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The Ukraine War Has Transformed Europe—for Good

The notion of a Zeitenwende—a major turning point—is not just German anymore. Putin’s war has become a Zeitenwende for all Europe.
March 3, 2023
The Ukraine War Has Transformed Europe—for Good
The landmark Brandenburg Gate is illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag amid Russia-West tensions on Ukraine in Berlin on February 23, 2022 following Russia's recognition of eastern Ukrainian separatists - Russia faced a furious global diplomatic and economic backlash after President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine to secure two breakaway regions. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Here’s a brief report from a just-concluded trip to Europe, where we had private and candid discussions in Prague and Berlin with Czechs and Germans, but also with Finns, Danes, Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians, Slovaks, Romanians, and Ukrainians.

It’s worth saying that the people with whom we spoke were, admittedly, pretty much all of a pro-Ukrainian and pro-American bent. So take our conclusions with that caveat. But consider also that our interlocutors thought Europe’s pro-Putin and anti-American lobby was on the defense and shrinking.

And consider more fundamentally: Zeitenwende—the idea that we are at a major, even transformational, turning point—is not just a German affair. Europe as a whole is at a Zeitenwende.

Yesterday’s Europe—say, from 1991 through 2021—was a Europe of peace and plenty, of allergy to conflict, of high if somewhat fuzzy and even fanciful hopes, and ultimately of a certain amount of evasion and complacency. Malignant nationalism in the Balkans? Saddam Hussein’s war against Kuwait? Those problems were seen as anomalies, final gasps of a geostrategic, hard-power past. They were also solved relatively quickly, without immense sacrifice, and chiefly with the help of American leadership and military might—which, it was assumed, were mostly instruments of the past to deal with problems of the past.

This fat and happy Europe—a Europe whole and free and at peace, that was going to stay that way—was a real accomplishment. It was a much-welcomed successor to the divided Europe of the Cold War, and even more to the preceding Europe of the two world wars.

What is now widely understood is that the Europe of the last three decades ended on February 24, 2022, with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The full-scale character of the war, and its brutality in every respect, has proved more bracing than those countless transatlantic seminars on how much of a nation’s GDP should be spent on defense. The largest land war in Europe since 1945 has been more than a wakeup call. It has been an alarm bell that that continues to ring every day with a loudness and persistence that may be difficult for Americans to appreciate.

Putin’s war has become Europe’s Zeitenwende. The extraordinary leadership of Ukraine’s President Zelensky has been absolutely crucial. The United States has stepped up in a very important way. But what’s been also striking is Europe’s reaction, and the way Europeans are emerging from their cocoon.

Germany, a country of few flags, feels suddenly comfortable with Ukrainian flags pretty much anywhere. They were certainly in plentiful view in the neighboring Czech Republic, at the train station in Prague and in the old city square. They were everywhere on February 24 at a rally of thousands we joined near the Ukrainian Embassy, in the district known as Prague 6. It’s an area for weekend café-goers and high-end shoppers. It’s also where we listened to Czech President-elect Petr Pavel, a retired army general and former NATO military committee chief, denounce appeasement, past and present.

By the way, Czechs have taken in about half a million Ukrainian refugees—more per capita than any other EU nation. But many other nations, including Poland and Germany, have been very generous, and they seem not be seeing much in the way of a public backlash.

In Berlin, there’s a lot of discussion of various aspects of the German Zeitenwende. We have ourselves written about its bumpy, although in our view singularly promising, path. But the larger story is one of generational change and ideological transformation.

In Germany, the Greens—with politicians in their thirties, forties, and early fifties—are leading the way. They don’t mind talking straightforwardly about the struggle for freedom and the responsibility to defeat tyranny. Younger Social Democrats have turned their back on the legacy of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, late of Rosneft and Gazprom. In less than a year, cautious Germans have moved from providing helmets to Leopard tanks. Their liberation from dependence on Russian energy has been pretty spectacular.

For Czechs, the war feels close. You could fly from Prague to Kyiv in two hours—faster than flying from New York to Chicago. (Well, you could do that before Ukrainian airspace was closed by Russian fighter jets.) It was striking in our discussions how much the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic is back in Czech consciousness.

For Nordics and Balts, the threat is even closer. The Swedes and Finns are racing to join NATO, with broad public support. There’s a vision emerging among the Czechs, Poles, and Northern Europeans of a Europe with serious military capacity. There’s a new focus on geopolitical strategy with defense and deterrence at its core. And Europe’s strategic center of gravity is shifting to a broader constellation of nations, away from the almost complete dominance of France and Germany.

Which brings us back to Ukraine. There’s a clear sense in Europe that a clock is now ticking. There’s a feeling of urgency, an understanding that we must finally give the Ukrainians the weapons they need for victory this year. As one European told us, both Europe and the United States need “less incrementalism, more decisiveness.”

This broad European Zeitenwende won’t be easy. But the new frontline European nations are looking ahead. They see a need and opportunity for new structures that can protect European democracies for years to come. And there’s a growing conviction that victory in Ukraine can and should lead to meaningful political change in Russia itself.

For Americans, this is an opportunity to join our frontline European friends not only in a commitment to Ukrainian victory but also in thinking more clearly of what Europe can look like when Ukraine wins.

That European future can and must be in the spirit of what Zelensky says and stands for. Europe’s future is not in the spirit of Orbán. Nor of Schröder. And certainly not of Putin.

William Kristol and Jeffrey Gedmin

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark. Jeffrey Gedmin is cofounder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. Last week’s meetings and roundtable in Berlin were cohosted by American Purpose and Renew Democracy Initiative.