Europe’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, With Matthias Matthijs

Matthias Matthijs, senior fellow for Europe at CFR and associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how European capitals are reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

March 1, 2022 — 36:28 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Matthias Matthijs

Senior Fellow for Europe

Show Notes

Matthias Matthijs, senior fellow for Europe at CFR and associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how European capitals are reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

 

Statements Mentioned on the Podcast

 

A French-German Initiative for the European Recovery from the Coronavirus Crisis,” Élysée, May 18, 2020

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is Europe's response to Ukraine. With me to discuss how Europe is reacting to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine is Matthias Matthijs. Matthias is senior fellow for Europe at the Council, an associate professor international political economy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Since 2019, he's also served as the chair of the executive committee of the European Union studies association. Matthias, thanks for sitting down with me.

Matthias Matthijs:

Pleasure to be here, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, Matthias, I'm going to begin our conversation with the usual caveats so this is a fluid situation and events could easily change by the time this episode airs, that said, I'm curious with your overall assessment of Europe's reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Matthias Matthijs:

That's an excellent question. I think the one issue I'm probably most comfortable talking about because a lot has happened in the last week and it doesn't really entail making large predictions about the future, which of course, remain in the air. But I think the key player in the European scene has been Germany. Germany is the biggest economy. Major creditor of the rest of the European Union and has been I think for better or worse, at the heart of every crisis of European integration the last 10 years. Including, of course, Angela Merkel's role in cobbling together this first sanctions coalition back in 2014 after Putin's invasion of an annexation of Crimea and, of course, the beginning of the kind of pro-Russian rebellion in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. What has been striking to me and to I think many analysts or people who follow Germany closely is just how fast this new coalition government has moved in breaking pretty much every taboo in post war German foreign policy and even more so in the short term, in what we had taken for granted and kind of the Merkel strategy for Germany, both in Europe and in dealing with Russia, right?

Matthias Matthijs:

So if you go back in time about mid-February, Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor of Germany made a visit to Washington DC amidst a lot of tension. For the first time, Germany had to prove it was a good Trans-Atlantic ally and not America had to convince Germany, but it was the other way around. And of course the big target of America’s ire, both on the Republican and the Democratic side, was Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that goes directly from Russia around the Baltics and Poland to Germany. It's been completed and so the question is it's going to be certified, what's going to happen? And the certification had already been on hold. Back then, Scholz had a rather wooden performance. It was not very effective. He couldn't even say the words Nord Stream two. What we have seen since mid-February has been extraordinary.

Matthias Matthijs:

Olaf Scholz pulled a plug from Nord Stream 2 before the invasion even started. This was at the occasion of the recognition by Vladimir Putin of the independence of the two breakaway regions in Ukraine Luhansk and Donetsk. And then what's happened in the last few days on sanctions, on military spending, on energy policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's go over them, it is considered quite significant. The Germans have said that they will send weapons to Ukraine that runs against long-standing German policy on sending weapons into a conflict zone. They're going to stop blocking allies like in Netherlands and Estonia from following suit. But Olaf Scholz has gone beyond that, he's announced that Germany is going to hit it's 2% pledge made back in 2014 at the Wales Summit to spend 2% of its GDP on the military in indeed immediate down payment of $110 billion, essentially doubling the size of the German defense budget. That's quite a swing.

