NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets NATO troops in Tallinn, Estonia, on March 1.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets NATO troops in Tallinn, Estonia, on March 1.


Leon Neal / REUTERS

United By Danger How Vladimir Putin Brought the West Together

The Ukraine war is uniting the West – politically, militarily, morally. But what will the world's democracies do with this newfound unity? Can they succeed in preventing further escalation?

The small Romanian town of Câmpia Turzii doesn't look like the kind of place where global political developments take place. The bed of gravel in front of the town hall is waiting for new asphalt, the "Asia” market next door has lost its "i," and the hotel on the outskirts of town bears the simple name A3. The town’s biggest attraction stands at the city limits. Once you pass the last single-family homes, you suddenly find yourself in front of a mounted aircraft. A blue, Soviet-produced MiG-21 fighter jet juts into the sky like a signpost.

Câmpia Turzii has been home to an air base for almost 70 years. During the Cold War, Warsaw Pact pilots took off and landed here. These days, though, NATO troops are stationed behind the metal gate.

People waited for precisely that for more than 50 years, says Laura Ștefan, a Romanian who works for the Expert Forum, which promotes trans-Atlantic relations. "The Americans were the salvation," she says. "When the first U.S. soldiers moved in, people greeted them with flowers."


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 10/2022 (March 5th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

NATO, the West – synonymous for many with freedom and prosperity back when Romania joined NATO in 2004.

Today, the country that has for so long stood in the shadow of European history is a front-line state. "We border Ukraine," Ștefan says. "If it came to an invasion of Romania, that would be the end. For many of us, but also for Putin. But I don’t think an invasion of Romania is likely. Still, we have to be prepared for anything.”

Slowly, we're running out of comparisons for grasping the magnitude of what is currently happening. Just a week ago, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought to mind events like Saddam Hussein’s 1990 attack on Kuwait – a large scale and ultimately devastating military operation, but also one whose impact at first seemed limited to the region.

An open and brutal war is raging, and Putin’s threat of using nuclear weapons is evoking the darkest moments in human history.

In the meantime, however, an open and brutal war is raging, and Putin’s threat of using nuclear weapons is evoking the darkest moments in human history: the fateful chain of events that triggered World War I in 1914 and the unleashing of World War II through the invasion of Poland on the orders of a single, megalomaniacal dictator.

Few spoke seriously during the Kuwait crisis about the possibility of an imminent third world war. Today, many are using that expression, from the German Green Party politician Jürgen Trittin to the British-American presidential adviser Fiona Hill, who says the global conflict began long ago – with the assassination attempts by Russian agents in the West, for example.

The same West that for so long seemed powerless in the face of Putin’s provocations has now been united by his attack on Ukraine in a way that neither the Kremlin nor Western politicians could have foreseen.

This applies first and foremost to NATO, the West’s central military institution. Only two years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO to be "brain dead,” a comment which seems preposterous today. The alliance has instead solidified, from the U.S. to the Baltic states and from Brussels to Ankara. Even neutral states like Sweden and Finland are now considering joining.

The European Union is also showing its strength. For years more concerned with overcoming its own crises than with significant initiatives, the EU has rediscovered its mission. The new unity of the continent became particularly visible when the European Parliament applauded almost unanimously in a standing ovation on Monday after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's video address before the body.

Even in Washington, the extreme domestic polarization of recent years is receding into the background, and most of the political establishment is rallying behind a president experienced in foreign policy. When Putin placed Russia’s nuclear forces on heightened alert last Sunday, Joe Biden avoided any rhetorical escalation. When he delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, invoking America’s unity, even Republicans in Congress clapped. It seemed as though the United States was indeed back as the leading power of a strengthened West.

And that unity isn’t limited to the U.S. and Europe, the geographical West. In a sense, Putin’s aggression has reawakened a global West – from the United Nations Security Council in New York, where Kenya’s ambassador lectured his Russian counterpart on the sanctity of existing borders, to the capitals of the Far East. Spontaneous antiwar protests broke out in Tokyo, and Japan’s government joined South Korea and Singapore in imposing sanctions against Russia. These Asian countries fear that a similar conflict could erupt in their region if Beijing one day attempts to forcibly unify Taiwan with the mainland.

