Many observers are puzzled about what guides the countries of Europe amid the current European security crisis, the largest in 80 years. Many of the decisions being made by the EU national governments seem reckless and counterproductive, leading to the threshold of nuclear escalation. Europe has neglected its own economic interests and put an end to centuries of economic cooperation with Russia. It seems that the political strategy of the EU is dominated not by calculation, but by the slogans that guide the leaders of Britain, Poland and the Baltic countries. The voices of the more prudent countries in Western Europe are muffled. This trajectory would be rational if the calculation of the collective West to defeat Russia had some chance of success – but since it doesn’t, now many in the EU are perplexed over how to get out of the impasse.
The answer to this perplexity can be obtained by considering the situation that has developed in Europe since the end of the Cold War. At that time, the European elites took a kind of "vacation" from strategic thinking. At the moment, there is not a single expert community or political elite on the continent with the ability to think autonomously and strategically, based on the interests of their own countries. The exceptions are Hungary and Poland. This situation has developed as a result of the fact that in the early 1990s, the EU missed the chance to create a true state. At that time, as a result of a series of summits and agreements, including Maastricht, there was a possibility for the EU to create a confederation, which could have served as a starting point for the creation of a federal Europe.
Taken together, this would allow Europe to strengthen its subjectivity in international affairs, act as a single state body, and maintain its own common army, fiscal system, legal code and budgetary policy.
However, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and then the USSR, led to the emergence of a dozen new independent states in Eastern Europe, each of which demanded to be accepted into the West. Against this background, the EU adjusted its strategy, succumbing to the temptation to expand its influence over the entire European continent. In theory, there was a possibility that this strategy could be successful if the key security objective of creating an inclusive system that would include Russia was solved. However, this did not happen. The EU gradually began to include as members the countries of Eastern Europe, and given the difference in the economic systems of the two parts of the enlarged EU, attention was focused on political harmonisation. This changed the political landscape within the association, and instead of the Franco-German-Italian trio, a very significant Polish-Baltic lobby arose, which most of all cooperated on security issues with the UK and the USA. As a result, the EU was paralyzed by an internal discussion between different parts of the association, thereby losing its own subjectivity and strategic autonomy from Washington.
Polandʼs role in Central and Eastern European affairs has been strengthening. The country is a pillar of NATOʼs presence in the region and is among Washington’s closest allies. Its role has been further elevated in connection with the conflict in Ukraine, in which Warsaw has played an active part since the very beginning. Instead of escalating the war and deepening the divisions between Russia and Europe, the country could use its growth and potential to promote the development of European strategic autonomy, writes Valdai Club expert Ladislav Zemánek.
Looking deeper into history, an important reason for the "vacation" of the European elites from strategic thinking was the fact that after the defeat of Germany in World War II, an occupation regime was established in Western Europe, the guarantor of which was the United States. It was American military guarantees, including nuclear ones, that removed military contradictions between European states and made it possible to improve Franco-German relations. It was American military guarantees, and not economic initiatives in the form of a coal and steel community, that eliminated the combustible mixture of military contradictions in the heart of Europe. The final incident that knocked European states out of the world's top league was the Suez crisis of 1956, during which France and Great Britain attempted to force Egypt to abandon the nationalisation of the Suez Canal using military force. Paris and London were put in their place by the joint efforts of Moscow and Washington, which insisted that they, and not some third countries, would determine the overall dynamics of the Cold War, including in the Middle East. After this episode, no European power has ever encroached on the post-war and post-Cold War status quo to play a primary role in global politics. And it must be admitted that this situation has become comfortable for most European countries.
The end of the Cold War in Europe was greeted with a sigh of relief: the long-held dream that the European continent would never again be engulfed in war materialised. The European countries energetically and enthusiastically reduced their military programmes and pursued a path of demilitarisation. However, the diverse interests within the bloc gradually led to a clash between European countries. Growing tensions in US-Russia relations, the military activism of NATO countries, and the EU's rapprochement with NATO have made these organisations closely intertwined. Around 2003-2005, we passed a fork in which the countries of Western Europe, led by France, Germany and Italy, could build a prudent line in world affairs - they could suppress the anti-Russian activism of Poland and the Baltic states and force them to comply with the pan-European line on the formation of an international subjectivity of the EU. However, this chance was missed; there were no elites in the Western countries who would be sufficiently focused on this strategic goal, and in fact, they avoided participation in the foreign policy discussion with Poland on the issue of relations with Russia.
As a result, the conditionally “cautious” countries of Western Europe were in the minority, and the agenda began to be determined by the radicals - the Polish, Baltic, Scandinavian and British elites.
Although the UK is not a member of the EU, its foreign policy activism and support for frontier states have had a decisive impact on the security dynamics on the continent. These countries are the ones that have the motivation, arguments, energy and general attitude to place the containment and struggle against Russia at the centre of their foreign policy. In the controversy between Poland and Germany, German experts have less and less rational arguments, since they have lost their strategic thinking and find it difficult to say what exactly German interests are. The agenda of the EU has been intercepted by its most radical, active and vocal members.
In Europe, there is also a third group of countries - conditional "opportunists": Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. These countries believe that over time the severity of the international crisis will subside, and a situation will arise in which they can act as a gateway in relations between the EU and Russia. They strive to act in their own interests, but are strongly constrained by bloc discipline and cannot achieve much.
As a result, we see a situation on the continent in which a group of radically minded countries owns the foreign policy initiative, but not the material resources. The theses voiced by the leadership of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland are not supported by common sense and are based on the most radical scenario of the development of events.
At the same time, they proceed from the fact that they will never have to answer for their words: in the event of an aggravation of the conflict, they will inevitably come under the umbrella of the United States as a conditional "master".
Therefore, it is appropriate to use the metaphor of the "children's crusade", as its participants had a strong desire to liberate the Holy Land, but did not have any material resources of their own and ended up being victims of malicious intent. Dangerous, short-sighted, immature foreign policy initiatives are now at the centre of the EU agenda. I hope that there are more prudent and reasonable politicians in Europe, mainly in the countries of Western Europe. I admit that they are waiting in order to check how successful the radical line of the Eastern Europeans will be, in order to come up with reasonable and sober ideas and proposals when it turns out that Eastern European radicalism is wrong.
However, another scenario is more likely, in which the United States, seeing that Western Europe will no longer come to its senses after a lethargic sleep and "holidays" from strategic thinking, will bet on developing its presence in Eastern Europe, strengthening Polish plans to create the Intermarium project – to create an antagonist to Russia in the space between the Baltic and Black Seas. This will form a very special strategic situation in Europe, which still requires further reflection.
It is impossible not to see that the prolongation of the military crisis in Ukraine is fully in line with American military-political interests. Narratives created with the help of Western media that Russia is close to defeat, albeit far from reality, nonetheless form the impression the West needs, forcing many countries, even those that are neutral towards Russia, to take a wait-and-see attitude, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.