A make-or-break moment for Europe


Picture of Jacek Saryusz-Wolski
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski

Member of the European Parliament, former Polish minister for European affairs and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Terrorists, thugs and tyrants have found an unwitting ally in Western societies – the average attention span of public opinion. Faced with an avalanche of news – ranging from bad to worse to simply terrifying – Americans and Europeans seem to lose direction and a clear set of priorities.  However, we must not lose sight of Russia’s naked aggression in Ukraine. It is a direct challenge to Western values: peace, rule of law and liberal democracy.  And it may well be a turning point for the post-Cold War global order.

By first seizing Crimea and then sowing chaos and occupying Eastern Ukraine, Putin managed to achieve a triple goal: he clearly showed the limits of EU’s soft power; he undermined the credibility of the West and highlighted the transatlantic divisions in NATO.

A quarter century after the presumed end of the Cold War, we are thus facing a make-or-break moment for Europe and its liberal order. Luckily, what must be done is simple, though by no means easy.

First of all, we have to comprehend the price of inaction. Sure, sanctions and military armaments are expensive. But they are still cheaper than an actual war. By allowing the Russians to extort endless concessions through the use of divide-and-conquer “salami tactics,” Europe has put itself in a position where further escalation is actually more probable and more costly to stop than before, while we are less prepared for it. Only a clear message would discourage further provocations. Kremlin operates logically, though through a logic of brute force. We must ensure that Russia understands the grave consequences of further military action in Europe.

Secondly, we have to retain the ability to think long-term. Europe must avoid conceding ground to Russia through another ‘reset’ that would sanction annexations of Crimea and Donbas. The temptation to go on with business as usual is high, but it must be resisted in the name of higher, strategic thinking.

Thirdly, Europe should not abandon its soft power. We should engage in state-building efforts in Ukraine. Our efforts should concentrate on helping modernise Ukraine’s institutions, economy and legal system. This is not only the right thing to do. It is the only smart thing to do.  A prosperous and well-governed Ukraine would bring stability in the region and would be the best way to counter Russian expansion. This would also require a real visa-free regime and fostering the human dimension of our relations with Eastern neighbours.

The instability in Eastern Europe has the potential to reshape the face of the whole continent.  The course set by the pro-democracy EuroMaidan movement holds the promise of a democratic and well-governed Ukraine. The current crisis holds the potential of a wiser, more active, assertive and values-based European foreign policy. But it could just as well mean the return to darker times. Either the West gets it act together or we end up in a Westfalian chaos, where might equals right.

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