We live in a different world than just a week ago. The invasion of Ukraine has outed the Russian Federation on the international stage as a rogue actor that has no regard for international law and human rights. This is no surprise to Estonians, who will be quick to point out that they have said this for decades. Moreover, this has suddenly isolated Russia international. It also unified Europe in an unprecedented manner and led to a seismic shift of its security architecture.
Much has been written and reported on the Ukrainian armed forces’ glorious resistance against the Russian invaders. By all indications, this was a big surprise to Putin’s regime. Russian officials expected that Kyiv would be taken quickly and cheaply to avoid the worst Western sanctions and outrage and most domestic resistance that would (and do) view the war as highly unfavourable. However, this strategy failed on all levels, and the Russians find themselves in the worst possible situation in which they invest more in a failed strategy and pull the wrath of the whole world on themselves.
Still, we also need to be cautious with calls of failure as the war is just five days old, and much of the Russian military is yet to be activated.
The Western response, however, has come in a form that Putin could not have imagined in his worst nightmares. Previous acts of aggression in Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have led to barely any repercussions. However, this has changed, and we saw hundreds of thousands of people worldwide demonstrate against the war. This has ushered previous neutral states to side with Ukraine, sending weapons and joining in on sanctions on the regime.
Most surprising was perhaps the breach of Swedish neutrality by sending weapons and military equipment to Ukraine and Switzerland’s alignment with the EU’s sanctions against Russia. Without playing down the significance of these aspects, I believe the biggest change is happening in Germany, where Chancellor Scholz announced on Sunday in a special meeting of the parliament that Germany would heavily increase its military spending and commit 2% of its GDP to defence in the future.
This is tremendously noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Germany, a pacifist nation via its constitution, can become a real military actor, certainly in Europe, with this type of investment. This constitutes a paradigm shift in Germany’s identity and its potential role in world politics. That being said, I am surprised that there have been nearly no voices of concern about this, as it was Germany’s militarization played a big role in the triggering of two World Wars at the beginning of the last century.
Secondly, and quite connected with this, is Germany’s leadership position in the EU. One could argue that it was Germany’s economic might that has led the EU to become an economic powerhouse. With a new focus on security, the EU might also tilt its focus towards it. The first signs of this are already visible as the EU, for the first time in its history, bought weapon systems to send to Ukraine’s aid. This might be the starting point for a united European army, a call that has mostly been supported by France in the past.
It is worthwhile to also dwell on the response of Europe’s citizens. In Tallinn, we saw a crowd of 30 000 people demonstrate against the war in Ukraine – this marks the largest demonstration in Estonia since the Baltic Chain in 1989. But it is perhaps less surprising to see a demonstration stressing Ukraine’s sovereignty in the former Soviet bloc. Huge demonstrations are also registered in Western Europe, where, for example, just yesterday, 250 000 people hit the streets of Cologne in Germany to show solidarity with Ukraine.
This also contains the interesting development that Europe has now agreed that Ukraine is a part of their community – something that was, from the EU’s perspective, certainly debatable in the past. The EU leadership has already reached out to the Ukrainian president that membership is now on the table, however, I would expect that this is not seriously discussed while there is a hot conflict in Ukraine.
However, here I cannot gloss over also the negative face Europe has shown. It is undeniable that the war in Ukraine is more worrisome to Europeans due to its proximity than, for example, conflicts in the Middle East. However, some media reports that have attributed this sentiment to the fact that Ukraine is a “relatively civilized country”, unlike Afghanistan or Syria, call attention to the imperialistic ways of thinking that we still incorporate. This, together with the reports from the Polish border that saw many African students and resident of Ukraine stopped in the cold, remind Europe of its racist worldview that still requires action.
This new world also sees Russia isolated from its previous partners and allies. Turkey started by dubbing Russia’s invasion as a war with the inclination that the Bospuros would no longer be accessible for the Russian fleet. Even more impactful were the statements coming out of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Previously China stated that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every country needs to be respected, but yesterday they double-down by saying that they are not allies with Russia but simply see them as a strategic partner.
China’s support has likely dwindled in the light of the united worldwide response. This leaves Putin with very few friends in the international arena – a list that includes President Lukashenko and Belarus, President Assad and Syria and potential President Bolsanero of Brazil that stresses its neutrality in all of this.
Putin has exactly created what he came out to fight. The invasion of Ukraine should keep it out of the EU and the Western bloc and make sure that Europe does not get stronger. However, the opposite seems to be happening. Even if Ukraine will not join the EU and NATO, Putin faces a more united Europe than ever before. At the same time, Russia finds itself more isolated than before the invasion.
Finally, I want to look towards Estonia. After Russia took Crimea in 2014, we saw lots of debates about the security commitment of NATO in the Baltics. I remember listening to President Obama in Tallinn, who travelled here to confirm the promise of NATO’s protection to the Baltics. Still, Estonians wondered whether NATO and its members would go to war with Russia over the tiny Baltic countries. In this new world, with a united and aligned Europe that views security as the most important aspect, the answer to this question appears to be an unequivocal yes!