Matthias Matthijs:

That is astonishing. First of all, it will make Germany in just a few years, the biggest defense power in Europe, at least when it comes to military spending, of course, it's not acquiring nuclear weapons or anything like this, but it will be bigger than France. It will be bigger than the United Kingdom. And that's when it just comes to defense spending. So in the hundred billion euros, $110 billion of down payment on this, that even in a coalition with quite fiscally hawkish liberal party have said, this is going to be off budgets. This is for our future freedom. This is significant. So that's the first one is the 2% spending is therefore extraordinary, right? We're talking about billions and billions of euros.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, I'm surprised because when I was last in Berlin, I was assured by German officials that there was no way they could spend 2%, the budget constraints were simply too great to allow Germany to fulfill its pledge and that American should be understanding.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah. And that's been blown out of the water over just a few days and don't forget, I mean from the invasion on February 24th, until the next few days, Germany still hesitated a little bit right? When it came to what was known as the nuclear option and cutting off swift, and then they found a way to do targeted swift cutoffs of Russia. But I think also on the weapons, they still hesitated. And it was a visit by the Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki, who made them basically see the historic significance of what was going on in Eastern Europe and you know not so subtly reminding Germany of its historic responsibility, going back to the destruction of Kiev in World War II by the Nazis, of course.

Matthias Matthijs:

I think also, this Putin speech, this kind of deranged weird speech by Vladimir Putin himself to talk about the denazification of Ukraine, I really shook the historic conscience and the memory, insulted I think every German into kind of ready action. And so the idea that Germany is just funding a few defensive weapons I mean, quite recently, we were still talking about 5,000 helmets that were going to be sent from Berlin to Kiev. Now we're talking about a hundred anti-tank weapons, 50 stinger anti-aircraft missiles. This is serious, serious business. And it really has in just a few days, moved in that direction.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, the change is quite clear in Germany, very, very significant, but the change isn't only in German foreign policy. So if we may, Matthias, I want to just jump around to a few countries and just get your reactions, let me begin in the North or Northeast of Europe. And that is the reaction of Sweden in Finland. We see Sweden agreeing to send 5,000 anti-tank weapons, Finland, which shares a border with Russia is suggested that perhaps it wants to join NATO, what do you make of this?

Matthias Matthijs:

Again, I think Putin and his actions over the last few weeks and months have made the unthinkable thinkable there. Especially the Russian Foreign Minister's reaction to Sweden and Finland, thinking about NATO membership now having political and military consequences for them, I think shook them as well into like doubling down on this. It was like, listen, we are free countries, they're both of course members of the European Union, but a long tradition of being neutral. And now realizing that being neutral in this conflict is not possible, right? There is a clear aggressor, and there's clearly a country that is in need of defense and this is Ukraine. And so this has gone from a fantasy idea of Finland, especially, right? Because of this kind of forced neutrality after World War II, you could say almost a pragmatic approach to not stirring the passions on the Russian side that they're now realizing, well, but we didn't really choose to be neutral right? This was kind of forced on us and maybe we need to rethink this.

Matthias Matthijs:

Same with Sweden right? Sweden has always been the neutral peace making sort of country and the fact of them being neutral makes that they can play this role right? Remember Hans Blix, the Swedish UN weapons expert during the run up to the Iraq war right? The idea is always that people trust the Swedes defense, or that matter the Swiss and the Austrians, who also have a long tradition of being neutral in this. They are now really rethinking some of those previous policies.

Jim Lindsay:

I saw somebody quipped that Vladimir Putin had managed to kill Swedish neutrality in German pacifism in a single weekend.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah. And I don't think it's an exaggeration. If we had recorded this podcast a few weeks ago, I would probably tell you, this is still in the realm of you know fantasy. And indeed I think most people would agree on this. And that's why to your earlier caveat starting with this podcast with, you do get a sense that history is moving incredibly fast at this moment and in the last few days, and I imagine will in the next few days as well.

Jim Lindsay:

It reminds me of another quote, this one by Vladimir Lenin, that there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen. That seems to be the case in Europe today.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yes. And what is striking for anyone like myself who studied the kind of multiple crises in European integration and the struggles in the European Union, it's been a very tough decade. They lost one of their most important members, the United Kingdom in the 2016 referendum, they struggled with kind of almost existential debt crisis between 2010 and 2012. Refugees, the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. And then of course, democratic backsliding at home right? In Hungary and Poland. So you get a sense that those problems, the Eurozone, even Orban and Kaczynski, the kind of autocrats in chief in central Europe that are members of the EU, it feels like all of these problems have been shoved aside.

