Europe After Ukraine

How the war in Ukraine ends will shape the geopolitical future of Europe

9th March 2023
David Martin Jones

The structure of European politics, and the new balance of powers within it, will be profoundly affected by the way the war in Ukraine ends, argues David Martin Jones.

Since 2022, there has been a heightened strategic and diplomatic interest in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This is hardly surprising since the war in Ukraine borders seven of them – namely: Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and of course Russia. But there are other reasons too. President Biden’s visit to Kyiv, his speech in Warsaw, and his meeting with the ‘Bucharest Nine’ to discuss strengthening NATO’s Eastern flank, have all aroused curiosity about a shift of policy on the war.

One reason for this speculation is the contrast in tone between Biden’s Warsaw speech in February and President Putin’s somber address on the progress of his special military operation the day before. Putin was uncompromising, but downbeat: the war had not gone as expected but Russia would press on until it gained its objectives in Ukraine. Biden, on the other hand, was positively euphoric about the anticipated victory of freedom over autocracy.

The contrasting rhetoric conceals a series of clashing national and regional impulses on financial, economic, and energy sanctions on Russia and on how to end the war. In particular, how quickly and by what strategy. Those differences have been held in check by the diplomatic desire of almost all the NATO allies and EU partners to maintain a united front and by giving opt-outs from sanctions to countries like Slovakia and Hungary whose economies would be massively damaged by them. But the longer the war lasts, and the heavier the economic costs become, the more European governments will be tempted to breach Western unity to prevent the conflict stabilizing into a frozen forever war.

Broadly speaking, Europe is divided into two camps on the question of how to end the war. One camp believes that there should be an early cease-fire followed by negotiations on a final ‘peace settlement’ that might not actually be agreed for several years. The most vocal advocate of this view is Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. But it would be delusory to think that Hungary is either alone or most influential in promulgating this view. As Germany’s actions indicate and as the occasional hints of a new diplomatic initiative from the Quai d’Orsay suggest, ‘core Europe’ (Germany, France and the Benelux) is also uncomfortable with a policy of living with a long war. The EU does not want Russia to win, but they have no appetite for wanting it to lose completely either. Europe pre-February the 24th 2022 suited the European status quo very well.

The alternative view envisages a defeat for Russia so unmistakable that it would both render any future Russian irridentism impossible and persuade Russia’s political establishment to relinquish any neo-imperial ambitions in central Europe. Not surprisingly, this policy has the support of Russia’s near-neighbours such as Poland and the Baltic States which have frequently been invaded and occupied by both Czars and Commissars as well as by Prussians. It is supported, moreover, by the US and the UK (what the French persist in terming ‘Les Anglo-Saxons’) which have provided Ukraine with the training, the arms, and the bulk of diplomatic and political support that have made Zelensky’s struggle practical and potentially successful.

It is important to realize that neither of these two perspectives on the war will change substantially. And this long-term reality is dawning on both sides.

Biden’s trip to meet the Bucharest Nine is, therefore, potentially portentious. The Bucharest Nine consists of the following countries on NATO’s Eastern flank: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. Finland and Sweden would be in this group if allowed to join NATO, as seems likely. Four of its members are in the group of countries bordering Ukraine. In effect the Bucharest Nine brings together countries in northern and eastern Europe which between them have an unavoidable connection to Ukraine and a strong collective suspicion of Russian power, as well as a historic memory of German Eastward expansionism across mittel Europ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If you were a US president anxious to preserve an anti-Russian European coalition in the face of the doubts and hesitations of core Europe why wouldn’t you be interested in an expanding Bucharest Nine?

Others, in Central Europe and beyond have expressed similar ideas. They revive, in new forms, federal models that date back to the nineteenth century (Kossuth’s Danube Confederation (1848), Popovici’s United States of Greater Austria (1906) and Josef Pilsduski’s Intermarium proposed after 1918, spring to mind). In this context, the Visegrad Group, consisting of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, formed in 1991. The Three Seas Initiative, comprising Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, took shape in 2016. It gave Ukraine the status of a partner-participant in 2022. The Lublin Triangle of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine formed in 2020. In Scandinavia, the Nordic Council represents a similar regional organization. In a similar vein, the cooperation between the UK, Scandinavia, and much of Eastern Europe reflects trends in cooperation between these countries that have existed for decades.

