Evolution of European Institutions: The Ukraine Conflict

Evolution of European Institutions: The Ukraine Conflict

As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 22 February 2022, the perception of the roles and nature of European institutions has changed. Before the invasion, the purpose of European institutions, particularly the European Union, NATO, and other Euro-wide bodies, were defined by the older, Western member-states. They were therefore seen as embodying common liberal values, supporting democratic politics, and advancing progressive social attitudes. In order to maintain the integrity of these institutions, the older Western members insisted on a strict separation of responsibilities for the various institutions. The EU would therefore concern itself only with economics and trade on the continent, while NATO would be strictly about the military and security interests of the North Atlantic. The networks of the two continental institutions, in the view of the older members, were never to be associated or intertwined.

In contrast, when the newer, Eastern member-states joined these institutions in the 2000’s and 2010’s, they thought they were joining a network of bodies that would be defined by a 19th century-like sphere of influence that would tie them with the West.  This would be in contrast to their previous membership in, or association with, the Soviet Union before 1990, which tied them closely to a Soviet/Russian sphere of influence. In their view the EU institutions and NATO were two sides of the same coin, both meant to protect their members from Russia’s hegemonic aspirations to recreate the earlier Soviet/Russian empire.

It took some time before these Eastern members of the various European institutions understood that they were not joining a late 19th / early 20th century network of alliances in which they would be expected to simply follow the dictates of the Imperial capital, but rather a 21st century grouping of like-minded nations dedicated to promoting liberal values and progressive attitudes. Once this was realized, some of these new members have tried to adapt. Others, notably Poland and Hungary, have resisted and fought back against pressures to accept such things as respect for LGBTQ+ rights or judicial independence from political interference.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that.

The Baltic countries, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had long been warning Western allies that Russia had imperialistic aspirations towards its neighbours. Russia, they cautioned, aspires not only to rebuild the former Soviet empire, but also to assert a sphere of influence over the former Warsaw Pact area.  Ukraine, they have been arguing since 2014, is meant to be the first domino to fall to achieve this goal.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that.


Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine on 22 February 2022 has brought the Western allies around to the thinking of their Eastern partners.  Allies like Germany, France and the UK now understand (or at least allowed themselves to finally accept) that NATO enlargement was seen in Moscow as the encroachment of a Western sphere of influence onto their historic sphere of influence. This then is the same reason that the Eastern allies are now so anxious to accept Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia into both NATO and the EU, seeing both as two sides of the same coin – they see the conflict in Ukraine as an existential struggle between two spheres of influence.

The clearest example of this shift in perception occurred at the NATO summit in Riga in July 2023 when Turkey named progress on its EU membership application as its price for accepting Sweden into NATO. In the past, West European and North American Allies would have rejected such an explicit link between NATO and the EU. Since February 2022, however, West European countries have understood and accepted the link in the mind of their Eastern partners between the two alliances and now see both the military/security alliance and the economic/trade partnership as inexorably interlinked in a network of support.

For this reason, then, the Eastern European partners are now speaking about Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia eventually joining “Europe” as a beacon of security under the protection of larger Western partners. Outside of this “Europe” that these countries would join once they become members of both NATO and the EU, the Eastern countries envision a hostile, Hobbesian landscape in which an aggressive and dangerous Russian bear continually menaces, smaller, weaker states that just want to live in a democratic, liberal peace that the Russian bear despises or, worse, fears.

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The implication of this shift in thinking is not only that the previously iron-clad division of labour between NATO and the EU is dissolving, but that the mandates and purposes of the two institutions may even begin to merge. This conclusion is more significant for the EU than for NATO. The military alliance has long had strong security and military institutions. The EU, on the other hand, is always evolving and growing, seemingly finding new tasks and new responsibilities (to the delight of some and the horror of others).  While the EU has continuously found new tasks to take on, they have always been within the realm of economics or trade. Until now, there has been a strong reluctance among the EU, its members, and its institutions to take on security or military matters, although they have been actively developing semi-common foreign policy positions. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that.

Given what is increasingly seen among its member-states as a developing existential threat in Ukraine, EU members are now (almost) all enthusiastically embracing the task of providing military and security support to Ukraine, both independently and within the context of the EU (Military/security support within the context of NATO was a given and not unusual).

The result in this shift in EU thinking has been to virtually dissolve the long-standing division of labour between NATO and the EU and to, in the eyes of the Eastern partners, effectively enunciate a Western sphere of influence that would protect them from an emerging Russian sphere of influence intent on recreating the 19th/20th century Russian/Soviet empire.  This then is what Ukraine, Moldova, and eventually Georgia hope to join.

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