Jim Lindsay:

Putin sympathizes.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah, “Putinverstehers,” if we can use the German term. And in the end, it's not insignificant also that this is happening at the end of Angela Merkel's kind of long reign of Putin verstehen right of being, kind of always trying to find common ground with Russia, not pushing too hard and so on. And that now you have a very different German coalition that is basically making this push, because let's be honest, if you follow the kind of French view of the future of European integration, they were ready with a lot of these things from defense, from energy and so on. It was really Germany dragging its feet right? It's dependence on Russia and energy and never this idea of like getting serious about defense. And that's something that's happened just very recently.

Jim Lindsay:

So let me draw you out on this point about the EU, because when most Americans talk about Europe and talk about the Ukraine crisis, the four letter word we get is NATO. And we talk about what NATO is doing, but this is obviously a big moment for that two letter organization, the EU, is this a special moment or a turning point, a pivot for the European Union?

Matthias Matthijs:

I think it is a special moment for Europe and 2022 is always going to be significant because on the one hand you have in Germany, a very pro-EU integration coalition with Greens and pro-market liberals. And so what they call the traffic light coalition, because of the colors, red, green, and yellow of the three parties that is actually much more open to further integration, meaning doing some of the things to make the Euro function better when it comes to energy, when it comes to climate change, when it comes to digitization right? Things that Germany have been dragging its feet on. And so this shift already was underway to be fair in the last few years of Angela Merkel's policy, but this has been sped up quite significantly in the last, since the fall of 2021.

Matthias Matthijs:

Secondly, in Italy, you have with Mario Draghi, the former President of the European Central Bank, an Italian politician, who's sitting on top of you know kind of a populous elements and non-populous element coalition, but will be there for another year. And he has you know undoubted pro-European credentials. And then of course coming up in April, we have a French Presidential Election, where Macron was already far ahead in the polls of all his opponents, but now his biggest opponents and they're three and they're all on the right, all have very uncomfortable relationships or two cozy relationships with Putin's Russia.

Jim Lindsay:

They've been too complimentary of Mr. Putin.

Matthias Matthijs:

Absolutely, right? So especially true of the two on the far right, but also of the Valérie Pécress, the candidate on the Republican Sarkozy's party, the old Gaulle's party, that they have very close for relations with Russia as well. So Macron looks like he's going to sail I mean again, let's not make predictions too far out, but it looks like it's his to lose. And then you really have the big three, the three remaining G7 seven countries of the EU, who kind of think alike when it comes to European integration. And so for our listeners here in the United States, especially the new concept in Europe, that's somewhat been mocked or been laughed at in DC circles, is this idea of EU strategic autonomy or EU sovereignty right? And then they're very quick to point out, yeah, sure, as long as America provides your security through NATO, you can talk.

Jim Lindsay:

Matthias, explain what you see strategic autonomy being.

Matthias Matthijs:

So to me, EU strategic autonomy had the biggest part of it was this geo-economic dimension, right? If you look at foreign policy in the last two decades, especially the last decades and United States has been quicker on this than the Europeans, it's much more about economic warfare right? Or economic sanctions using your economy in strategic terms to get your way. Of course, Donald Trump, when he was president was very willing to use tariffs and trades and economic and financial sanctions to pursue his objectives. And I think the European Union has woken up to this because, and this is what significant in 2009, when the treaty of Lisbon was signed, things like investment screening and other things to do with the single market were given solely to the European commission.

Matthias Matthijs:

Nobody was too worried about it because in 2009, we still thought all kinds of investment was good, right? And this was pre-Xi in China. And even the United States still was very much thinking as most investment not being strategically complicated. So that's changed, right? In the United States where we're much more aware when the Chinese invest or Russia invests in strategic assets and so on, way more so than let's say Japan buying up Rockefeller Center in the early 1990s, right?

