Putin: The great catalyst for European defence?

“I conceive of a moral politician, that is, one who considers the principles of political prudence as compatible with morality; but I do not conceive of a political moralist, that is, one who forges an ad hoc morality, a morality favourable to the conveniences of the statesman. [...] The principles which [the latter] put into practice ⎯although without manifesting it⎯ say little more or less what the following sophistic maxims say: fac et excusa [act now, justify it later]; si fecisti, nega [if you committed a crime, deny it]; divide et impera [divide and conquer].”
⎯Immanuel Kant, On Perpetual Peace (1795).

If we were asked to describe Vladimir Putin as a “moral politician” or a “political moralist,” there is no doubt which would be the more popular choice, at least in the West. Until recently, however, virtually no one questioned that the Russian president had at least one important virtue: cunningness. Time after time – in Syria, in Libya, in the U.S. elections or, of course, in Russia itself – Putin seemed to get away with exploiting divisions and fishing in troubled waters. 

With the accumulated failures of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with the recent attempted rebellion of the Wagner Group, that aura of infallibility has evaporated. Everything points to the fact that Putin has sinned of overconfidence: not only in his leadership and in the Russian military strength against the Ukrainian one but also in his ability to subdue the EU through energy blackmail and nuclear threats. It is true that there are still those in the Union who strive to justify the Russian president, but Putin has succeeded in dividing his supporters, rather than his detractors. And, as we demonstrate in a study that we will now unpack, European public opinion has become even more in favour of deepening integration in security and defence matters.

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Since 2022, the European institutional landscape in this area has been significantly simplified, and not exactly in accordance with Putin’s preferences. Finland has joined NATO and Sweden is on its way, pending the lifting of Hungary and Turkey’s blockade. Denmark has joined the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and, a few weeks ago, Denmark joined the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which aims to develop more joint defence capabilities. Table 1 summarises the situation before the 2022 invasion, while Table 2 presents the most plausible scenario we are heading towards in the short term.
Table 1. EU Member States according to their relationship with CSDP, PESCO, and NATO, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022

Table 2. EU Member States according to their relationship with CSDP, PESCO, and NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (*Sweden’s accession to NATO pending ratification in Hungary and Turkey)

In a recent academic paper published in the Journal of European Integration and arising from the ENGAGE project, which receives funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, we have explored some of these effects at the European level. The study draws on the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), which collects news stories about events from more than 150,000 sources and in more than 100 different languages, classifying them according to a number of variables, such as their origin and their ‘tone’. If the tone of a news item is greater than 0, it indicates that the words it contains have a more positive connotation than a negative one, and vice versa. The study focuses on two datasets: one covering all national security news stories emanating from the 27 EU member states, and the other focusing specifically on those mentioning key EU institutions.

Our study is limited to the period between 3 November 2021 (when Ukraine publicly confirmed the presence of 90,000 Russian troops on its borders) and 1 May 2022 (about three months after the start of the invasion). We focus in particular on 11 EU countries that fall into five categories, depending on whether they border Russia, as well as their participation in the CSDP and their military alignment prior to the 2022 invasion (see Table 3). Finland and Sweden appear as ‘militarily non-aligned’ countries as they had already incorporated important nuances in their traditional neutrality prior to their applications for NATO membership in May 2022.
Table 3. Categories of EU Member States according to our independent variables

As Figure 1 shows, in most of the 27 member states the tone of security news becomes more positive when the EU is mentioned. While this was already the case before the invasion, the trend has become more pronounced since the invasion. Generally, this development is more pronounced among the 11 selected countries than among the other 16, although most neutral countries are an exception. 
Figure 1. Difference in tone of security news stories mentioning the EU, compared to all security news stories, in the selected categories (see Table 3).

Complementing the big data analysis, our study explores these categories through opinion polls. Figure 2 shows that net CSDP favourability (percentage of population in favour minus percentage against) was already positive before the invasion in all EU countries, including Denmark, the only one that requested an exemption in the 1990s. Traditionally neutral countries were more reluctant than average (except for the particular case of Cyprus, which has been forced to renounce NATO shelter due to the Turkish veto), but still strongly in favour of CSDP. Most countries bordering Russia showed above-average favourability rates.
Figure 2. Net favourability towards CSDP by Member State (February 2021-February 2022)
Source: Own calculations, based on an average of Eurobarometer 94, 95 and 96 data (collected in February-March 2021, June-July 2021 and January-February 2022, respectively)

Figure 3 tracks the evolution of net favourability between the last pre-invasion Eurobarometer and the first post-invasion Eurobarometer. The changes are significant: the EU average is clearly up, with the increase being particularly notable in Finland, Sweden, and Poland. It follows that Finns and Swedes do not believe that NATO membership will make it any less necessary to advocate a more integrated EU in terms of security and defence. Like most Europeans, they see NATO and the CSDP as complementary.
Figure 3. Evolution of net favourability towards the CSDP by member state (before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022)
Source: Own calculations, based on data from Eurobarometer 96 (collected in January-February 2022) and Special Eurobarometer 526 (collected in April-May 2022)

Although Eurobarometer data does not always match the tones of security news, a number of clear trends emerge from our study. First, neutral countries behave in a very heterogeneous way, reflecting their different experiences with the policy of neutrality. On the other hand, countries that share a border with Russia and are part of the EU and NATO - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland - are now generally more favourable to CSDP. The same is true of Finland, Sweden and Denmark, countries that have been reluctant in one way or another to make the EU a security and defence-focused organisation. It is also worth noting that such reluctance was never as deep among the public as was often thought.

All these trends suggest that advocates of a more integrated EU in security and defence matters have public support, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This favourable climate of opinion seems to underpin some unprecedented steps that have been taken, such as sending arms to Ukraine under the European Peace Facility. Most Europeans are supporters of NATO, but do not believe that this is enough; they advocate further development of European capabilities and collective safeguards. Of the many seismic shifts that Putin’s invasion has provoked, this may prove to be one of the most far-reaching and long-lasting. In Europe, his tactic of divide et impera has failed.
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