Welcome to the jungle

As a paranoid dictator, Vladimir Putin has survived by eliminating anyone who could pose a threat to him. But now that he has triggered the survival instinct of Europe and the broader West, the world is entering a dangerous new phase of existential conflict.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 22: (—EDITORIAL USE ONLY ‚Äì MANDATORY CREDIT – “RUSSIAN PRESIDENCY / HANDOUT” – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS—-) Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (not seen) in Moscow, Russia on February 22, 2022. Russian Presidency/Handout / Anadolu Agency
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (not seen), at his infamous long white table, in Moscow, Russia on February 22, 2022

In his 1960 book, Crowds and Power, Elias Cannetti observed that paranoid autocrats who identify as “survivors” will surround themselves with empty space so that they can see any approaching danger. The only dependable subjects are those who will allow themselves to be killed. With each execution that the dictator orders, he accrues “the strength of survival”.

How better to describe Vladimir Putin? Russia’s autocrat prefers to sit alone at the end of a long white table – issuing ultimatums, launching invasions, and ordering the arrest (or assassination) of his political opponents. Putin has built his power through bloody wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. His survival depends on ending others’ existence.

But now Putin has triggered others’ own survival instincts. Ukraine’s actor-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has emerged as the hero who embodies his nation’s existential struggle. NATO has been revived from its creeping “brain death.” And the European Union has suddenly been transformed from an inward-looking peace project into a community of sovereignty and security. As one senior European diplomat told me this week, “Russia is too big and too connected to us to be allowed to behave like a bully that is freed from all norms. Either our response to this war puts a stop to it or our world will collapse.”

The crisis that Putin has created for Europe is not only about security. It is philosophical. The European project was built on the idea that former enemies could become friends through economic, legal, and (eventually) political interdependence. From the outside, the war in Ukraine looks like a twentieth-century military intervention. But this conflict is not unfolding across an iron curtain. It involves parties that are totally bound up with one another, and it is being waged not only with planes and tanks, but also with sanctions, supply chains, financial flows, people, information, and digital bits.

The old vision of an order with Russia has been replaced by one against Russia, with no common institutions or trust

This hyper-connectedness makes a stable peace impossible. Europe will have to be prepared for continuous disruption and disorder, at least so long as Putin remains in power. In rethinking the European order, policymakers must grapple with four sets of questions.

Firstly, where should the borders of Europe and NATO lie? For years, when Europeans have thought about borders, it has been in the context of removing them internally (or relaxing them to recognise an independent Kosovo). The precise edges of the European Union and NATO were somewhat ambiguous. But now there will be a big debate about who is in and who is out.

Crystallising these distinctions will result in a slightly smaller but more consolidated West. Sweden and Finland may join NATO, but there will be less tolerance for countries that try to sit on the fence: Hungary, Turkey, and Serbia will have to choose a side. There will also be a big debate about countries that want to join the EU but lack the qualifications for membership: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Western Balkans states. Some European diplomats have begun to talk of a multi-speed Europe, whereby these countries might gain limited access to the single market, the energy union, or the European Green Deal.

The second question is whether Europe is ready for a regional order based on a balance of power rather than on laws and institutions. The old vision of an order with Russia has been replaced by one against Russia, with no common institutions or trust. There will be a major push toward rearmament, a process that has already begun in Germany and Denmark. There will also be a new debate about military bases and nuclear weapons, which will divert European attention (and probably resources) away from global multilateral engagement.

Thirdly, does Europe have a political basis for building economic and societal resilience? In connectivity wars – conflicts between interdependent powers – the keys to success are patience and the capacity to endure pain. While there is currently much public support for sanctions on Russia, this may not last if oil and gas prices continue to soar, precipitating a recession.

After creating a massive recovery fund to prevent covid-19 from ripping the EU apart, European institutions are now considering new solidarity mechanisms to help consumers cope with soaring energy prices and other knock-on effects from the sanctions. One way or another, Europe will be restructuring its energy markets, supply chains, and finances – which will have major global implications.

The last big question is whether Europe is part of a regional order or a global one. Until a few weeks ago, Europe was seen as a geopolitical sideshow to the defining contest of the twenty-first century: the battle to control the Indo-Pacific. But the re-emergence of war on the continent, and the tightening partnership between China and Russia, have put Europe and “Eurasia” back at centre stage. As Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations argues, NATO will now need to link up with Asian democracies, coordinating policy and even forcing positions across the European and Pacific theatres.

Many observers have pointed out that Putin, with his historical fantasies and fears of encirclement, is living in a different world. But this metaphor belies the fact that our fates are intertwined. It doesn’t matter what world (or time period) Putin thinks he is living in. So long as he is in the Kremlin, Europe will not be safe.

European leaders will need to reconcile the world they want to live in with the one that Putin has foisted upon them. Some will say that progress toward a rules-based, ecologically conscious world was always illusory. But I continue to believe that the pooling of sovereignty among Europeans, the development of supranational regulatory regimes, and cooperation on technology, environmental protection, and health represent huge advances for our civilisation.

Geopolitics in Eurasia has become a competition for survival. The ultimate question, then, is how to maintain the values of Kantian perpetual peace within the EU while also defending against the threats from the jungle outside.

This commentary was originally published on 18 March 2022 in Project Syndicate.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.