Political momentum in the East
In the face of the Russian war of aggression, this void has been filled by CEE countries, the closest to Ukraine both historically and geographically. Most of these countries, just like Ukraine, had spent decades under Russian domination before the collapse of the USSR, and they were wary of Russian ambitions in what it calls its “near abroad.” On the morning of February 24, they felt they had been struck by Cassandra’s curse after having warned for years about the aggressive views of Vladimir Putin. In the East, many criticized French and German attitudes over the past ten years, in particular Angela Merkel’s insistence on pursuing the Nord-Stream 2 project despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or Macron’s desire to pursue better relations with Moscow as part of his vision for European strategic autonomy. These criticisms haven’t stopped as France and Germany’s responses to the invasion have been labeled as timid, even ambiguous. Notably, Scholz’s initial refusal to send Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine or Macron’s comments about the need “not to humiliate Putin” were very poorly received in Eastern European capitals.
As they had rightfully foreseen the danger Putin represented for peace in Europe, CEE countries have felt empowered with new political legitimacy, giving them room for notable political momentum. Additionally, they have, in relative terms, provided greater support to Ukraine than France or Germany. As an example, 1% of Estonian GDP is now dedicated to supporting Ukraine. The corresponding figure for France and Germany doesn’t reach even 0.1%. Obviously, support is stronger in the East because these countries feel more threatened by Russia for geographical and historical reasons, but this support also brings them three things. First, a feeling of moral superiority which reinforces their political legitimacy, as they are doing relatively more than France or Germany for the defense of Europe (one example: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki labeling Germany’s policy response to the Russian invasion as “selfish”). Second, it gives them political prestige and credibility in Europe to the detriment of France and Germany, as the latter have at times made empty promises or even seemed complacent toward Putin. Third, as Eastern Europe manages to effectively assist Ukraine and to present itself as a vocal political opponent to Russia, it gives the impression that it has agency within the EU, and that the leadership, or support, of Western European countries is not a precondition to their exercise of power. All these elements, taken together, have helped spread the view that the “heart of Europe” has moved eastward and that new leaders from the eastern periphery were appearing on the European political scene.
But when analyzing these European power dynamics, another actor needs to be mentioned in order to understand the broader picture: the United States. The United States has been by far the most supportive country of Ukraine, and it is obvious that without US military, financial, political and intelligence support (transferred through Eastern Europe), the war might have ended long ago. The US has also supported Eastern European initiatives. Among CEE countries, Poland stands out -- Joe Biden has visited Warsaw twice in less than a year. Emboldened by the US support, Poland and other CEE countries have felt more comfortable to contest the Franco-German leadership. The US, for its part, sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to maintain its grip on the EU by playing on the rivalry between “Old Europe” (comprising Western European countries) and “New Europe” (the CEE countries). In view of its global confrontation with China, this provides a way to slow the process of European autonomy and to prevent the rise of a “third pole,” which could happen only if Europeans are united and agree to move in the same direction.
But as the tandem is contested, one must ask if any country other than France and Germany, or any group of countries (more substantial than the CEE countries), could realistically assume leadership in Europe beyond the perspective of the war in Ukraine.