Ukraine conflict and the changing European landscape

War in Ukraine has started tectonic shifts in contemporary European politics

Inam Ul Haque February 02, 2023
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @20_Inam

In the Eurasian landmass, Europe is the westernmost portion. It is divided into Central, Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern, Southeastern, or less commonly East Central Europe along geographical, historic, economic and cultural fault lines. European land borders kept changing overtime, for instance Malta once an island of North Africa is now part of Southern Europe. Caucasus and Balkans are other areas, entirely or partly in Europe. Greenland, geographically part of North America, is politically and culturally integrated with Northern Europe. So are other countries like Armenia, Cyprus, and some overseas territories part of Greater Europe.

Historically, Europe’s current 57 countries have been in Roman, non-Roman, Greek and Latin Europe. Parts of it were under Eastern (Byzantine) and Western Roman Empires. Europe has been monotheistic Christian, polytheistic pagan during the Middle Ages, and partially Muslim. It had been divided among Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox churches. And it remained partly Communist (Eastern Bloc) and Capitalist (Western Bloc) on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Europe has endured many undercurrents shaping and re-shaping its political orientation. Some of these include Renaissance Humanism; the Age of Discovery and Colonization; Enlightenment; the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars; The Industrial Revolution; the World Wars and later the Cold War. Revolutions of 1989 resulted into the fall of Berlin Wall and Soviet dissolution.

Whereas the great wars weakened Europe politically, militarily and economically catapulting it under the US influence and protection; the present conflict in Ukraine is creating newer power alignments. The Cold War military division between NATO and Warsaw Pact has resurfaced with a difference; that Warsaw Pact has now only one European member…Russia, the largest country in Europe. EU’s economic and political integration sequel to the Treaty of Maastricht (1993), the WTO’s rule-based trade and commerce and the notion of democracy per se are under stress. The Council of Europe, created in 1949 to unify Europe, prevent wars and achieve common goals has almost failed.

War in Ukraine has started tectonic shifts in contemporary European politics. First, it is shifting the European center of gravity. The eastward expansion of 27-member EU, a Western European initiative and NATO, is the fundamental reason for war. Russia feels threatened by nibbling of its erstwhile Soviet sphere of influence in Europe by the EU and NATO combine. The EU is set to embrace Western Balkans and beyond, with Ukraine, Moldova, Sweden and Finland likely contenders. Ukraine by default is already part of the EU and NATO.

NATO or ‘North Atlantic Alliance’ mounts a formidable military challenge to Russia. Its 12 founding members are now 30 (28 in Europe and two in North America). An upbeat German chancellor Olaf Scholz declared in August last year in Prague: “The center of Europe is moving eastward.”

Second, the “Old Europe trails New Europe”. Some analysts argue, Poland and the smaller Baltic nations seem to be driving the moralistic argument in support of Ukraine, as “Old Europe”, represented by France and Germany, remained less steadfast, at least initially. Some observers see a ‘psychological shift in Europe’, where Central Europeans and Poles are seemingly ascendant than French and Germans, who are mainly on defensive. And politically and culturally, Central and Eastern European nations have “pulled Europe to the right”. And the rising neo-conservatism divides Europe rather than uniting it.

Pressure from vocal Eastern and Central European states was pivotal to supply Ukraine with Western tanks, especially the coveted German Leopard 2. And on 25 January, Mr. Scholz finally agreed to supply some of its Leopard 2 tanks, and allow other countries like Poland to send theirs. He was shadowing President Biden, who had announced to provide American Abrams tanks earlier.

Third, the war in Ukraine is accelerating the shift in the European balance of power away from Old Europe. Old Europe fosters and values political and economic ties to Moscow, whereas the smaller states in Eastern and Northern “New Europe” see a chance to even-out with Russia for it’s past hegemony. They are willing to cede their sovereignty to the EU. And these states are now taken more seriously in the councils of Europe. Poland and Hungary are now better treated by Brussels, that now side-steps issues with their rule of law.

Germany and France’s traditional policy of European security seems a failure. President Macron’s earlier suggestion to provide security guarantees to Russia to dilute the effects of NATO’s eastward expansion, had raised eyebrows. His aspiration for an “autonomous” European defence now seems dead. Under the newer realities, France is less influential in a re-juvenated NATO, with an aggressive role. And the US is more involved in European affairs, to the liking of New Europe.

However, for some, the rhetorical influence shaping public opinion is not enough for creating structural changes. Europe still operates at multiple levels, not just war in Ukraine. And that the balance of power hasn’t changed much, as Old Europe still remains central to Continental affairs, given its national power potential within the inter-nation mix.

Fourth, Europe is re-arming. War has pushed security to the forefront and “New Europe” especially clamours for hard power. Poland is almost doubling the size of its military, and has been on a shopping spree, making it an important player and a lucrative client. Germany is trying to rebuild its own smaller military, even if it is for enhancing trans-Atlantic relationship. Ukraine is awash with arms and equipment from across Europe and the US. For the hard military power, Europe is firmly pegged to the US once more in modern history, after the end of Cold War 1.0.

Fifth, Europe is economically re-balancing. An unprepared Germany and most other European nations, battered by a sudden cutoff of cheap Russian energy and other trade, are re-orienting their economies, shifting away from Russia and similar dependence on China. Germany’s export-driven economy was particularly vulnerable as it was reliant for around 50% of its energy needs on Russian gas, besides unconstrained trade with China.

Some analysts suggest, Eastern Europe, especially a war-ravaged Ukraine, presents a great potential for intra-European development. Wars generally spur consequent economic development.

Sixth, the rise of Poland. Serving as a geo-strategic pivot, Poland has remained instrumental to the entire war effort by accepting major share of refugees, and continuing with being a frontline state, supplying and delivering arms to Ukraine. It is to be seen how Polish leaders cash and benefit from this new-found relevance.

Lastly, Ukraine will decide which way the tectonic shift settles.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2023.

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