As a believer in the project of European integration, I have watched the debate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with alarm. In particular, I have found frustrating the conventional wisdom that Putin was justified in viewing the European Union’s (EU) expansion as a threat. To me, this assumption is far too simplistic and borders on legitimizing Putin’s actions. As such, I want to offer the following argument as a quick, yet provocative, thought exercise. I believe that EU and Russian history allow for an alternative argument: that Putin could have viewed the EU’s expansion as the greatest gift to Russian security in the history of his country.
It is widely recognized that Russia has a justified fear of invasion. It was this fear that partially motivated Stalin’s push for control over Eastern Europe after World War II. He wanted a buffer zone that could protect Russia proper in the case of another European war. While the USSR’s collapse eliminated this physical buffer, the EU was poised to provide a substitute security blanket in the form of ideology, rather than geography. The EU was established, in the words of Robert Schuman, one of its founding fathers, to make war among its members “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” In this sense, the Union has been remarkably successful. No two EU member states have gone to war with one another since the organization was created.
This political transformation was accompanied by a gradual material and operational one as well. European defense budgets had been in decline for decades prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Moreover, Europe had proven inept at operationalizing what resources it had left – its missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya all proved to varying degrees the decreasing capabilities of European militaries to carry out complex operations, even when operating as part of large multi-national coalitions. In this sense, Robert Kagan’s thesis from his influential 2002 article “Power and Weakness” remained true: Europe was content to live in its own post-modern world where the utility of force was marginal and therefore not worthy of investment.
Given this mission and history, Russia should have welcomed the ascension of every new country to the EU. That so many countries would be willing to essentially forswear the use of force in Europe should have been seen as an incredible strategic gift in Moscow. Instead, Russia responded to the EU’s eastward expansion with alarm and invaded Ukraine. The result has been a wake up call to Europe and to NATO, with numerous countries pledging to increase their defense spending and readiness levels. Ironically, then, Russia’s invasion has produced the very situation it was designed to avoid: a hostile and stronger Europe on its doorstep.
That Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian tragedy is obvious. The thousands of dead strewn across Donetsk and Luhansk stand as a testament to the violence occurring there. Yet the conflict is also a political tragedy because it has returned the possibility of major state-on-state conflict to the European continent. For a country scarred by numerous invasions, Russia could have welcomed the growth of an institution dedicated to eliminating war from its neighborhood and perhaps even aspired to join it one day. Instead, Putin chose to view the EU’s expansion as a threat. The conventional wisdom suggests he was right to do so. I hope this brief counterargument serves as a provocative thought exercise in how events could have turned out differently.