BRUSSELS — In August, in Prague, the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, said it bluntly: “The center of Europe is moving eastward.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a shock to the complacent European order, both to the European Union and to NATO. And it has underscored and enhanced the influence of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Poland and the Baltic states have driven the moral argument to support Ukraine, filling a near-vacuum early in the war, when Europe’s traditional leaders, France and Germany, appeared paralyzed. But the war has also brought new urgency and energy for the enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans and beyond, with offers of candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova.
Vocal pressure from Eastern and Central Europe was crucial to the decisions this week, after months of wrangling and resistance, to give Western tanks to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz announced that his country would supply some of its Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to send theirs, and President Biden said he would send American Abrams tanks, which gave Mr. Scholz the political cover he wanted.
The war is also accelerating what Mr. Scholz implied: that the balance of power in Europe is shifting, too, along with its center, away from “Old Europe,” which valued and cultivated its ties to Moscow, to the newer members to the east and north, with their raw memories of Soviet occupation and their reluctance to cede chunks of their reestablished sovereignty to Brussels.
“Scholz is right,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a European historian at Saint Antony’s College, Oxford. “The voices of Central and Eastern Europeans are being listened to more and taken more seriously in the councils of Europe, and there is a big eastern enlargement agenda on the table.”
With a major war within its borders, Europe is more about hard power now than before, he said. “So having a Central and Eastern Europe that takes security seriously has an impact.”
Poland has a rapidly expanding military — the government said last year that it planned to double the size of the country’s armed forces — and has ordered a large amount of sophisticated new arms, making it a more important player in both the European Union and in NATO.
Poland was a prime lobbyist to try to convince a reluctant Berlin to send German tanks to Ukraine and authorize other countries to do so.
“Power has moved east, and Ukraine will cement this trend,” said Jana Puglierin, Berlin director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. One can extrapolate too much from the Ukraine war, she said, “but you see the clear pattern in moral leadership.”
The State of the War
- Military Aid: Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine, relenting after weeks of domestic and international pressure to deliver armored vehicles aimed at helping Kyiv regain territory seized by Russia. But it may be months before the tanks rumble across the battlefield.
- Corruption Scandal: After a number of allegations of government corruption, several top Ukrainian officials were fired, in the biggest upheaval in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government since Russia’s invasion began 11 months ago.
- An Expanding Cemetery: Recent satellite imagery and video footage of a growing burial ground offer a rare look at combat fatalities sustained by the Wagner mercenary group during the war.
Central and Eastern European countries, Ms. Puglierin said, see themselves as “the freedom fighters in the E.U. and defending its values, standing up to dictatorship.” They feel vindicated in their longstanding warnings about Russia’s neo-imperialism, its president, Vladimir V. Putin, and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy — in contrast to what they see as Western Europe’s naïveté about diplomacy and trade with Russia.
Acting early to provide Ukraine military support and to welcome refugees, these countries have helped shape the narrative for Europe, while “in Berlin and Paris, too, there was such a vacuum, negotiating with Putin to the last and surprised by the invasion,” Ms. Puglierin said. “The eastern countries were quick movers and much more credible, and we were speechless and frozen.”
Germany and France have also had to confront the failure of their traditional policy of European security with Russia, not against it. President Emmanuel Macron of France persists in hoping to be part of any future peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, going so far as to talk of giving Russia security guarantees, which has enraged many in Europe, not just in the east.
The war has also made Mr. Macron’s aspiration for an “autonomous” European defense seem hollow, given the sharply enhanced role of NATO and the United States in the past year.
“The eastern countries are not big fans of E.U. defense — they want the United States and NATO,” Ms. Puglierin said. Germany, too, wants to enhance the trans-Atlantic relationship and depends on Washington, even as it tries to rebuild its own paltry military. “So France will lose some allies and be outnumbered,” she said.
Weakened within Europe, at least for now, France will also be less influential in a more active and aggressive NATO. The alliance is more reliant on American arms and leadership than it was before the war, not less so, and it is expected to expand soon with the new membership of Sweden and Finland.
Germany’s new government, led by Mr. Scholz, was unprepared for war, let alone for a sudden cutoff of Russian energy and trade. With rising concern about similar dependence on China, Germany faces the need to reshape its export-driven economy, built on cheap Russian gas and unfettered trade with China.
In the longer run, “the prospect of a larger and more eastern Europe will be a source of great strength for the German economy,” Mr. Garton Ash said, with Ukraine representing a vast potential for development.
Still, France and Germany are on the back foot in Europe for the near future, at least.
Luuk van Middelaar, a historian of the European Union, notes that since the war began, both Poland and Hungary have been treated more gently by Brussels in the ongoing struggle with them over the rule of law. “Politically and morally, Poland is off the hook because of the role it plays as a frontline state, delivering arms and accepting refugees,” he said.
“Poland’s new importance to NATO also makes it more important to” the European Union, said Wojciech Przybylski of Res Publica, a Warsaw-based research institution. “The volume of purchases of new equipment and upgrade of defense systems makes it a country that you must talk to when discussing security assurances and peace.”
Central and Eastern Europe, he said, “delivers a lot of attitude, even if the substance is still in the hands of the bigger players.” The war, he added, “has confirmed the reality that Europe can no longer be ruled from Paris and Berlin.”
Hans Kundnani of Chatham House, who has written extensively about Germany and the European Union, sees a psychological shift in Europe. “The Poles and Central Europeans feel more confident, and the French and Germans are more defensive,” he said.
There is no question that politically, and even in terms of cultural values, Central and Eastern European countries “have pulled Europe to the right,” Mr. Kundnani said. “There is a resurgence of neoconservatism against the backdrop of Ukraine. The danger is that it splits Europe rather than uniting it.”
But the power of Brussels is based on economies and population sizes, he said, so Europe’s center of gravity remains in the West. For the newly assertive countries in the east, he said, “I’m not convinced that confidence and the high moral ground are enough to accomplish big things in Brussels.”
Mr. van Middelaar, like Mr. Kundnani, draws a distinction between rhetorical influence that can help shape public opinion, including “the media enjoying snappy quotes from Baltic and Polish ministers,” and structural change. “A lot of stuff in the E.U. is not about Russia, the war or defense, and for these issues the balance of power hasn’t changed so much,” he said. “France and Germany are still pretty central to these economic debates.”
But even there, the power of the French-German “couple” has been waning for some time. Mr. van Middelaar drew a comparison between the war in Ukraine and another tectonic shock to Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.
François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the French and German leaders in that earlier time, had fierce conflicts over reunification, but they had been working closely together for years. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Scholz, who had been in office less than three months, and Mr. Macron barely knew one another.
“There was no working relationship or professional intimacy, which you need at such moments,” Mr. van Middelaar said, so there has been “a lot of internal suspicion” and “underlying discomfort about how to deal with this new continent where Russia is a foe and Germany has to rethink its economic and political model.”
That has created a void in leadership that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have tried aggressively to fill.