Seen in the light of its recent history, NATO’s reaction to the Russian invasion has been extraordinary. Acting immediately, the alliance provided critically important weapon systems—especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles—to Ukraine. Moreover, NATO response forces have, for the first time, been activated and deployed in areas that might be the target for future Russian attacks. The size of these units is small, but they are large enough to provide a trip wire guaranteeing that NATO would fulfill its collective commitment in Article Five, which promises that the alliance will respond to an attack on any one of its members “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” A summit of NATO heads of state held on February 25 reaffirmed this commitment. At the same time, Finland and Sweden, both traditionally neutral states, are now taking part in the alliance’s consultations on the crisis. Neither state is likely to join NATO anytime soon, but their decision to cooperate with the alliance represents a conspicuous isolation of Russia on the continent, as well as a vote of confidence in NATO’s significance.
While international organizations like the EU and NATO can encourage and coordinate Europeans’ response to the Ukrainian crisis, the fundamental direction and lasting significance of this response will be determined within individual states, which are still the most powerful pieces on the European chessboard. Behind the current European consensus is a vast set of differences created by geography, history, and resources. It is obvious, for example, that Ireland, traditionally neutral and without effective military power, views the war differently than Poland, which has already reacted by increasing military spending and is edging toward more direct engagement on Ukraine’s behalf. The longer the war lasts and the higher the price for European action, the more likely it is that these differences will come to the surface.
Among the European states none is more significant than Germany, whose location, resources, and international standing make it the natural leader (or potential spoiler) of any European project. In addition to being an exemplary civilian state, Germany has a distinctive relationship with Russia. Since the 1970s, German foreign policy rested on what was called “Ostpolitik,” which sought influence through accommodation, hoping to procure Russian cooperation on political issues by establishing deep economic connections. In many ways, German unification in 1989–90 was the outcome—and the validation—of this policy. Under rather different auspices, Ostpolitik continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union, sustained by Germany’s increasing dependence on Russian fuel exports and other economic ties.
Even as an increasing number of Russian troops were deployed along Ukraine’s frontiers, the decades-long momentum of Ostpolitik continued to shape German policy. When other European states began supplying Ukraine with weapons, Germany promised five thousand helmets—a move that was widely ridiculed. All this changed on Sunday, February 27, when Chancellor Scholz delivered what will probably be the most important speech of his long political career. The Russian attack on Ukraine, Scholz told a special session of the German parliament, “marks a watershed in the history of our continent.” He went on to make clear Germany’s commitment to Ukraine, its willingness to supply weapons and support sanctions. (But not, as became clear on March 7, to ban all Russian gas and oil imports.)
Scholz also used the current crisis as the occasion to announce a new approach to German security policy: he promised to increase military spending to the 2 percent of GDP level set by NATO and to allocate the equivalent of two years’ military budget to make badly needed improvements in weapons and training. To transform a deeply embedded civilian culture will require more than a single speech or even a substantial reallocation of resources, but together with the other dramatic events of the past few weeks, Scholz’s change of direction is of great significance. We will have to see if the German public is ready and willing to pay for effective armed forces and, if necessary, to support putting them in harm’s way. Nevertheless, for the first time in half a century, Germany’s commitment to being a civilian state is open to question.
As the war in Ukraine continues without an end in sight, I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s comment that “the practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.” Let us hope and pray that in the present case her grim assessment is wrong. But even if it is possible to avoid or at least contain a metastasis of international violence, we must recognize that in February 2022 the Ukrainian war seems to have brought Europe’s postwar era to an end. What kind of European states will emerge is by no means clear, but there is good reason to believe that a new chapter in the long, turbulent history of the relationship between states and war has begun.