were becoming Europe’s arbiters. But Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed the continent’s geopolitical map: The Germans and Russians are out, the British and Poles are rising, and the Americans are back—at least for now.

German economic might shaped the lives of eurozone countries, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Berlin’s decisions—on immigration, energy, fiscal policy, and diplomacy—were criticized, but few Europeans could afford to outright oppose the continent’s largest economy. At the same time, to Europe’s east, Russia had reinserted itself into European politics through a combination of military power, internal meddling, and energy supplies. Following a long-standing tradition of keeping good relations with Russia, German leaders were eager to do business with Moscow. Germany became Gazprom’s best customer, supplied the Russian economy and military with critical technology, and hoped Moscow would reciprocate with good behavior.

Europe’s great 20th-century pacifier, the United States, seemed less interested in the continent. The perception that Europe was the great geopolitical success of the post-Cold War era meant that Washington could focus its attention elsewhere. The United States’ wars since 9/11 further diverted its attention and resources away from Europe. Finally, the rise of China turned the Pacific region into its main priority: U.S. strategy flipped to a sequence of Asia first, Europe second.

At the beginning of 2022, the future of Europe looked to be in the hands of Berlin and Moscow. They were becoming Europe’s arbiters. But Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed the continent’s geopolitical map: The Germans and Russians are out, the British and Poles are rising, and the Americans are back—at least for now.

German economic might shaped the lives of eurozone countries, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Berlin’s decisions—on immigration, energy, fiscal policy, and diplomacy—were criticized, but few Europeans could afford to outright oppose the continent’s largest economy. At the same time, to Europe’s east, Russia had reinserted itself into European politics through a combination of military power, internal meddling, and energy supplies. Following a long-standing tradition of keeping good relations with Russia, German leaders were eager to do business with Moscow. Germany became Gazprom’s best customer, supplied the Russian economy and military with critical technology, and hoped Moscow would reciprocate with good behavior.

Europe’s great 20th-century pacifier, the United States, seemed less interested in the continent. The perception that Europe was the great geopolitical success of the post-Cold War era meant that Washington could focus its attention elsewhere. The United States’ wars since 9/11 further diverted its attention and resources away from Europe. Finally, the rise of China turned the Pacific region into its main priority: U.S. strategy flipped to a sequence of Asia first, Europe second.

Now, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Germany’s very timid response to it are reshaping the European chessboard. The two aspirants to be the arbiters of Europe’s fate in the 21st century, Russia and Germany, are on the wane—the former repelled by the Ukrainians and the latter opposed and shamed by most other Europeans. Britain and Poland, together with a few other Central European countries and the Baltic states, are filling the void by leading the West’s approach to Russia’s invasion. And the United States, albeit reluctantly, is putting more troops on Europe’s eastern frontier and slowly upping its arms shipments to Ukraine.

Russia is the most immediate loser. Prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia was on a gradual path to restore its level of influence over Europe not experienced since the end of the Cold War. Moscow was openly meddling in the domestic politics of several European countries by financing populist political parties, spreading disinformation via social media and Kremlin-run news providers, and bankrolling a host of former European leaders. Russia became the indispensable energy supplier to many European countries, fueling German economic wealth with cheap gas. And through brute force, Russia reappeared in the Mediterranean region, controlling the spigots of mass migration in Syria and North Africa.

Germany’s unwillingness to arm Ukrainians is finally recognized as a sign of moral weakness in the face of Russian brutality rather than a policy of wise abstention.

By defending their country, Ukrainians arrested Russia’s westward drive to be a great power in Europe. Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine militarily and restore its own imperial status in Europe has so far failed. Moreover, Russia’s war crimes have made it difficult for even its friendliest European supporters to argue for Russia’s place in Europe. Only long-discredited figures—such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, made wealthy by Russian money—can continue to publicly advocate for the restoration of good relations with Moscow.

The war has left Russia isolated in Europe. But Germany is not far behind, displaced by countries that could not compete with it economically but are now leading the European response to Russia.

