The West unites against Putin

Raf Casert
The Associated Press

BRUSSELS — Within days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved what remained out of the grasp of the European Union for many decades — to jointly buy and send weapons to a war zone — and restored something that was broken for years — trans-Atlantic unity.

For years, Putin could sit back and relish in unseemly scenes of Western disunity — ranging from the Britain’s Brexit move out of the EU in 2016, Hungary’s long-standing antipathy towards its EU headquarters and, equally, the rift created by former President Donald Trump that has far from fully healed under Joe Biden.

For Putin, the timing seemed perfect for his invasion of Ukraine since it had the potential of opening the cracks of division even further.

“And just as Vladimir Putin thought that he would destroy European unity, exactly the opposite thing has happened,” European Council President Charles Michel said Monday.

“Cooperation is solid as a rock,” he said. “This is demanded by the circumstances of history. Demanded by circumstances that none of us could have imagined,” Michel added.

Washington could not agree more. “President Putin has been one of the greatest unifiers of NATO in modern history, so I guess that is one thing we can thank him for,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Richard Haass, president of the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “stunning” how European politics have been transformed in recent days.

“Putin has done what no one in the West could do, which is revive the concept of the West,” Haass said.

Sanctions: On Monday, Biden was leading another videoconference with EU, Britain and other Western leaders to solidify a common package of sanctions that are unprecedented in scope and unity. Over the weekend, Brussels and Washington announced financial sanctions within minutes of each other, all targeting the central bank and cutting Russia out of much of the SWIFT international financial transaction system.

Together they closed their airspace to Russian planes, agreed on lists of Russian oligarchs to hit. Seeing the West gel together instead of break apart, Putin on Monday went to the old lingo that the West loved to use itself in the Cold War days of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

He described Western allies as U.S. “satellites which humbly fawn on it, kowtow to it, copy its conduct and joyfully accept the rules it offers to follow.”

“So it’s fair to say that the entire Western bloc formed by the U.S. to its liking represents an empire of lies,” Putin said.

Western powers will take such unity as a compliment these days, and it was unheard of before Putin started massing troops on Ukraine’s border.

‘Watershed moment’: Especially, the stance within the 27-nation EU is a sea change that was achieved within a few ebbs and flows.

“This is a watershed moment,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in the wake of Sunday’s decision for the EU “to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack.”

This is the same European Union based on a post-World War II peace project that would only turn swords into plowshares to recreate a welfare continent of unprecedented riches.

It was also the same bloc that for years has vaunted the value of what it calls soft power — diplomacy, aid, cultural exchanges — instead of the raw power that comes through the barrel of a gun.

All this change in barely a week. Now, Michel says: “There is no space for weakness and we need to show a firmness.”

Nowhere has the change been more pronounced than in Germany, the EU’s leading economic power but also a country that has been reluctant to invest heavily in military power, in large part because of its militaristic past which resulted in the horror of World War II.

Germany has faced persistent criticism over recent years for failing to meet a NATO target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense. On Sunday, though, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would commit 100 billion euros ($113 billion) to a special fund for its armed forces and raise defense spending above 2% “from now on, year for year.”

Scholz also has done an about-face on Germany’s refusal to export weapons to conflict zones, pledging to send anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine.