Europe's new realism toward Russia

European leaders' vision of an integrated Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals has vanished with the crisis in the Ukraine, but many countries remain wary of going too far with sanctions. 

Heinz-Peter Bader/REUTERS
A worker rides a bicycle past gas pipes at Gas Connect Austria's gas distribution node in Baumgarten 25 miles east of Vienna March 6, 2013. The Baumgarten node is Austria's largest natural gas import and distribution station. The gas, mainly received from Russia, is cleaned, metered and the pressure raised by compressor stations to enable the gas to continue on its way.

For the past 20 years, much of the West has sought to integrate post-Soviet Russia into a Europe that extended from London to Moscow. But with Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and worries that he may make similar thrusts into the Baltic states, the vision of a united Europe has vanished for now – and may well lead to far more rancorous relations ahead.

In issuing sanctions on 30-plus Russian individuals, the European Union has been less aggressive than the United States in punishing Moscow for its actions. But Europe has gone much further than in its past dealings with Russia, and, unless Mr. Putin steps down, the EU says it is prepared to do more – ultimately redefining Europe's positions on energy, defense, and foreign policy.

This is certainly not what many European leaders had envisioned two decades ago when they set out to normalize ties with Russia. Led by Germany, many countries of Europe have pursued a policy of "Ostpolitik" – engaging with the East – while others have been more interested in access to Russia's enormous markets than influencing its politics.

These bonds, which included folding Russia into the World Trade Organization in 2012, have been strong enough to act as a shock absorber during earlier crises: the Balkans in the 1990s and Russia's intervention in Georgia in 2008. But the former didn't directly involve Russia, and compared to Georgia, Ukraine is a far bigger nation – and more instinctively considered part of Europe.

Today Russia's intentions "affect so many countries and regions of Europe," says Roland Freudenstein, the deputy director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels. He points to its influence from Central Asia via the Caucasus to Southeastern Europe to Poland and the Baltic states, including even military threats felt by Sweden and Finland. "It's hard to see where it ends.... I think this is a once-in-a-century opportunity for Europe to get its act together" and speak with one voice on Russia.

As the first sign of the changing geopolitical landscape, the world's seven largest industrialized democracies have suspended Russia from the Group of Eight. But longer-term shifts in Europe are under way.

The most direct effect from the current crisis could be in reshaping Europe's energy policy. The EU has awakened to its problematic dependence on Russian gas. Over the years, Europe has been moving to diversify its energy sources. But Russia's intervention in Crimea has underscored the need to continue the process, says Michael Leigh, a senior adviser for the German Marshall Fund of the US in Brussels.

Another tangible effect could be in defense budgets. While no one believes a military standoff is in the immediate future, European nations have been cutting military spending for years. That could now change – and the West could bolster NATO.

Finally, the tensions over Ukraine might cause the 28-member EU to realign its foreign-policy focus. For decades, the EU has looked south, to the Middle East and Africa, largely because of the interest in those regions of Britain and France. Fears of Russia, notably in Poland and the Baltic states, have often been dismissed as paranoia. Now many are listening to those concerns.

"I think the new member states are going to be corroborated in their warnings about Russia. They will be taken more seriously on Eastern policy," says Mr. Freudenstein.

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