The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe awakens to the Russian threat

6 min

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For decades, Russian money, energy and military strength held Europe in thrall. But as the rockets of Russian President Vladimir Putin rain down on Ukrainian cities, a clarion call is echoing through the halls of power, boardrooms and cultural spheres of a continent: No more.

Western Europe saw Putin for years the way much of the globe still sees climate change: As an intangible threat, worth serious debate, but not yet real or existential enough to warrant society-altering action. Now that the danger is lapping at Europe’s doorstep, the continent has begun to awaken.

In Germany, a nation that shrank from confrontation with Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the evidence is a historic military buildup announced in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Berlin also suspended a new pipeline set to power German factories with Russian gas for generations. But just as telling of the tectonic shift is the way Gerhard Schröder — a former German chancellor who’d cozied up to Putin — is now becoming a national pariah.

The former leader who secured lucrative posts with Russian companies has watched allies dump him, and outraged staffers quit in the wake of his failure to denounce the invasion. Even his favorite German soccer club, Borussia Dortmund, fired him from an honorary post.

When Moscow annexed Crimea and Russian-backed forces seized parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the German titans of industry demurred, urging then-Chancellor Angela Merkel to tread lightly. In contrast, they’re now standing up to be counted. Munich-based industrial giant Siemens — whose chief executive even traveled to Moscow to court Putin in March 2014 — has suspended most operations in Russia. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have halted exports and production in Russia. Bavaria-based Adidas pulled a commercial deal with the Russian Football Union.

As public tolerance for Putin apologists evaporate, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was fired from the Munich Philharmonic orchestra for failing to speak out against his old chum in the Kremlin. Gergiev’s German manager dumped him as a client.

“In the light of the criminal war waged by the Russian regime against the democratic and independent nation of Ukraine, and against the European open society as a whole, it has become impossible for us, and clearly unwelcome, to defend the interests of Maestro Gergiev,” the agent, Marcus Felsner, said in a statement.

War in Ukraine enters a new phase, even more unpredictable and dangerous than the last

To understand the sea change, you need to grasp the German mind-set: There’s a craving for stability and peace in Europe after the horrors of Adolf Hitler, and a certain acquiescence to Moscow as an acceptable price for peace. Since reunification, Germany coexisted as both NATO member and sympathetic interlocutor between the West and Russia. When Merkel sought to impose sanctions on Russia following its initial aggression in Ukraine in 2014, polls showed a majority of Germans against them.

Fast forward to now. Germany — which embraced pacifism in the wake of World War II — dropped its long resistance to sending arms to conflict zones and has dispatched weapons to Ukraine. More importantly, new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, once a word-parsing waffler on Moscow, announced a historic ramp up in military spending to meet the Russian threat. The nature of German “remilitarization” will require serious domestic debate and will be deeply opposed by some. But in a bracing recognition of the new Russian threat, a recent poll showed 78 percent of the Germans backed Scholz’s plan.

“Germans don’t want war, they don’t want nuclear weapons, and there will be a discussion on how to react right without provoking more action by Russia,” Stefan Meister, a policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “It’s still not clear where opinion will go in the next weeks. But [the invasion of Ukraine] is a shock to society. If Russia wins this war, which is very likely, the question is, what’s next?”

Eastern European countries — Poland and the Baltic states — rang the alarm bells on Russia for years. Now, western portions of the continent are not only listening — but leading on punishing sanctions against Putin and a regional defense rethink to rise to the Russian threat.

In France, where President Emmanuel Macron sought a meeting of the minds with Putin before the invasion, a new poll showed 84 percent of respondents believe you can’t “negotiate” with Putin and 7 out of 10 backed arms deliveries to Ukraine. Surprisingly, a majority — 53 percent — even backed a step ruled out by leaders in Washington and the capitals of Europe: the intervention of NATO’s armed forces in Ukraine.

As European leaders prepare for a March 10 defense summit at Versailles, France, Macron is seizing the moment to push his vision for a European army — or the construction of a forceful, homegrown force not reliant, as NATO is, on the whims of whoever inhabits the White House.

“We cannot let others defend ourselves; whether on land, at sea, under the sea, in the air, in space or in cyberspace,” Macron said in a televised speech Wednesday night. “Our European defense must take a new step.”

Why the enormous scale of financial pain being inflicted on Russia worries some in the West

The historic push for stronger, collective defense in Europe is the culmination of an awakening to the Russian threat after years of sleepwalking through Russian aggression. But it’s also an acknowledgment of the unpredictability of U.S. politics. Polls show public support for President Biden and former president Donald Trump, who has praised Putin, as roughly similar.

“I tend to think this could be an inflection point that sees Europe much more conscious of taking care of its own interest,” William Drozdiak, European affairs expert at the Wilson Center — and former Washington Post journalist — told me. “This is Macron’s thinking. Since days of the Trump era, Europe could no longer count on the security guarantees of the U.S.”

Western Europeans are typically the foot-draggers against Russia. But nodding to the lead they’re now taking in through some of the most crippling economic sanctions ever unleashed, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has not minced words.

“We’re waging an all-out economic and financial war on Russia,” Le Maire told France Info radio.

A litany of European gas and oil companies — BP, Shell and Equinor — are pulling the plug on their Russian investments, hitting the Kremlin where it hurts: its energy sector. The government in Britain, a nation awash in the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs, stands accused of doing too little too late to rein in the billions spent by Putin’s friends on Belgravia mansions, private clubs and elite schools.

But the Russian threat has crystallized for the British people. In a September YouGov poll, 34 percent of Britons considered Russia a “hostile threat.”

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that figure almost doubled, to 64 percent.