First, Germany is short on moral authority. Unwillingness to arm Ukrainians is finally recognized as a sign of moral weakness in the face of Russian brutality rather than a policy of wise abstention leading to stability. Although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promised a substantial increase in defense spending, Germany hesitates to provide heavy weapons to Kyiv. Fear of a Russian retaliation may be one reason, but it won’t be lost on the rest of the world that tiny Estonia—which has been repeatedly identified in Moscow as another candidate for a Russian takeover—is willing to risk much more than Germany. Most likely, powerful domestic forces in Germany continue to favor appeasing Russia and buying cheap gas.

Second, because of its recent policies, Berlin has disqualified itself as a trustworthy arbiter of European politics. In particular, over the last few decades, Germany has pursued a pro-Russian policy, seeking to partner with Moscow and disregarding the interests of the Baltics and Central European countries. The current war has revealed the bankruptcy of this German approach in a violent and tragic way. Moreover, Berlin’s relentlessly unilateral decisions—whether on Russian gas or immigration—did not make many friends in Europe. Berlin has a long way to go to rebuild some semblance of diplomatic authority in Europe.

France is also on a back foot. French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to convince Putin to change his intentions by talking failed. In retrospect, they seemed at best naive and at worse self-serving, interested in promoting a French role as the go-between with Moscow to the detriment of Ukraine. France has also alienated itself from other European powers, not least from Italy: Since France’s disastrous 2011 intervention in Libya, the two countries continue to support opposing factions there. Finally, the enduring French desire to become the primary security player in Europe and diminish the United States’ role on the continent—couched in the diplomatic euphemism of “European sovereignty”—has again hit the hard reality that without the United States, the European Union is at the mercy of intra-European squabbles and external powers, such as Russia.

Russia’s offensive against Ukraine also creates an opportunity for the United Kingdom and Poland to show leadership. Until the war, these two countries had been relegated to a European purgatory for the alleged sins of Brexit as well as Poland’s conservative domestic politics, placing them, as then-U.S. President Barack Obama put it in reference to Britain in 2016, “in the back of the queue.” Progressive Europeans and Americans considered both countries to be on the wrong side of history, with Britain opposed to further political and economic integration with the rest of Europe and Poland implementing conservative social policies and resistant to a uniform model of liberal democracy.

Britain was one of the first countries to ship large quantities of anti-armor weapons to Ukraine in late January. Poland is also supplying weapons, including tanks, while serving as a logistics hub for Western supplies and hosting several million Ukrainian refugees. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson separately traveled to Kyiv in a show of support. (German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close associate of Schröder and long one of Russia’s most powerful supporters in Berlin, was understandably disinvited by Kyiv.)

Finally, the United States is back—at least for now. It has returned around 20,000 troops to Europe, mostly to NATO’s eastern front-line countries: Romania, Poland, and the Baltic states. U.S. weapons continue to trickle into Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden has traveled to Poland and, tellingly, did not criticize the conservative policies of the Warsaw government. At least for now, a Democratic administration has decided that lashing out at an ally for policies not aligned with progressive liberals is counterproductive and does not advance regional security.

There is, however, lingering doubt on whether the United States will reassert itself as the key arbiter of Europe. The Biden administration was hoping to reprise the approach taken by Obama, which was to subcontract regional balances to a partner while resetting relations with its rivals. In Europe, that meant bestowing on Germany the mantle of regional leader while resetting relations with Russia. Such an approach is now problematic, if not impossible. Germany has no continent-wide authority to lead Europe after decades of failed policies and a morally bankrupt position on Russia’s war. And there is no way of resetting relations with Russia short of abandoning both Ukraine and NATO’s eastern allies.

In the end, the contest for Europe’s arbiter—a power or a group of powers that decide the continent’s political dynamics—is wide open. The hero of the day is, of course, Ukraine’s valorous people. But the Ukrainians’ role on a larger geopolitical level has been to shed utter clarity on the fact that the leading aspirants of the past, Russia and Germany, are particularly unsuited for that role. The United States remains an indispensable power but needs to act through European counterparts. It remains to be seen whether Biden is willing to place his bets on Britain, Poland, and other NATO allies that are now defending European security against Russia but are not at the leading edge of the political projects favored by Biden’s own party—and to what extent other European countries will follow the United States’ lead.

Jakub Grygiel is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America; a senior advisor at the Marathon Initiative; a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; and a former senior advisor in the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff during the Trump administration. Twitter: @j_grygiel

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