The European Union’s (EU) soft power approach to problem-solving has been viewed by the bloc’s supporters as a unique alternative to the hard-power errors of others, like the United States. The argument reached its zenith after the Iraq war when tanks and planes were disdained as an archaic answer to modern-world problems.

In fairness, EU soft power has very clearly worked, sometimes. There was a period after the division of Czechoslovakia in the 1990s when the eastern half of that failed federation looked likely to topple into authoritarianism. Its entry into NATO was delayed. Today, Slovakia is densely populated by IKEA, Tesco, and other major Western names as other Central European democracies. Not unreasonably, the EU claims some of the credit.

And yet. The EU’s soft power utterly failed to prevent the biggest conflagration in Europe since World War II. Its campaign of sweet reason to persuade Vladimir Putin’s regime to change its approach, and to negotiate rather than the fight was equally unsuccessful. The EU earnestly wanted jaw-jaw, as Winston Churchill might have said, but got war-war anyway.

Putin never made a secret of who he was, or about his ideology and methods of governance. Faced with the frustrating conundrums of the modern world, he chooses war when it suits him. Invasion, political assassination, and poisoning are the stock in the trade of his government. He gave Europe a choice — continue our economic and trade cooperation, complete with distasteful domestic policies and domination of countries along my borderlands, or we return to confrontation.

Back in 1990, after the peaceful revolutions, the EU’s eastward enlargement marked the erasure of dividing lines. The success of the democratic transformations in the former authoritarian countries of the Warsaw Pact was heavily bound up with the EU’s application of conditionality. Obey our rules and you can enter our bloc, countries were told. Many did, thus giving rise to the EU’s self-perception as a unique non-military international actor.

There were signs even in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, that this formula no longer worked. While Russia was not being offered membership, the EU offered assurances to members old and new that it stood for certain core values, like human rights and democratic norms. These were non-negotiable. And yet if that was truly the case, it could not continue its economic engagement with Russia following an open act of military aggression.

Nothing of this kind ever happened. Furthermore, cooperation continued against the background of Russia’s bloody war in Eastern Ukraine. EU’s sanctions were mostly decorative and marginal, and the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in September 2021 reaffirmed the fundamental truths of what the EU really cared about.

It is true that France and Germany led the Minsk I and II agreements of 2014 and 2015. But eight years of talks failed either to re-establish the territorial integrity of Ukraine or to stop the bloodshed. (And indeed the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has since said that the accords had actually bought “precious time” for Ukraine, suggesting she never believed they would bring peace.) Worse, the EU’s inability to formulate a means to deal with open Russian aggression gave Putin a sense of impunity. In other words, it spurred him to further, all-out aggression in 2022.

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It will be hard for some in Europe to hear this, but it can be extremely dangerous for a non-military international actor to intervene when it has no serious hard power to deploy. Armies still matter. Nothing else can fill this gap.

Let us remember this. If the Russian blitzkrieg against Ukraine had succeeded, the EU would have been helpless, with only a reliance on Article 5 of the NATO treaty to counter Russian tank columns that would have sat poised only inches from alliance territory.

The determination of Ukrainians to defend their country and transatlantic solidarity demonstrated by weapon supplies transformed the war into a long-playing conflict. It should also be understood that Russia has chosen to separate itself, returning to its historical role as a permanent military threat to European civilization.

The EU must now fill its credibility gap. It should become a military power to bolster and defend its trade and economic potential. This of course revives the old discussion of establishing a fully-fledged army – the debate that began in the 1950s at the dawn of the European integration.

This might mean the bloc having its own military forces, or that the European members of NATO (some of which, like the UK, are not EU members) agree to enhance European defense within the alliance, allowing for example operations that do not require a US contribution but remain under alliance command.

But two things are certain. Franco-German military leadership does not provide a credible approach (too many European states now distrust their motivation and top-down approach.) And the romantic concept of a soft power-only strategy has failed with revisionist powers like Russia and China. It’s high time to think of harder instruments.

Oleksandr Moskalenko is an academic researcher  focusing on European politics. He is  an In-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA, Washington, DC). He is a Ph.D. in European Law . 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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