Feb 28, 2022 - World

Putin is turning the EU into a foreign policy superpower

Illustration of a hand with the stars of the EU stylized as brass knuckles.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The European Union has moved with unprecedented speed and strength to sanction Russia and aid Ukraine, shattering its plodding, bureaucratic image with a response that would have seemed inconceivable one week ago.

Why it matters: Putin has done the unthinkable with his unprovoked assault, reversing decades of German defense and energy policy, turning a European peace project into a weapons dealer, and setting Ukraine on an accelerated path to EU membership.

How we got here: On Thursday night, less than 24 hours after the first missiles began raining down on Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky told EU leaders on a video call that "this might be the last time you see me alive."

  • His emotional appeal helped kick diplomacy into overdrive and rally all 27 member states — including historically cautious Germany and Kremlin-friendly Hungary — around the harshest EU sanctions regime ever assembled.
  • It didn't stop there: The European Commission announced this weekend it would ban Russian flights from EU airspace, restrict access to Russian state media and deliver weapons to a third country under attack for the first time ever.

What they're saying: "The war cannot wait for bureaucratic procedures," the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell declared Sunday, as he announced member states had agreed to a package of $500 million worth of military aid to Ukraine.

  • "The taboo that the EU cannot use its own resources to provide arms to a country that has been aggressed by others has fallen," Borrell said. "This is a defining moment for European history."
  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen echoed Zelensky's message that Ukrainians were fighting for "the whole of Europe" on Sunday, calling Ukraine "one of us." On Monday, Zelensky signed an application to become a member of the EU.

The big picture: It's two men in particular — Putin and Zelensky — whose polar opposite behavior over the last week has catalyzed the EU's transformation into a foreign policy heavyweight.

  • "We're all sharing on social media those wonderful moments of Ukrainians being incredibly brave," a European diplomat told Axios. "Everyone — everyone — in the West is looking at Zelensky and they're looking at what the Ukrainians are doing and are incredibly impressed."
  • "There's absolute clarity this is an unprovoked war of aggression. And if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, where does he stop?" the diplomat added.
  • "If you're in Central Europe or the Baltics, Ukraine is not a far-off place. And the historical resonance of watching these troops roll through borders is extremely powerful."

Zoom in: The shock to Europe's security order has trickled down to nearly every EU member state, large and small.

  • The impact has been most profound in Germany, where the government announced it would set up a €100 billion fund to upgrade its military, spend 2% of GDP on defense and urgently seek to reduce German dependence on Russian gas.
  • In Finland, lawmakers will meet Tuesday to discuss possible NATO membership, one day after a poll found that a majority of Finns support joining the alliance for the first time ever.
  • Finland and other historically neutral countries like Sweden and Luxembourg have also committed to sending Ukraine weapons, joining Germany's stunning reversal in arms policy.

The bottom line: "One of the reasons we can assume that Putin is surprised by the strength of response is that we're all surprised by it," one Western diplomat remarked.

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