Jim Lindsay:

Or pebble beach.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yes, for that matter. So to me, EU strategic autonomy means completing the architecture of the Euro, meaning the Euro becoming a true reserve currency of choice, just like the US dollar is, which gives you certain powers right? Of, again, being a central element, being much more of a hub in the financial system, rather than just a spoke or a small hub, and so that's one. So that means having Euro bonds or something like the US treasury bills that are being issued and the reserve asset of choice. It also means using your market, the giant share you know that you have in world trade as you know blocking certain imports when it comes to your goals on climate change, on human rights, and so on.

Matthias Matthijs:

And investment screening has been added to that as well, which the EU is now rapidly developing. So that to me is a big part of this plus, of course, industrial policy, right? I mean, how do you develop the new industries of the future, because here the EU has been lagging behind China and the United States. I think of there's no European Google, there's no European Alibaba and so on, right? And so there again, much more strategic investments. So that's kind of been the vision for strategic autonomy that that's what Europe should be doing.

Jim Lindsay:

And so you see that as gaining strength in the wake of recent events?

Matthias Matthijs:

Absolutely. So the shift had already started in May 2020, 2 months after the pandemic in a joint declaration between Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron, which had a four point plan. The second point was picked up the most, and it was this 500 billion Euro investment fund to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic. But there were three other points, one, three and four that talked about a health union, that talked about climate change, and that talked about industrial policy. And there, the word constantly was autonomy, strategic autonomy, sovereignty, more EU sovereignty, and this and that. And so, that was Macron's kind of victory, if you say, over already a reluctant Germany. Now, suddenly we've added a defense dimension to this. And that of course is a French dream right? Since the UK having left the European Union and since the debacle around the Aukus deal between Australia, United Kingdom and the United States.

Matthias Matthijs:

You know of course the commercial part was for the submarines, but the other part of course was much closer corporation in the end of Pacific, where the French felt completely slighted stabbed in the back by NATO allies, decided to forgive the United States, ignore the UK, and I guess punish the Australians for now. But here, of course, this was the French then hoping, at the time, and we're talking September only 2021, looking for Germany to back this up and Germany was very quiet at the time, right? Now, you see that Germany is moving towards much more aggressive defense spending. And again, that doesn't have to mean that this is an opposition to the United States, but let's also not forget that the Europeans are still recovering from four years of Donald Trump and a very kind of rocky Trans-Atlantic relationship and that's also part of the strategy, right?

Matthias Matthijs:

Is that Europe needs to be able to stand on its own in defense terms. The complementary part of course is America wants Europe to do more, right? America wants to focus on the end of Pacific, on China and so it would be great if like-minded democratic allies in Europe could take care of their own neighborhood in a much more kind of hardware, military sort of way.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me draw you out on the opposite side of that point, which is, do you think that what is happening in Ukraine today is going to make European capitals more inclined to want to take a tougher line vis a vis China?

Matthias Matthijs:

Yes. And I think that was already underway. There's of course-

Jim Lindsay:

So this is accelerating a trend.

Matthias Matthijs:

I think so, because there I mean are short term economic interests and here there is a bit of concern rightly so that these things are moving incredibly fast, right? They may have thought about this, but now cutting yourself off completely from Russia. I mean the last thing you'd want to do is, you know, cut yourself off completely from China, right? That said, what was underway when it comes to dealing with China for the European Union was the end of a naive engagement in commercial terms. A much more heightened awareness that there were risks when it comes to 5G, when it comes to security and Chinese investments and so on.