How China, as a world power, behaves could be decisive in the question of whether the war in Ukraine develops into a global conflict. As recently as February, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping rehearsed a closing of ranks at the Olympic Games in Beijing. But the world’s near-unanimous condemnation of Putin’s war has also created a new situation for Beijing, with China now finding itself confronted with a unified determination of the West that it isn't accustomed to.

When the United Nations General Assembly voted Wednesday on a resolution demanding that Moscow "immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine," 141 countries voted in favor, with 35 abstaining. Only 4 countries other than Russia voted against it: Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.

But what follows from this unity? How enduring and sustainable is it? And is the West strong enough to prevent an all-out escalation of the Ukraine war, either through military deterrence or by virtue of its economic power?

What is certain is that all the more diplomatic insight and determination is now needed in Europe and the United States to deal with this adversary, who has become unpredictable – and to show him a way out of the crisis.

NATO: The Principle of Deterrence

Ukraine has been at war with Russia for seven days when German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht steps up to the lectern in Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu, located not far from the Black Sea city of Constanța. A combat helicopter is stationed behind her, and standing next to Lambrecht is Vasile Dîncu, her Romanian counterpart. "Not a millimeter will be yielded" at NATO’s borders, Lambrecht says. "That is the message that must be sent to this brutal dictator."

In recent weeks, a number of NATO member states have sent troops and equipment to Eastern Europe or announced their intention to do so. Since the invasion, the U.S. has already deployed another 15,000 troops to Eastern Europe. The British recently sent another 1,000 troops to Estonia, and Italy has increased the number of its Eurofighter fighter jets in Romania to eight. Belgium and France are sending soldiers to Romania, and Germany is stationing a company in Slovakia.

"If President Putin thought he would divide NATO, he was mistaken," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed to DER SPIEGEL. "NATO is more united than ever."

The question as to what purpose NATO actually still served has been asked time and again since the end of the Cold War. When Donald Trump took office as U.S. president in 2017, he called the alliance "obsolete." Putin is now providing NATO with precisely what the military alliance urgently needs: an opponent.

A strategy paper from 2011, which is still applicable, shows the extent to which the situation has changed. It states that a genuine strategic partnership is being sought between NATO and Russia. The paper adds that the alliance would behave accordingly, with the expectation that Russia will welcome its overtures. That expectation has definitively been dashed.

The alliance had wanted to adopt a new strategic plan in June. This time, China was to be the focus. "We can throw our preliminary work in the trash,” says a Brussels official. "We need a new approach now."

Just how the war in Ukraine will develop remains an open question. The siege of the capital city of Kyiv by Russian troops has just begun. However, NATO is preparing for a scenario in which the confrontation with Moscow doesn’t end with the Ukraine conflict. Defense issues are becoming dramatically more pressing in almost all EU countries right now.

Nothing illustrates this shift more than German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement that he is establishing a special fund of 100 billion euros for Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr. NATO chief Stoltenberg has praised the decision as "an important signal of our unity and resolve."

Stoltenberg continues to emphasize the defensive nature of the alliance, anxious to avoid handing Putin any pretext to expand the conflict. At the same-time, the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main policymaking body, has activated its Graduated Response Plans. This will allow NATO's rapid reaction force to be deployed to the alliance's eastern flank in a much shorter time-frame. NATO is primarily concerned with deterrence. It hopes that it will never have to use the troops it provides to the member states in the East.

However, Stoltenberg has left no doubt that NATO would fight if Putin were to extend his campaign across Ukraine into NATO territory. "We will protect every inch of NATO territory," he says.

Europe: A Leap Forward

The sky over Paris is cloudless as Chancellor Scholz, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrive for a dinner with French President Macron at the Élysée Palace on Monday. Macron doesn’t wait at the top of the stairs as he usually does, instead hurrying down to von der Leyen’s sedan to greet her.

This Monday dinner had been planned long in advance, but it has now been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. A few hours earlier, Macron had recorded a video message for his soldiers, telling them he was counting on their vigilance and prudence in the face of possible provocations by Russian troops. "This is a moment of truth for Europe," von der Leyen tweeted one day later. "How we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system."

