By annexing Crimea after a sham referendum, Vladimir V. Putin has inadvertently done the European Union a huge favor. His opportunism has glaringly exposed the union’s lack of coherent institutions, borders and policies.
To successfully respond to Mr. Putin’s thuggery, the euro-zone countries must transform themselves into a Democratic Union of Europe. Their first task will be demarcation of a crystal-clear border with Russia, followed by the creation of a democratic superstructure that allows for the phased unification of the separate European states’ pre-existing defense, foreign policy and governance institutions.
Anything less will simply invite Mr. Putin to continue gnawing away at Europe’s exposed eastern flank, while individual states quibble over their narrow interests. In past decades, such European provincialism was sustainable due to robust American security guarantees. But today, America’s ability — and will — to shelter the whole Continent under its security umbrella is receding. It is high time for the Europeans to get their act together and defend their own backyard.
To date, the danger posed by the euro crisis hasn’t been enough to convince the euro-zone nations to give up some sovereignty by pooling their debts and resources — even though most European economists and statesmen know that this is the only viable way to end the Continent’s economic decline.
Historically, nations have only forfeited their sovereignty when faced with a truly menacing external threat that they could not handle alone. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine poses just such a threat to the individual states of continental Europe.
A similar existential crisis prompted the diverse American states to pool their debts and create federal institutions in the late 1780s. And the American pursuit of a more perfect union was itself modeled on the formation of the United Kingdom via the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, which aimed at confronting the danger posed by Louis XIV’s absolutist and expansionist France.
If today’s euro-zone countries do not unite to face the Russian threat, Europe will cease to be a player on the world stage. Mired in debt and divided between a thriving North and underemployed South, Europe’s failure would establish it as a power vacuum — inviting aggression in its borderlands.
The leaders of former Warsaw Pact countries like Estonia, Lithuania and Poland understand the existential threat posed by Mr. Putin. They know that abstract issues of precedent, rule of law, deterrence and diplomatic commitments necessitate a vigorous European response or their countries could be next in line for Russian expansionism.
In 1994, America, Russia and Britain made an ironclad commitment to preserve Ukrainian territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s handing over its nuclear weapons to Russia. This commitment was made precisely to prevent the sort of event that has now occurred in Crimea. A nuclear Ukraine would have deterred Russian meddling; letting a post-nuclear Ukraine be dismembered sends the wrong message to other regimes thinking about disarming or halting nuclear weapons development.
Russia must be forced to see that there are consequences for riding roughshod over international law. Unfortunately, recent history shows that Europe is incapable of leading even small military engagements on its own.
NATO is currently the Western world’s first line of defense, but the alliance is only as strong or united as its member states.
In 2011, both Britain and America, spurred on by France, demonstrated courage and foresight in enforcing a NATO-led no-flight zone in support of Libya’s popular uprisings, thereby preventing a massacre. However, the Libya episode demonstrated that even a European-initiated engagement was impossible without American leadership and technical capacity.
Libya represented a best-case scenario for the alliance because most members shared the same objectives. Conversely, the Ukraine crisis presents the worst-case scenario for NATO because Russia is a key trading partner for many European states, making a united front well-nigh impossible.
Mr. Putin has demonstrated that NATO is simply not equipped to deal with the complexities of this new globalized world. NATO lacks the political institutions and chain of command to forge a consensus, make tough decisions and to act swiftly on major problems.
The organization was created to address the problems of a bipolar world and to serve as a force multiplier for America. Because of its historic role as the military coordinating body of the Western democracies against Russia, NATO must be retained, but it can only function effectively if Europe is politically united.
Constructing a democratic European superpower in the midst of a crisis won’t be easy, and the dangers of doing so “on the fly” were amply illustrated by Europe’s abysmal performance during the Bosnian crisis of the 1990s, when it required American muscle to deal with a third-rate military threat. The strategic challenge now posed by Russia is far greater, and the failure to confront it will have correspondingly grave consequences.
The Crimean crisis presents European leaders with the perfect opportunity to achieve genuine Continent-wide integration. Historically, foreign threats combined with economic woes have forged the popular will necessary for drastic political solutions that would otherwise be off the table. This chance is too essential to miss.
If a fragmented Europe squanders this moment, leading to continued Western appeasement of Mr. Putin, it will enable the precarious rise of a new Russian Empire with the power and influence to manipulate energy prices, roll back human rights and destabilize the Middle East.
Jason Pack is a researcher of world history at Cambridge University and has advised NATO officials on Libya. Brendan Simms is professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge and president of The Project for Democratic Union.