Matthias Matthijs:

But I think this shift, again, is personified by Germany's coalition and Olaf Scholz, especially the Greens in his government, Annalena Baerbock, who seems to be doing an excellent job as foreign minister and really kind of finding her stride there, that she was already very critical of Germany's very, very cozy relationship with autocratic powers, especially Russia, but also China. And so that's part of this strategic autonomy or EU sovereignty part, right? You need to be able to rely less on Chinese imports for critical things. And of course, that was brought to light the most and in the most painful way, when the pandemic hit in 2020.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, I mentioned when I introduced you, Matthias, that you are an expert in international political economy. So I want to talk a little bit about the sanctions that have been imposed by the EU on Russia. Can you give us a sense of their significance and also perhaps is there a danger that these sanctions may have unintended consequences that we're going to regret down the road?

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah. Excellent questions.

Jim Lindsay:

Thank you.

Matthias Matthijs:

On your latter point, I think there's definitely an enormous risk because what we have done, the EU plus UK plus US plus Canada plus now Switzerland, Japan even right? This is going well beyond the Western Alliance.

Jim Lindsay:

The Swiss apparently have even gone so far as to freeze Putin's assets and Switzerland has been known as the world's banker, it doesn't do those sort of things.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah. It's well known that quite a few of Putin's personal bank accounts are in Switzerland, right? All these things are set up in a very complicated manner through shell companies and so on. But yes, this is significant that even Switzerland can no longer get away with, we're neutral and that's our comparative advantage when it comes to finance. But so the sanctions, the main problem of course Europe face, and that's why this has taken a little bit longer than I think, for example, Joe Biden and the Americans had hoped, was that of course Europe is much more interdependent economically and financially with Russia than the United States, right? So for the United States, this is, in a way, easier to put this on the table because the blowback on the US population is going to be much less significant.

Matthias Matthijs:

So this is not just true for the EU, but also for the United Kingdom, right? That for years, decades, has been taking oligarch's money that have been able to launder their way to the city right? The city of London. So the most significant thing Europe has done has of course been the financial sanctions, right? All the individuals whose assets have been frozen, the targeted swift cutoff, right? So that was seen as the nuclear option, because it basically means that you can no longer pay yourself, Russians for you know gas and oil deliveries, but they found a work around there, which meant that they cut off certain systemic Russian banks from the SWIFT system where they're no longer able to pay and even more significant thing we've done is of course cutting off the Russian Central Bank. They have a significant amount of reserves abroad.

Matthias Matthijs:

So a lot of reporting focused on, I think, the $630 billion figure of reserves that Russia has built up in the last 10 years, that would make it easier for them to withstand any sort of future financial sanctions. Well, but if a big chunk of this money is held abroad and it's frozen, then the central bank can no longer do this. So that's basically meaning we are forcing the equivalent of a Russian default and the West is doing this. If you're Vladimir Putin, you could interpret this as an act of war. Are we ready for any kind of financial response? Maybe, but are we ready for a military or you know he's put nuclear weapons on the table, right? I mean that's a very different kind of escalation that we've seen over the weekend of February 26, 27, that the Biden administration immediately its instinct was to deescalate this.

Matthias Matthijs:

So then there's already been significant trade sanctions. And then the question is, you know when do you realize how dependent you really are on which banks are have significant exposure to Russian assets and which countries were the most reliant on Russian gas? So it's not surprising that countries like Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and of course, Germany who take the lion share of their gas from Russia were the most resistant to this. So far, the gas is still flowing and we're nearing the end of the winter and there's enough reserves to get through this winter as far as I understand. But the question is what does this mean for next year, right? I mean and that's in the realm of things that we don't know. How long will this conflict go on for? Can we even see an end to this? Like an end where somehow there's a relative return to stability. It's hard to see this right now

Jim Lindsay:

Matthias you referenced the fact that Vladimir Putin has errors in his quiver that he can fire in response, you mentioned the nuclear alerts, not really clear what that means. News reports based on unnamed senior American officials indicate they've seen no change in the Russian nuclear forces, but that could obviously change at any moments notice, even if it is true. But there are obviously other ways that Putin could punish Europe for its united stand on Ukraine. One of the things I've heard is that Putin may try to create difficulties in the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. How much do you worry about that kind of asymmetric response?

