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In just 72 hours, Europe overhauled its entire post-Cold War relationship with Russia

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/1/2022 Michael Birnbaum, Missy Ryan, Souad Mekhennet
French President Emmanuel Macron, center, at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Feb. 28 chairs a Defense Council on the war in Ukraine. © Yoan Valat/AP French President Emmanuel Macron, center, at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Feb. 28 chairs a Defense Council on the war in Ukraine.

Just last week, many European countries were still so somnolent about the threat Russia posed to Ukraine that Germany’s spy chief was caught unawares in Kyiv when the Kremlin invasion started. He had to be extracted in a special operation.

But over just a handful of days, Europe has been shocked out of a post-Cold War era — and state of mind — in which it left many of the democratic world’s most burning security problems to the United States.

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The continent has in some ways leapfrogged the United States, which — though many policymakers credit the Biden administration for helping to coordinate — wasn’t prepared for the speed of the European change. And it has been dizzying for some of the continent’s Russia hawks, especially those in Eastern Europe who campaigned for tougher measures against the Kremlin for years but were ignored by bigger countries including Germany, Italy and France.

That’s how it felt to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, who sat down in his office in the Latvian capital of Riga late Sunday to take part in a video conference with fellow European Union foreign ministers. On the call they agreed to another round of sanctions that days prior would have been unimaginable. They included banning Russian state media in the E.U., harsh sanctions on Russian banks, and even using E.U. funds to pay for countries’ shipments of weaponry to Ukraine — a step so outside the ordinary operations of the 27-nation bloc that some policymakers didn’t realize it was an option.

“Right now I’m taking part in the E.U. foreign affairs council, feeling like the show ‘The Visible is the Unbelievable,’ ” a long-running Russian popular science program, Rinkevics wrote on Twitter, posting a photo of his computer screen showing a checkerboard of small video images of foreign ministers. “We’re deciding on things that seemed unbelievable a week ago.”

The countries taking action against Russia stretch around the world. Japan announced on Monday that it, like other countries, will impose sanctions on Russia’s central bank and on senior officials in Belarus. Australia meanwhile said it would sanction Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian leaders and would supply weaponry to Ukraine.

But no region other than Europe has overturned its foreign policy orthodoxies in a heartbeat. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared he would vastly increase his country’s defense spending and start shipping arms to Ukraine. A top leader of the German Green party — which grew out of an anti-nuclear power movement decades ago — declared an openness to keeping his country’s nuclear plants operating if it helped reduce reliance on Russian energy.

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Eight member nations of the European Union said they wanted to start membership negotiations with Ukraine. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she’d be open to it, and on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally sent an application to Brussels.

“It’s the end of an era,” said former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was once dismissed by a Finnish leader as having “post-Soviet stress” for his hawkish approach to Russia.

“What you grew up in, the last 30 years, is over,” he said he told a group of college students late last week. “We are somewhere else.”

“The situation on the ground has led countries to understand neither Biden nor the East Europeans were crazy,” Ilves said.

Finland and Sweden, who have long held themselves apart from NATO, are seriously considering joining the defense alliance. A poll published Monday by Finland’s public broadcaster showed 53 percent of Finns favored membership. Even Switzerland, the mountainous redoubt of neutrality and hidden bank accounts, declared Monday it would freeze top Russians’ assets.

Western businesses are cutting ties with Russia

During a six-hour meeting in Brussels on Thursday night that included an emotional video call-in from Zelensky that left some E.U. leaders in tears, the presidents and prime ministers even discussed the possibility of unilaterally halting the purchase of Russian oil and gas upon which they depend. That could force European factories to close for lack of power — and the leaders set aside the discussion for the time being. But that the idea was floated was a measure of Europe’s new world.

Russia’s invasion “is against the values Europe believes in,” said Nathalie Tocci, the head of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and an adviser to the European Union’s foreign policy chief. “We see the risk that it could possibly tip beyond Ukraine itself. Faced with a 1939 scenario, we’d be crazy not to change paradigm. What we don’t know is whether it is sufficient. What is already crystal clear is that it’s necessary.”

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Policymakers and analysts described a months-long campaign by the Biden administration to share intelligence briefings, pressure powerful countries that they might need to make sacrifices, and coordinate among a disparate group of 27 E.U. member states. Those countries range from the Russia-friendly — Hungary — to the Russia-fearful — many formerly Communist states — to those that have powerful business ties to Moscow, including Germany and Italy.

The Biden team negotiated economic measures and made countless phone calls to European officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv, Berlin, Riga and other European capitals.

The coalition that this week laid out unprecedented sanctions, the largest ever to target an economy of Russia’s size, “did not emerge out of nowhere,” said Ivo Daalder, a U.S. ambassador to NATO under former president Barack Obama who now heads the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs. “It had to be built.”

As far back as November, Daalder said, European officials were reporting that the Biden administration was pressing them hard on the need to prepare a coordinated sanctions package they hoped, at the time, might deter Putin from acting.

While there were cracks as recently as earlier this month among countries’ analysis — with the United Kingdom and United States for example predicting a major Russian assault and France and Germany taking a more skeptical view — those fissures disappeared when Putin moved into action.

Biden and Blinken “basically herded the cats, many of which were quite reluctant,” Ilves said. “Otherwise you’d have a lot of people running around in all directions.”

The dire predictions about a Russian cyber onslaught haven’t come true in Ukraine. At least not yet.

Doug Lute, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017, said American leadership was key in bringing NATO countries together to face a common threat.

Lute characterized Biden’s attempt in recent months to orchestrate pressure on Russia and encourage countries with deeper ties to Russia to adopt a stronger stance as a “diplomatic surge,” involving intelligence sharing, consultations on sanctions and more.

The last time NATO was as united as it is today was Sept. 12, 2001, when the alliance for the only time in its history invoked the Article V mutual defense clause in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States, Lute said.

A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the Biden administration has sought as a guiding principle in its foreign policy to restore American engagement with the world. The official cited nearly five months of efforts by the administration to telegraph the threat it believed Russia posed in Ukraine and bring partners together in response.

“The fact you now have the world coming together, this didn’t happen by accident,” the official said. “This happened by dint of a lot of hard work.”

After the Russian invasion last week, Scholz felt the country’s path was clear, said his spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit.

Putin underestimated “the ability of Europe and the Western partners to show unity and resolve,” Hebestreit said. “We have decided on major sanctions, probably some of the sharpest sanctions that have been decided upon in modern times against [a] state.”

“The scales are falling from people’s eyes,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and NATO deputy secretary general. “There are no more illusions or hopes about cooperating with Russia.”

The current moment might serve to alter the defense equation in Europe, adding gravity to Europeans’ sense of needing to protect themselves and potentially relieving the U.S. burden there if there is increased European spending and troop reinforcements on the continent. That would allow the United States to take up its long-planned shift toward Asia, said Vershbow, who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

In the end, many said, Putin made the choice simple.

“Putin made us realize that we really are dependent on each other and that we have to close ranks, which is what we did,” said Hannah Neumann, a German Green member of the European Parliament. “I think Putin is surprised that we really did it. And I can tell you, we are also a bit surprised by the extent and speed with which we really did it.”

And others said the transformation will endure.

“We have to accept as Germans that we have to pay for our security in economic terms, that we can no longer hope for Pax Americana — that we can make our business with whoever we want, and somebody else will pay the economic price for our security,” said Franziska Brantner, a state secretary at the German Economy Ministry who was involved in her country’s shift on defense spending and weapons deliveries to Ukraine. “These days are over.”

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