As the most war-ravaged continent in modern history, Europe began an idealistic experiment in 1951 to create a mutual dependency that would make conflict among its nations obsolete. Last week, that project was severely challenged. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia committed an act of aggression in Eastern Europe by moving troops into Ukraine.
On Thursday, leaders of the European Union will meet to decide whether to impose “targeted measures” on Russia. The fact that the EU’s 28 member states are working in unity is a testament to its success. But even more revealing will be whether Russian President Vladimir Putin now recognizes that his country’s own economic dependence on Europe is reason enough to back off his violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The EU vision of shared prosperity as a peace enhancer has led it to steadily expand its membership. It now includes 11 states of the former Soviet empire. That vision also led EU members to trust Moscow leaders enough to allow their economies to become closely intertwined with Russia’s.
Russia has become the EU’s third largest trading partner, while the EU is Russia’s largest export market. Nearly a third of natural gas used in Europe comes from Russia.
Perhaps as the EU’s experiment began to work, it believed it could offer Ukraine the opportunity to join its prosperity club. Ukraine shares borders with four recent EU members: Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. That EU offer, however, proved too threatening to Mr. Putin last November, precipitating the crisis that has led to a standoff in Crimea.
After years of facing internal financial turmoil over the eurozone’s debt crisis, the EU is once again returning to the original reason for creating a sphere of peaceful and mutual prosperity. Poland, for example, is now rethinking its stalled decision to join the 17-nation monetary union. “This [Ukraine] crisis shows that it’s worth making an additional investment in the European Union. It’s perhaps worth looking at the issue of our membership in the eurozone,” said Marek Belka, governor of Poland’s central bank, on Monday.
The EU is an experiment in countries giving up some sovereignty for the greater good of a peaceful continent. This is a type of “soft power,” or an attempt to influence events through nonmilitary means, such as recognizing common values, culture, and ideals. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is a throwback to hard power, or the use of force by one nation to gain territorial advantage out of a notion of zero-sum thinking.
At least eight nations still seek to join the EU. In fact, it is European ideals that inspired last November’s protests in Ukraine, where people believe in those ideals more than many Europeans do. This crisis can help the EU get back to basics.