Putin's fears of a unified, stronger Europe are fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy

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Lawmaker applaude during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz' speech on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine during a meeting of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, at the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Members of parliament applaud German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during his speech on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Berlin on Sunday. (Michael Sohn / Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's brazen and unprovoked assault on Ukraine is fast turning his fears of a more resolute Europe, and potentially expanded NATO alliance, into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

NATO has come together behind stiff economic sanctions against Moscow. Finland and Sweden, after decades of neutrality, have signaled a new interest in joining the alliance while more autocratic members of the defense pact have excoriated Moscow.

And in an effort to shore up Ukraine's defenses, the European Union for the first time will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday.

In short order, Europe's leading powers have shifted into a position of heightened defensiveness toward Russia.

"We have to realize that we are now faced with a new normal for our security," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday in an interview on CNN, noting the beefed-up NATO troops' presence in its eastern countries and weapons deliveries to Ukraine. "This is just the beginning of the adaptation that we need to do as a response to a much more aggressive Russia."

On Sunday in Berlin, Germany's new Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a rousing speech to parliament declaring that the country would spend more than 2% of its GDP on defense — Putin having accomplished what former President Trump sought for four years, and President Obama before him. Scholz also announced a special 100-billion euro fund (about $111 billion) to upgrade the country's army, a fundamental shift by Europe's most powerful nation after a long stretch of limited military spending in the decade after the European debt crisis.

Describing Russia's war on Ukraine as "a turning point in the history of our continent," Scholz told lawmakers, "it is clear that we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country."

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Germany expert at Washington's Brookings Institution, called the speech "Germany's Nixon to China moment," a reference to then President Nixon's pivot from anti-communist hawk to taking his historic trip to China.

Similarly, Scholz's speech was all the more significant coming from a Social Democrat, one known for fiscal austerity who came of age at the end of the Cold War, a time when many believed democracies were ascendant and would remain so.

"Many Germans mistook the fall of the Berlin Wall as a validation of their method, and they have hung on to that belief well beyond the point that it started being proven out of date otherwise by events," Stelzenmüller said. "This is the end of that illusion, and the beginning of a new era in German foreign policy, and that is really a historic moment."

Since taking office in December, Scholz, who served as finance minister to former Chancellor Angela Merkel, had seemed reluctant to take a firm stance toward Putin, given how reliant Germany's economy is on Russia. But war breaking out in Europe has in short order altered security calculations and stiffened its leaders' spines.

Scholz's speech came as the EU also announced it would bar Russian planes from EU airspace and expel Russian state-owned media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik from all 27 members of the European bloc.

The EU said its defense aid package could even include fighter jets and that member states are willing to provide them. “We're not talking about just ammunition,” EU's Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said. “We are providing more important arms to go to a war.”

"Just like President Putin has unified Ukraine against him and against Russia, President Putin has also unified the NATO alliance," former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, who also served at NATO, told SiriusXM radio.

Part of what has helped toughen resolve among European leaders like Scholz, as well as France's Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was their realization of how blatantly Putin lied about his intentions in Ukraine. He claimed, to their faces until the last minute — and even now as his troops have mounted an amphibious assault and are sweeping into the north of Ukraine — he has no intention of invading the smaller neighbor.

"They were doing direct head of state diplomacy, and Putin lied to them," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a risk assessment firm in New York.

"Putin has behaved in a staggering, outrageous fashion to rip up what the Europeans thought were kind of inviolable norms," he said. The shift among European leaders "shows that this is not about Ukraine, it's a change in the global order that we have slipped into a new Cold War with Russia."

Scholz announced last week that Germany was halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a priority for Putin, who'd sought greater control of Europe's energy resources. Saturday Berlin announced it would be sending weapons to support Ukraine, another shift in posture after Scholz's initial offering months ago of sending 5,000 helmets had been widely derided. At the same time, Europe, along with Canada and the U.S., announced an agreement to sanction Russia's central bank and to bar select Russian banks from the SWIFT international communications network used by banks around the world, a move that came about only after Germany overcame its reluctance.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine is at heart an attempt to revisit the end of the Cold War, to redress the westward drift of former Soviet republics and to regain additional territory that's been independent from Russia for 30 years. Although the conflict is just days old, the reality of Russian tanks and missiles in Ukraine has shocked Europe's leaders into action, as has Putin's sinister language stating that he is "de-Nazifying" Kyiv by attempting to oust its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish.

"In his mind, he is re-fighting World War II, which suggests that everything is possible," Stelzenmüller said. "I think that may have played a role in focusing policymakers' minds in Berlin. To hear a Russian leader talk about a peaceful sovereign country in that way was truly galvanizing."

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis said on Sunday that it was “very probable” that neutral Switzerland would follow the European Union on Monday in sanctioning Russia and freezing Russian assets in the Alpine country.

The leaders of Finland, which has an 830-mile land border with Russia, and Sweden indicated when the fighting began in Ukraine that they were newly inclined to consider applying for membership in NATO, the 30-nation security alliance that, under Article V of its charter, treats an attack on any member nation as an attack on all.

Moreover, their leaders have since brushed off the Russian foreign ministry's warning that their NATO membership would trigger "serious military-political consequences." Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Saturday that "we’ve heard this before." And Sweden's prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, said Friday that Sweden "itself, and independently, decides on our security policy line."

Along with nearly every other European nation, Sweden has also committed in recent days to sending weapons and defense materiel to Ukraine.

Even NATO member states that are hardly democratic nations, like Turkey and Hungary, have joined in the strong condemnation of Russia and efforts to fortify Ukraine's defense. On Sunday, Turkey's foreign minister officially recognized Russia's attacks on Ukraine as a "state of war" and said Ankara was implementing an international treaty allowing it to limit warships' passage through the strategic Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits.

President Biden, remarking on revived support for NATO in an interview Friday, marveled at how Putin was "producing the exact opposite effect that he intended."

Biden has worked hard to keep democratic powers together in their response to Putin. Aware that Europe is under graver danger from Russia given its geographic proximity, and its greater economic reliance on Moscow, he has waited for consensus before pushing specific sanctions measures and deferred to European leaders to announce the elements of the West's response.

That approach stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who cozied up to Putin and bullied European leaders, even threatening to withdraw the U.S. from NATO altogether in 2018 when he felt member countries weren't taking seriously his demand that they contribute more to their defense. Trump went as far as to order home some 12,000 troops stationed in Germany, a move many national security officials saw as punitive. Biden scuttled the plan just weeks after taking office last year.

Although Putin's actions are strengthening unity across NATO and the European Union, these can still be precarious alliances with chances for a breakdown or new internal conflict. Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who specializes in conflict, said the longer term resolution will likely continue with a Europe riven by what he called a "plywood curtain" — not as strong as the Iron Curtain but with a clear pro-West and pro-Russia divide.

"Europe 'whole and free' will remain a Western mantra," he said. "It will not however be a serious proposition so long as Putin or someone of his ilk governs in Moscow."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.