While in hindsight, the EU collectively failed to take the necessary measures to contain the Kremlin’s growing aggression, it is the self-declared leaders of the EU, Germany and France, who carry a particular responsibility in undermining the union and playing into Vladimir Putin’s hand.
All EU countries need to take a long, hard look at their past mistakes - but it is Berlin and Paris in particular that need some serious self-reflection should they ever aspire to be taken seriously again as the de facto leaders of Europe. And as Russia continues to wage war in Europe, Germany and France, together with the rest of the EU, will not only be judged for their past failures, but also on what they do next to stop Putin.
To be clear, the Kremlin started the war in Ukraine. Putin should be tried and punished for the war crimes he has committed. However, his growing sense of power and impunity has been enabled by weak, naïve and short-sighted Western leaders, whose actions have been guided by complacency, ignorance and greed.
The US, under both the Obama and Trump administrations; the UK with its catering to oligarchs; and EU member states from Finland to Hungary and from Italy to Malta, have let Russia play them. But the main culprit in the EU for letting Moscow rule and divide and enabling the war in Ukraine is Germany, supported by a naïve and hapless France.
For years, the EU has been undermining its economic and political power from within. Its member states have let a country highly dependent on exports to the EU, with a GDP the size of Italy, define the rules of the game. Despite all the warnings – the 2006 and 2009 gas crises, the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russian bombs in Syria, the annexation of Crimea, or the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 killing 298 people in 2014 – the EU, under the leadership of Germany and France, continued to push for diplomatic niceties with Russia, prioritised their commercial links and at best, managed to utter soft condemnations of some sort or impose sanctions without any real impact.
It is now blatantly evident that the EU has been sleepwalking for more than a decade. It has enabled Russian aggression and, ultimately, the unjustified war against Ukraine. The Union’s actions – and inaction – guided by Germany and France have endangered the future of the entire European continent. The level of incompetence, short-sightedness, greed and corruption that has driven them, and other EU member states, is flabbergasting.
For years, the Baltic states, Poland and others have sounded the alarm bell about Putin's Russia, only to be labelled revanchist and paranoid by the French and Germans. Ukraine’s cries for help have fallen on deaf ears. Driven by arrogance and astonishing naivety, they ignored those that knew better, those that had actually been in the room with the Russians, as partners of the Soviet Union or members of the Warsaw Pact, for more than four decades.
The French and the Germans ignored the voices of those who better understood the motives and delusions of the Russian establishment – and how to manage them, be it via the EU’s foreign policy or energy transition.
While Germany and France have not been the only ones enabling Putin’s growing aggression, they hold a special responsibility for having failed to take measures that would have been expected from ‘leaders’ in the EU. In this light, the role of politicians from the German and French establishment – from former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon – as strong advocates of Russian interests should not go unnoticed.
Moreover, we should not forget France’s and Germany’s keenness to earn revenue by selling military technologies to Russia rather than think through the strategic – and tragic – consequences of their sales.
Discussions around energy security provide a sad demonstration of how big speeches in the EU have led to very little action under German and French “leadership”. Back in 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, there was no shortage of talk in the union on what should be done to reduce the member states’ energy dependency on Russia.
It was crystal clear that the EU and its members could not continue to rely on Russia for energy and that they had to increase their energy security, not just by diversifying sources and routes for gas, but especially by improving energy efficiency and the uptake of renewables.
The opposite happened. The EU’s share of imports of gas and coal from Russia increased, and the country has also remained an important source of oil. Germany’s thirst for Russian hydrocarbons, driven by the Energiewende and manifested in its forceful push for the Nord Stream2 gas pipeline - which raised serious geopolitical, political, climate and energy security concerns across the EU since it was launched – undermined not only Germany’s but the whole of the EU’s (energy) security.
And while Germany spearheaded the exercise, French gas utility company Engie was a partner in Nord Stream2 and Paris repeatedly declared it did not want to "meddle in German choices". This contributed to the Union’s failure to implement agreed measures to improve its energy security, reduce its vulnerability towards Russia and use its economic power to pressure Moscow.
This gap between member states’ rhetoric statements and actions has undermined the Union for decades. EU countries – led by Germany and France – have tended to implement common goals and agreements selectively, when it has suited their national interests. The union’s failure to act as one and to implement agreed measures has now culminated in what the EU was created to avoid: another war in Europe. The price is now being paid by Europe as a whole.
Fast-forward to last week, to the darkest hour the European continent has witnessed in 75 years. Germany and France, supported by Italy, initially lost their moral compass. When a fellow European democracy was attacked by a lunatic autocrat, Germany initially not only failed to provide assistance in the form of military equipment; it actively prevented other EU member states from doing so.
And when the capital of Kyiv was bombarded and encircled, France and Germany, again supported by Italy, were advocating a step-wise approach to the application of sanctions, dictated by the commercial interests of a few enterprises. After decades of rhetoric on European values and principles, when push came to shove, for these self-proclaimed leaders of the EU, they seemed to count for nothing.
The corrective action taken by the EU27 in the few last days shows that the EU, Germany and France have learned their lesson the hard way. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has united the EU27 like never before. The member states are realising that they are stronger when they act together. The last week has seen one impossible feat after another become possible, from tough sanctions to the EU buying weapons and cutting Russia off from SWIFT.
But for Ukrainians, this realisation comes tragically late. They and the rest of Europe are now paying the price for Western complacency, applied in particular by Germany and France for years. Critical time was lost, avoidable human suffering not avoided. In view of Russia’s reliance on European fossil fuel imports for its economy, it is the member states’ thirst for Russian gas, oil and coal that has enabled and financed the Russian war machine and the war in Ukraine.
The EU, led by Germany and France, will not only be judged for not taking the necessary measures to counter Putin’s growing aggression in the last decade but also on the steps they take next. They should do the obvious: stop sponsoring the Russian war machine. The sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine today will be of little comfort if the EU member states simultaneously continue to finance the Russian war machine with their fossil fuel imports. This must stop with immediate effect.
The next days, weeks and months will be a true test for the EU as a whole, including for Germany and France. Leadership comes with responsibility. The EU needs leadership that will actually lead and does what it takes to stop Putin's aggression, ensure solidarity across the EU amidst sanctions and flows of refugees, and convince Europeans to accept that exceptional times call for exceptional measures.
Annika Hedberg is head of the sustainable prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre.