The last few weeks have revealed some important truths about Europe. Prior to the crisis in Ukraine, most Americans and Western Europeans had become used to a Franco-German Europe. In this version of Europe, which was designed after World War II to dampen one of the greatest state rivalries in history, France and Germany made the decisions, and Europe’s center of gravity was squarely in the West. But, these days, the real action happens further east. Ukraine, looking to overcome its Soviet past, was taking its first steps toward becoming one of the European Union’s largest and most populous members until Russia made its move to derail those plans. And Poland, for years considered a junior member of the European team, has risen as a leader by shepherding negotiations between former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition. In this new Europe, the Franco-German engine has been replaced by a Russo-German one: as the European Union moves eastward, settling its future borders and borderlands, it is Germany and Russia that will decide who is in and who is out — and under what terms.
To a large extent, the battle for Ukraine has become a battle over the shape that this Russo-German Europe will take. Russia, through its geopolitical boldness, aggression, and sense of entitlement, has proved willing to annex the territories that it wants, building up a Eurasian bloc to balance against the European Union. Ukraine is an essential part of that plan, and Crimea is the leading edge. Russia is very likely to keep what it has now seized, as it has in all other regional conflicts, and continue trying to use its position in Crimea to destabilize Ukraine. That will help Russia as it attempts to draw a sharp line between its values, culture, politics, and economy, and the West’s.