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah. There is a real danger right now that we think Putin is either too rational an actor or too irrational an actor, right? We don't really know, right? I mean the international relations professors, when they teach courses or international political economy professors, for that matter, say things are very complicated. These things are multifaceted. There's a lot of things that interact.

Jim Lindsay:

It depends.

Matthias Matthijs:

German things, it depends. Now you see a lot of my colleagues on Twitter, happily saying, this is how Putin thinks. This is what he wants and making it very, very simple. And so in the end, I mean this is moving so fast, but he can definitely, I mean the nuclear option for him would be to cut off energy, right? That would have an immediate impact. It would have an immediate impact on gas and oil prices and that would... Countries in Europe and the United States for that matter already suffering from seven, 8% levels of inflation easily make it into double digits, right? And that is something that I think will be hard.

Jim Lindsay:

Oh, I'd imagine, you could also throw a lot of people out of work, just given the decline in energy production that would likely result.

Matthias Matthijs:

That as well. There is a real risk of masses of flows of refugees, which are already I mean the UN has already estimated them at around 500,000. What Putin, I think didn't anticipate is the open arms response, thus far, right? I mean right now, the EU is determined for the next three years, they will take in everybody who wants to come. They will give them a work permit for three years. And then this has all been decided in record time over a weekend. The last weekend of February in Brussels, right? I mean how long did it take for them to agree on 60,000 refugees and some sharing mechanism back in 2015? So there's been learning there and there's a tremendous amount of solidarity with Ukraine right now, which I think Putin has underestimated. But yeah I mean there's a lot of things we import from Russia, basic agricultural food stuffs, minerals, and so on.

Matthias Matthijs:

He could cut off all that as well. That said, I mean if he, ideally, one would think Putin wants to stay in power for a little bit longer, he's not about to kind of pull the plug out of everything. So making yourself a very unreliable supplier on many of these things, doesn't seem like a rational strategy. So it seems to me when it comes to economic and financial interdependence, you did ask me the international political economy question, right, he doesn't have a comparative advantage there right? We are vulnerable to some things, but it will cost them more in the long term. Where he does have a comparative advantage is on the military front, right? And so maybe it wasn't very smart of our leaders in the last 10 years to call Russia a regional power or a small mid-size power because in the end, when it comes to military strategy and military terms, they are a super power, right?

Matthias Matthijs:

Especially on the nuclear front, but also in conventional warfare. So I worry a little bit when you see the Ukrainians easily winning the social media war, that a lot of people in the West are thinking that this means winning real war, right? We just don't know this yet, right? There's a lot of information coming through Twitter, coming through Facebook and so on. That's having an incredible amount of stories about Russian soldiers in Ukraine and so on. But you know this could just be that, just a few stories. We still don't know whether Putin is not willing to escalate this well beyond what he's already doing. And actually, if you look at just the last few days, he is very much willing to escalate. If you look at the current bombardments in Kharkiv and also in the continuing siege of Kiev.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, I think that's everyone's great fear because the Russians clearly do have the ability to escalate. Even if you're just talking about conventional warfare and all you have to do is Google Grozny and look at the pictures of what happened after the Chernihiv war to see what the Russian military is capable of doing. But also I'm curious in that context, Matthias as you're sort of looking at the conflict, how do we deescalate? Right now I see a lot of enthusiasm in Europe, in the United States about we're winning the war in good part because people are viewing the war through Twitter or Instagram and Facebook memes maybe even some TikTok videos. But Mr. Putin has real incentives not to back down doing so obviously would be humiliation, potentially increase the threats he faces at home. So how can Europe get out of this situation? Is there anything that can be offered to Putin? Particularly when I hear people on Twitter or read people on Twitter, talking about bringing Putin to the Hague, to be tried as a war criminal.

