A frayed EU flag flutters atop the Greek Ministry of Finance in central Athens, Greece. Photo: Reuters
A frayed EU flag flutters in the wind. Photo: Reuters

While the current war in Ukraine, in terms only of its location, is a European conflict, the regional balance of power leaves room for some questions.

Russia currently has a population of some 145 million inhabitants. This is the equivalent of the combined population of France and Germany and falls short of the overall population of all nine Western European countries, which amounts to some 197 million inhabitants. Thus, in demographic terms, Russia is no threat to Europe.

Seen from a military perspective, Russia has an active army of some 850,000 troops. Conversely, the combined armed forces of Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Poland amount to some 700,000 men and women. Thus, in terms of troop numbers alone, and with the need to station some of its forces in the Far East and in Central Asia, Russia simply does not have the manpower to conduct a general offensive against Europe.

By attacking Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ultimately has Washington in his sights. Europe is only the battleground; a Europe that has emerged as the least unprepared to face the outcome of a crisis that was 30 years in the making.

During the Cold War, for want of a better solution, Western Europe subcontracted its security to the United States. The end result was that when the Berlin Wall fell, Western Europe had neither an autonomous defense nor a long-term vision on how the challenges of the post Cold War environment should be addressed.

The fall of the Soviet Empire, like the collapse of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires, was a time-bomb that should have been addressed by the equivalent of a Congress of Vienna. However, such an undertaking would have required from the two main  continental European actors, France and Germany, a long-term vision and political will. Both were lacking.

The end result was that for some 30 years, the post-Soviet ecosystem was in essence managed from Washington by a succession of administrations from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, to George W Bush, to Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Joe Biden, of  which it can safely be said that planning for the long term was not their major attribute.

Thus what should have been a Europe/Russia dialogue with the United States in the background became in essence a Washington/Moscow exchange in which Europe had hardly any say. The end result was that the overall relationship between Russia and the West became focused on the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization rather than being the component of a negotiated geo-strategic vision geared to the long term.

That this enlargement, on the Russian side, would be perceived as a policy of encirclement by a political establishment that had not overcome the trauma caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and fuel a nationalistic reaction that led Putin to declare in 2021 “we have nowhere to retreat” was obviously underestimated. And yet the warnings on the Western side regarding the enlargement of NATO were there.

Thus Jack Matlock, a former American ambassador to the Soviet Union, qualified it as “a serious strategic error.” For Bill Burns, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, it was “a red line … a challenge to Russian interests.” Henry Kissinger commented that Ukraine should not become part of NATO, and Roderic Lyne, former UK ambassador to Moscow, stated that “if you want a war with Russia it is the good way to do it.”

So the warnings were there but there was no one to listen.

As of today the one winner of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the United States. The move has reinvigorated NATO, reinforced America’s leadership, galvanized the Europeans into adopting a semblance of a coordinated policy, and welded Ukraine’s national identity into one bloc as never before.

Conversely, while Putin’s gamble has failed, there is as yet no indication that he is ready to come to terms with what was clearly a major misjudgment.

Thus with Putin clearly in no position ever to control Ukraine fully, the prospect of a long-drawn-out conflict is real; a scenario that Washington might consider favorable, as it would contribute to further weakening Putin.

However, given the likelihood of the conflict escalating out of control, it is certainly not in the interest of the main European actors. Thus the fact that Putin has lost his gamble makes it even more imperative for the Europeans, and possibly for Washington, to provide him with a way out.

What should emerge from such a negotiated process is: Crimea as part of Russia, possibly some minor border adjustments in the Donbas, an independent, neutral Ukraine on the Austrian or Finnish model with guaranteed borders and, last but not least, a new European security architecture.

This security architecture should be focused on the next 100 years and not on the past 50. 

During the Cold War, the balance of forces was between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. With Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor, having regressed to the status of a regional power, the balance of relationships should slowly shift to take the form of an equilibrium between Europe on the one hand and Russia on the other, with the United States and China in the picture but not as main actors. 

Which leaves unanswered the question of by whom and from where such a process should be initiated.

While the past 30 years did not suffice to bring to power in Russia a generation that has outlived the trauma caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and that does not dream of re-creating a Russian empire for which the time has passed, a somewhat similar phenomenon in reverse is occurring in Eastern Europe.

Having been savaged both by Russia and subsequently the Soviet Union, the likes of the Baltic states and Poland have developed a visceral aversion to anything Russian not similar to that which prevailed in France regarding Germany in the years following World War II.

With these nations now part both of NATO and the European Union, this should pre-empt both organizations from being part of a mechanism that would seek to restructure for the long term the Europe/Russia relationship. This leaves only France and Germany, as the dominant European powers, to engineer such an endeavor jointly.

Whether they will have the vision, the courage and the political will to put Europe back into the driver’s seat of what is ultimately a European quandary is another matter.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.