A year of war on the European continent has altered its geopolitical landscape, driven leaders to rethink military power and economic independence, and has led to the dismantling of central Europe’s Visegrád Group alliance.
That’s according to Bulgarian political scientist, Ivan Krastev, who gave Euronews his thoughts on the consequences of Vladimir Putin’s aggression for Europe on the latest episode of the Global Conversation.
Economic interdependence and military power
“The most important way the war changed Europe is that [it] basically forced Europe to see the world with different eyes,” Krastev began.
“In a certain way, Europe was seeing its old continent as a post-war [continent]. The idea that a major war is not possible in Europe anymore was at the basis of the way Europe is seeing itself in the world. And this is not true anymore.
“When the war started, Europeans were pushed to revisit some of their major policies. One was that economic interdependence automatically means no war, that if you trade a lot with somebody, you are never going to fight it. It turned out not to be true anymore.
“Secondly, Europeans, we had managed to convince ourselves that military power doesn’t matter. And then we discovered that it doesn’t matter when you don’t have it. But otherwise, basically, it matters. And this changed everything from military budgets [to] the way the economy works so that you see in a period of one year, we basically have…totally different military budgets. We are not getting Russian gas and oil anymore. It’s such a radical change.”
A war of ‘identity’
With Russia having illegally declared the annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions in September, and the mass naturalisation of residents in Russian-occupied areas, Euronews asked Ivan Krastev if he considered the conflict to be more complex than just an effort to conquer territory.
“It is an identity war. And this is an identity war because it was declared like this. Don’t forget, that [at] the end of the day, the war started with the essay that President Putin penned himself in the summer of 2021 when he said that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people.
“He invaded Ukraine with the idea that the Russians and the Ukrainians are the same people. And Ukrainians are resisting to tell him that the Ukrainians and the Russians are not the same people.”
Ukraine looking West
Moscow has, on several occasions, cited NATO expansion eastward and Kyiv’s ambitions to join the alliance as a security threat as the justification behind the invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia could have a legitimate argument when it comes that it also has its security interests. It can argue basically where [there] should be military bases or not,” Krastev admitted. “But the problem [lies in] what Russia was insisting and was saying: Ukraine does not have the right to be part of the West. The problem is who is giving Russia the right to tell the Ukrainians how they should basically define their own political identity?
“Russia is a powerful nuclear state. And Ukraine was a kind of a small state [from] Russia’s perspective, a state that basically decided to give up its nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. So to believe that Ukraine was a major threat to Russia, it’s slightly, let’s put it, overdone.”
EU ‘shock’ and initial ‘unity’
When asked about his thoughts on how the European Union reacted to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine last February, Ivan Krastev told Euronews that “When the war started, it was a shock. And I do believe it was exactly the shock of the world that nobody expected that pushed the European Union to do things which basically European leaders were not prepared to do just the week before it.
“So from this point, it was the shock, the war that also explains to a great extent European unity in the first weeks. It also explains why the European public, which otherwise was unprepared for this war, suddenly reacted in a way very different than at least President Putin expected them to react.”
Since then, the European Union has financed weapons transfers to Ukraine and accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict. Through a series of sanctions, Brussels has sought to isolate Russia economically. But is this the right way to go?
“To be honest, what were the options that Europeans had? First of all, people are talking about escalation. Normally, you are not giving them weapons because you believe that if you’re not going to do weapons, Russians are not going to escalate on their own. The level of destruction [in] Ukraine coming from the Russian bombing is on the level of 1941, 1942.
“So from this point of view, the questions that Europeans were facing is: should we be responsible for the Russian occupation of Ukraine or are going to give Ukrainians what they are asking from us? What people are doing or not doing very much depends on how you see the battlefield. In the beginning of the war, very few Europeans believed that Ukraine can resist and Ukraine can win. The moment when this changed, Europeans were much more ready to give to the Ukrainians weapons which otherwise they were not ready to give.”
Could NATO consider putting soldiers on Ukrainian soil?
When asked whether he thought NATO would involve itself militarily in the war in Ukraine, Ivan Krastev was doubtful, saying that “I don’t believe that both Western publics or Western leaders are ready to do this. And secondly, NATO joining the war means basically World War Three.
“And I do believe both on the Russian side and on the NATO side, it is a very clear idea that this is not going to work for anybody. And don’t forget, in their history, Americans and Russians have never been fighting directly each other.”
Central Europe and future cooperation
The outbreak of war in Ukraine triggered strong responses in Central Europe, notably from Poland, which is one of the most active donors of humanitarian aid. Hungary, however, has tried to block EU support for Kyiv and recently vowed to maintain economic ties with Russia.
According to Krastev, the war in Ukraine has led to the collapse of the central European Visegrád Group – a political and cultural alliance between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
“This was a war which for many East Europeans, particularly for the Baltics and the Poles, became their own war,” he explained.
“There were opinion polls, which I have been studying, which show that the major difference between East and West is that East fears occupation,[while the] West fears nuclear war.
“But as a result of this war, basically the Visegrad Group does not exist anymore. Visegrad four became, to be honest, two plus one plus one.
“On one side you get…Poland, for which this is about their own existential security. And you can see this is not just the position of the government, this is the opposition, this is the whole society. Basically, the position of the Hungarian government was: it’s not my circus, not my monkeys. We don’t want to do anything with this. And well, they supported most of the sanctions. At the end of the day, they made [it] very clear that they don’t support the common policy.”
Victory will be sealed ‘on the battlefield’
After one year of war in Ukraine, hostilities show no sign of slowing. But we asked the Bulgarian political scientist how and when he believed peace could be restored.
“The wars end on the battlefield. And these days, we know very much that war very rarely ends up with peace treaties. This is what we learned after the end of the Cold War, that most of them end basically with a certain type of exhaustion and… certain types of negotiations but do not end with [a] peace treaty.
“From this point of view, I don’t know when it’s going to end and how it’s going to end, but I know something very important: that both on the European side and on the American side the problem is that the war should end in the way that we should not be afraid that it is going to start again in five or six or seven years in the way it basically it ended and started again after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”
Is the EU selling Ukraine a dream of full membership?
Ukraine was granted full EU-candidate status last year, and Kyiv said recently that it hoped to become a full member by 2026, with President Zelenskyy calling for a fast-track path to EU membership.
Ivan Krastev told Euronews that while he thinks EU membership is unrealistic, the war has proven that EU policies can change quickly.
“Listen, it is not realistic, but many policies that happened in the last year, if you’re going to ask me a year ago: is this realistic? I was going to tell you it’s not realistic. And the story is that [the] European Union is already so much involved in Ukraine that to believe that the relations are going to be back to where they were is also unrealistic.
“So we’re going to have something new. And as a result of it, Ukraine is going to be different, and the European Union is going to be different.”
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