Matthias Matthijs:

The longer this goes on, the harder it will be to offer him an off ramp. In the end, the only thing that you could see being acceptable to him is an independent Ukraine that gets rid of this clause in the constitution that their aspirations are for NATO and EU membership, that allows the Donbas region, the full Donbas, the official borders of the two provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, a plebiscite, a referendum like they had in Crimea where international observers that can then vote to either become a member of Russia or become independent. And some guarantee by the West, as well as Russia, that their territorial integrity will be respected. I just don't think that's on offer anymore on the side of the West, right? At this point, it would seem like a giant betrayal of the Ukrainian people. They just, today, February the 28th, signed a request of accession to the European Union.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it seems like Madam Von Der Leyen invited them into the EU over the weekend.

Matthias Matthijs:

Yes. And I thought that was an astonishing thing to say. Not that we have to rule it out forever in the future, but the idea that Europe can follow through on this, that there's agreement on this among the 27 remaining EU member states, that Ukraine is anywhere near that point makes me worried because it seems to me, and we do have a responsibility here, right? I've never believed that this is now happening because of the promise of NATO expansion to Ukraine. That said, we have made we, the West, we, the EU, we, the United States have made a lot of promises to Ukraine, right? Or at least have left that in the middle and said, well, if you do all these things, eventually there will be NATO membership down the line. And I think especially as well on the EU side, right? We're not willing to fight yet.

Matthias Matthijs:

We're not willing to arm them. We're willing to go way further in financial and economic sanctions than we believed a few weeks ago. That said, this would be such a provocation to Russia at this point. And let's not confuse the fact that it's not just Vladimir Putin who believes NATO membership for Ukraine or EU membership for Ukraine would be the biggest affront to Russia nationhood we've seen in 30 years, right? A lot of Russian elites share that view, right? And so if you're not serious about Russian membership to NATO or the EU, then we shouldn't be serious about Ukrainian membership to NATO and the EU, because that's exactly what is driving this wedge between the two countries. But at the same time, everybody's telling us well, but these are brothers and sisters, right? These countries are so close historically that it's very counterproductive, it seems to me, to now, you know basically, get beyond ourselves because I mean at some point the solidarity with Ukraine will start to wane and we'll get back to the old discussions of 3% deficit to GDP ratios and things like that.

Matthias Matthijs:

And then the question is, are you willing for some sort of Martial plan for Ukraine because all of this is going to cost a lot of money. Do we really want to talk about freedom of movement for Ukrainians more than 40 million of them in a market of 440 million Europeans? I mean all these things haven't gone away, all the problem of the last decade. And so I was astonished when I heard Von Der Leyen saying this, in what I hope was a spur of the moment sort of comment, but that said the next day there comes the application and now they're going to have to take this seriously.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me ask you one last question and it is going to require a bit of a prediction so I apologize, Matthias, but how long do you see this European and trans-Atlantic unity lasting?

Matthias Matthijs:

I mean the pessimistic scenario is that this will last until November 2022, when Congress is taken back both Senate and House representative by Trump's style Republicans. That seems to be a little too pessimistic at this point, because also, I think something shifting probably in American politics as well with this conflict, which is very hard to predict. I'm not saying this will all be good for President Biden for the Democrats, but it's not unthinkable at this point, that many Republicans, very comfortable relations with Putin, not least Donald Trump himself will have to think again ? And kind of reposition. I can't imagine many traditional Republican Cold Warriors or Hawks are very comfortable. We're ever comfortable with this in the first place, but now that Putin is doing what he's doing in Ukraine, it's much harder to justify this. So I do see Trans-Atlantic unity lasting for at least a year.

Matthias Matthijs:

And then who knows, right? Because let's be honest, this is the big issue of the moment. Everybody kind of is shocked and horrified. It's hard not to immediately be sympathetic or stand in solidarity with Ukraine, that's being you know unprovoked attacked by a much stronger power. So that said, I mean I do see, the optimist in me, sees... I was just on another panel where they're saying NATO is cool again. And it's true, right? I mean NATO was declared brain dead by Emmanuel Macron just a year ago. Not that long ago.