In November 2021 the UK’s Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, signed a defense cooperation agreement with Poland and Ukraine (complete with plans and business contracts for force modernization.) By then, the UK had already been the lead nation in the Joint Expeditionary Force formed in 2015. It now includes nine other northern European nations – Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden – and it has been a ‘dynamic’ element in the West’s military support for the Baltic states as well as Ukraine. According to a report in Corriere della Sera in May 2022, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson privately floated the idea of a ‘European Commonwealth’ that would unite countries in Scandinavia, the Baltics and Eastern Europe that wanted to maintain a stronger position than ‘Core Europe’ on Ukraine. It would, alleged Corriere, offer a potential alternative to the European Union.

Somewhat differently, President Macron is himself floating ideas of a new, looser, European structure (though one built around the Franco-German core leadership). The Russian invasion of Ukraine has unsettled European politics in general, opening a space for new ideas; and it is far from impossible that under the stress of war, new alliances could take solid, larger, and practical forms that divide Northern and Central Europe from core Europe.

The US already provides most of the money and material for the defence of Ukraine. The US also has a track record of supporting regional agreements in central Europe. In 2018, President Trump backed Poland’s Three Seas Initiative on infrastructure, energy, and the economy – all now given greater salience by Russia’s actions in the war. In the light of these earlier commitments, Biden’s convening the Bucharest Nine seems to suggest that Washington could take a more direct role in shaping whatever grouping of Central and Eastern Europe would be helpful in dealing with the next stage of the Ukraine crisis, if necessary without Germany and France. What might that entail?

We have a reasonable idea of what Russia hoped to secure from a victory in Ukraine – namely, the restoration of a security alliance comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan – because Ria Novosztyi, the Russian information agency, prematurely leaked this war aim in the first days of the invasion. A limited version of this might still be achieved if Russia reverses Kyiv’s recent advances, but how much would survive?

Examining the balance of forces (including economic strength and population) between this Russian alliance and different potential European coalitions in the event of Ukrainian success are thought-provoking. Thus, Russian victory achieving a version of Ria Novosztyi’s vision would see,

The combined population of such a conglomeration would be roughly 220 million people. By contrast, the combined population of the member states of the Three Seas Initiative, the broadest regional bloc proposed in Central and Eastern Europe, is, without Ukraine, only 110 million- half the population of a potential greater Russian grouping.

By contrast in the event of Ukrainian success:

Russia would be reduced to the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The two countries have a combined population of 154 million. On the side of the Three Seas Initiative, if we add Ukraine to it as well, its population also amounts to about 154 million people. With a two-to-one population ratio in the case of a Russian victory, as opposed to a one-to-one ratio in the case of a Ukrainian victory, the geopolitical picture is pretty clear.

And that geopolitical picture? It’s hard to imagine Ukraine as a useful future security partner to Moscow and still harder to imagine Russia without Ukraine as a major Eurasian power. As Zbigniew Brzezinski famously wrote, after the Cold War, ‘without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire’. (1)

Central Europeans, the US and the UK can see the strategic utility of putting together a reliably friendly coalition to prepare for whatever advantages or setbacks the military facts on the ground in Ukraine subsequently reveal. It is also evident that core Europe and even Hungary have doubts about a Central European confederation. Whatever else, the war in Ukraine, following hard upon the end of the COVID lockdown, announced a new era in European politics. Structures that had emerged during the Cold and post-Cold War eras now seem increasingly otiose. Instead, a new Struggle for Mastery in Europe might return.

In the context of European war and its aftermath new forms of cooperation and conflict are inevitable. As the Governor of the Central Bank of Hungary, Gyorgy Matolcsy writes, ‘the 2020s seem to be the initial decades of a new institutional/political cycle- just like the 1940s were eighty years ago’. (2) The new dispensation is one marked by European land war, inflation, anxiety and deglobalisation. This stands in marked dialectical contrast to the era that preceded it. The new cycle will see new and perhaps old forms emerging or reconstituting themselves, especially in Central Europe. The structure of European politics and the new balance of powers within it will be profoundly affected by the way the war in Ukraine ends.

(1) Brzezinski, Z. The Grand Chessboard (New York, Basic Books, 1997) vol 1., p.251

(2) Matolcsy, G. The Edge of Times The Rerun of the 1940s and 1970s (Budapest, Copy and Consulting Kft, 2022) p.46

David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in War Studies at King’s College, London. His latest book is The Strategy of Maoism in the West, co-authored with M.L.R. Smith and published by Edward Elgar.

Picture: Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the heads of governments of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia in Kyiv. Made available by its copyright holder under the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0.