‘And just as Vladimir Putin thought that he would destroy European unity, exactly the opposite has happened. Cooperation is solid as a rock’, said European Council President, Charles Michel.

Something remarkable in geopolitics happened last week. It wasn’t just that Germany did an about turn on its defence policy, which is remarkable enough; it was the fact that the European Union actually made some quick and historic decisions. When you have a membership of 27 sovereign states, getting an agreement normally takes a long time. Frequently, a very long time.
It was Russia’s recognition of the non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine on 23 February that started the ball rolling. In response, the EU adopted a package of sanctions targeting some politicians, businesspeople, most senior commanders of the Russian armed forces and some banks. In all, asset freezes and travel bans were imposed on 23 people, 3 banks and a notorious internet “troll factory” in St Petersburg. The immediate reaction to the EU’s announcement was underwhelming. Some EU countries, such as Lithuania, had wanted to hit the Kremlin with the strongest possible sanctions immediately, but big member states France, Germany and Italy argued for a more gradual approach.
They didn’t have long to wait, as the very next day, President Putin gave the order for invasion of Ukraine. While Russia’s forces rained missiles on its southern neighbour throughout the day, in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II, EU leaders again met in an emergency session and agreed a massive array of sanctions that would freeze Russian assets in the bloc and halt its banks’ access to European financial markets. EU foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell, described it as “the harshest package we have ever implemented”. Belgium’s Prime Minister De Croo claimed “our sanctions will hurt the Russian economy in its heart”.
Earlier, a sense of powerlessness was tangible after the West had failed to stop a war that their leaders had seen coming. “We were not successful enough, not decisive enough, to prevent Russia from this step, which is a tragedy for Ukraine, a tragedy for Europe and a tragedy for Russia itself”, said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, whose country is on the front line with Russia. Maybe, but those EU countries that would face the biggest economic backlash were keen to keep the most severe steps in reserve, arguing that this was the most effective strategy. Nevertheless, most observers were astonished that the EU, normally a lumbering giant, could be so nimble in arriving at a joint agreement within hours, which in normal times would take many months.
The momentum was maintained and the next day, Friday, 25 February, envoys of the 27 member states approved a new wave of measures, this time agreeing to freeze the assets of Putin himself, together with his long-serving top diplomat, Sergey Lavrov. “They are responsible for the deaths of innocent people, and for the trampling on the international system. We, as Europeans, do not accept that”, said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. As she was speaking, something else remarkable was happening in Berlin.
For years, the United States has pushed Germany to spend more on defence and invest more in its military. Until last week, those pleas had largely fallen on deaf ears. Not because Germany considered it didn’t have to do more as a member of NATO, or because it saw itself as a bridge between the West and Russia, or even because its economy and business community are closely tied with Russia. It was a reason that lies at the heart of how Germany views itself as a country. German pacifism is a real thing, something which pulsates through German society. Throughout the years, there hasn’t ever been broad public support for a more robust defence posture. Vladimir Putin has changed all that. His invasion of Ukraine has snapped Germany into reality, and there’s no denying just how meaningful this moment truly is.
It was the day after Putin’s rambling speech recognising the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, that the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced that he would block the 10 billion euro Nord Stream 2, the Baltic Sea gas pipeline project designed to double the flow of Russian gas directly to Germany. This was a big enough decision, as Germany relies on Russia for more than a third of its gas. But an even bigger one came the following Saturday: Scholz promised to arm Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles. He would also lift restrictions on German weapons being sent to conflict zones by third parties. Finally, in a ground-breaking speech in the German Bundestag, he most notably committed Germany to spending more than 2% of the country’s GDP on the military every year going forward, meeting a NATO target that Berlin had long lagged. This was nothing short of a Zeitenwende, an historical turning point in German defence policy and a massive investment in Germany’s ailing armed forces. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has injected more clarity and change in Germany’s foreign and defence policy thinking in days, than the US and governments from Paris to Warsaw could in a decade.
Putin has also restored something that was broken for years: trans-Atlantic unity. For years, Putin could sit back and relish in unseemly scenes of Western disunity, ranging from Britain’s Brexit move out of the EU in 2016, Hungary’s long-standing antipathy towards Brussels and, equally, the rift created by former President Donald Trump that has far from fully healed under Joe Biden. For Putin, the timing seemed perfect for his invasion of Ukraine since it had the potential of opening cracks of division even further, with a war on the continent forcing everyone far outside their diplomatic comfort zone. Precisely the opposite has happened.
Listen to what the European Council President, Charles Michel, said in an interview with a small group of reporters last week. “And just as Vladimir Putin thought that he would destroy European unity, exactly the opposite has happened. Cooperation is solid as a rock”, he said. “This demanded by the circumstances of history. Demanded by circumstances that none of us could have imagined.”
Last week, transatlantic relations were further solidified by an agreed package of measures unprecedented in scope and unity, when Brussels and Washington announced financial sanctions within minutes of each other, all targeting Russia’s central bank and cutting the country out of much of the SWIFT international financial transaction system. Yet another surprise came when the EU agreed to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack, described by European Commission President Ursula von der Layen as “a watershed moment”.
A fuming Putin resorted to the old vernacular that the West loved to use itself in the Cold War days of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact—describing Western allies as “US satellites which humbly fawn on it, kowtow to it, copy its conduct and joyfully accept the rules it offers to follow”. Spitting venom, he continued, “So it’s fair to say that the entire Western bloc, formed by the US to its liking, represents an empire of lies.” Western powers will have taken Putin’s wrath and cynicism at their unity as a compliment. After all, he has made the EU great again.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.