Jim Lindsay:

That did not age well.

Matthias Matthijs:

No, not at all, right? And now, I think every Balt, Lett, Lithuanian and Pole, Romanian, Bulgarian must say, thank God we're in NATO, right? Because I think that is still a line, a clear line Putin hasn't been willing to cross. We should worry about the Ukraine conflict spreading to the near , right? It's not unthinkable that a Russian plane shoots down a Ukrainian plane that's over Polish airspace and it crashes. And then this escalates, right? So I think we should be very worried about it. I don't think many EU countries are really thinking through what it means to arm Ukraine in such a way that it does basically put you on their side. And that, I mean Putin could well see this as an act of war. And as long as it's paying some money for arms, it's one thing, but sending troops on the ground yourself, and of course, then we're getting into the realm of World War III, which nobody really wants to contemplate or think about, right?

Matthias Matthijs:

So I think it will last a bit because I mean this has been such a turning point, right? February 24th, 2022, for so many people. It's hard to imagine Putin just showing up at a G20 summit ever again, or the UN meeting or things like that, right? So I think that's the big question, right? Does this end quickly? Which I think we all hope, but it's hard to see how it does end quickly and what happens to Vladimir Putin? Because I think our best hope to your earlier question of an off-ramp is some sort of palace coup, where you get a more reasonable elite, who's less aggressive to its neighborhood and in restoring the Russian empire or something like this.

Matthias Matthijs:

You get more reasonable elites in power who slowly kind of deescalate the situation and normalize relations with the West. But then it's also likely that this united front, which of course has Russia as the common enemy quickly dissipates. And then suddenly, maybe it's not all that important to spend that much more money on the fence and so on, right? So we're very early days in this, right? These are all big promises. That said, it seems to me when Germans promise something they tend to follow through, so I wouldn't underestimate the resolve here either.

Jim Lindsay:

And I'll just do a coda on your point about a palace coup. Obviously, if Mr. Putin is gone from the scene, it is easy for his successors to blame him for all that happened, but there's no guarantee that whoever follows Mr. Putin is going to be able to remain in power. And the question is, would a weak divided or politically tumultuous Russia look like and act like?

Matthias Matthijs:

Yeah. And we haven't thought that through either. In the end of the day, our hopes and dreams could still well be in a thriving democratic Russia, but how do we get there? And then if we do get there, what does that mean for the whole concept of strategic autonomy in Europe? Because you're building it up in opposition to a scary Russia. Once that's no longer the case, is that still necessary, but also how durable is that, right? I mean, we've also seen this. I think there's been so many lessons in a way just from the last few weeks, right? I think we always overestimated the legitimacy of authoritarian and autocratic regimes and maybe we underestimated the democratic resolve.

Matthias Matthijs:

That said, this idea that somehow this is a new conflict between authoritarians and democrats is also more complicated, right? You don't see a lot of support for Ukraine coming from democratic India and Israel for that matter. Turkey is trying to have it both ways. And then it's not clear that China is all that comfortable with this new Russia either, right? I mean there's been all kinds of signals that the Chinese will limit or will have some sort of limit of financial interdependence with Russia and so on. So it's much more complicated than how we often want to see this current conflict.

Jim Lindsay:

Said by a true scholar of international political economy and international relations. On that note, I'm going to close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Matthias Matthijs, senior fellow for Europe at CFR and associate professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University. Matthias, thank you for joining.

Matthias Matthijs:

Pleasure, Jim. It was great to be with you.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to the President's Inbox and Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen and leave us a review, they help us get noticed and improve the show. You can find the books and articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always opinions expressed in the President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe did double duty as our recording engineer, thanks as always, Zoe. Special thanks go to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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