The war in Ukraine, first sparked by armed Russian separatists, is now nearly a year old. It has killed at least 4,700 and left half a million people displaced. Despite attempts at a cease-fire agreement, the conflict has escalated since Jan. 11. This has forced Europe, already strained by other crises, to wonder if it can still find the unity of purpose to end the war and keep Ukraine whole and free.
Up to now the European Union’s 28 member states have found agreement on limited sanctions against Russia for its meddling in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In coming days, EU leaders will weigh tougher measures because of the latest violence in key cities like Debaltsevo and Mariupol. NATO says rebels in eastern Ukraine are backed by Russian troops. The EU must also decide on support of further financial aid to the newly democratic government in Ukraine, which is reforming itself even as it wages war.
EU unity has never been under such stress, not only over policy toward Moscow but also over a rise in domestic jihadist terror, anti-immigrant political parties, and now an anti-austerity leftist victory in Greece that threatens the single-currency project. After decades of expanding and integrating, the EU is scrambling to patch its cracks. Yet each crisis also pushes it to look harder at the values that bind it, such as the inviolability of national borders, and to weigh those values against material interests, such as energy dependence on Russia.
One clue to Europe’s strength is how it has come together, step by slow step, in tackling the economic weaknesses exposed by the 2008-09 financial crisis. Banks have been shored up and new reforms put in place. Last week, the European Central Bank launched a $1 trillion stimulus to fend off deflation. This massive program came after months of careful negotiation to balance the interests of each nation in the eurozone. The “quantitative easing,” as it is called, will be done by both the ECB and each nation’s central bank, a reflection of the burden-sharing necessary to keep EU unity.
A similar balancing will be needed for a new EU response to Russia’s escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Some countries want to lessen pressure on President Vladimir Putin in hopes of a compromise on the degree of Russian influence in Ukraine. Other EU leaders say Russia must not succeed in splitting up Ukraine or in achieving regime change in Kiev, otherwise that would set a model for the use of force to bring about change in Europe.
Faced with many shocks, the EU has been thrown into introspection over the principles that first drew its members to set aside nationalist interests for a larger good on a continent that had known war too long. With the Ukrainian war and Russia now once again challenging those principles, Europe can count on its past unity in other crises to help resolve this one.