Macron’s office didn't announce any concrete results from his meeting with von der Leyen, but the message is still clear: In this moment of crisis, Europe is moving closer together.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen applauds after an address to the European Parliament by video link from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on March 1.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen applauds after an address to the European Parliament by video link from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on March 1.

Foto: Virginia Mayo / AP

Within a very short period of time, the EU adopted sanctions against Moscow, the severity of which surprised even officials in Brussels. It has largely excluded the Russian banking system from the SWIFT international transaction network, frozen the Russian Central Bank's reserves, closed European airspace to Russian aircraft and banned the dissemination of the Russian state media RT and Sputnik. The EU also plans to deliver 450 million euros worth of weapons to Ukraine.

Manfred Weber, the head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, the grouping of mainstream conservative parties in that body, spoke of a "Kyiv moment" this week. "I sense a shared feeling across Europe of what it means to be European and what is at stake," he says.

Speaking to the French in an address to the nation on Wednesday, with the French, European and Ukrainian flags behind him, Macron declared that Europe would have to have a different dimension in the future. He said that war in Europe is no longer just to be found in the history books.

“The EU is not a military alliance, it must provide the means for a common defense.”

Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy

At the moment, Macron is the only European leader who still speaks regularly with Putin on the phone, most recently on Thursday. At the same time, the French leader is careful to involve his European partners so as not to come across as being self-promoting, as was often the case in the past.

The big question, however, is how long the unity will last, and whether it will hold beyond the current crisis.

Chancellor Scholz's rearmament plans for the Bundeswehr are a historic break that is also likely to change the character of the EU. Many Europeans believed that the EU had long since fulfilled its historic mission to bring peace to Europe, Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, told DER SPIEGEL. But this has proved to be a mistake. "The EU is not a military alliance, it must provide the means for a common defense."

European Parliament member Weber is even more specific: "We must also create a single market for military goods, build a common cyberdefense and construct a defense shield against Russian missiles," he urges.

But investments in defense alone won’t be enough. If EU member states truly want to increase their defenses, they must also resolve their internal conflicts. In recent years, the EU has had to cope not only with Brexit, but also a permanent dispute with Poland and Hungary over the rule of law.

The European Court of Justice imposed a penalty payment of $1 million per day against the government in Warsaw for refusing to withdraw parts of its controversial judicial reform. In addition, the European Commission is still withholding the disbursement of 24 billion euros in grants to Poland from the corona recovery fund.

In the dispute with Russia, on the other hand, Hungary and Poland have so far behaved in a cooperative manner. Both countries have supported all sanctions. And they are now willingly taking in tens of thousands of refugees.

In an open letter, Polish opposition politician and former European Council President Donald Tusk appealed to the government to now also settle its dispute with Brussels. "The enemy is autocratic Russia, not the democratic West," he wrote.

Just how far this Kyiv moment will actually go for the Europeans could become clear in a matter of days in the debate over possible EU membership for Ukraine. Commission President von der Leyen has held out the prospect of EU membership to the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. "They are one of us and we want them in." But European Council President Michel, whose body represents the leaders of the member states, quickly put the brakes on such talk, noting in comments to European Parliament that the issue is a difficult one and that there are competing views among the member states – a diplomatic understatement.

The U.S.: Trans-Atlantic Power

If there is a symbol of the new era that began with the invasion of Ukraine, it was the German vice chancellor’s trip to the U.S. When Robert Habeck of the Green Party visited Washington this week, the U.S. government gave him an almost euphoric reception. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken wanted to speak with the German, as did National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

During his trip, Habeck himself could hardly believe how easily the doors in the American capital were now opening to him. When he last visited Washington two years ago, at a time when he was merely the co-head of the Green Party, the Trump administration made it clear that they didn't consider him to be important.

The war in Ukraine has shattered many certainties, but it has also revived old alliances. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Joe Biden said the West stands united against Vladimir Putin.

U.S. President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in Washington

U.S. President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in Washington


Within days, it seems, all the china that had been broken in the trans-Atlantic relationship over the past few years had been mended. The dispute over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has been forgotten. The eternal dispute over Germany’s meager defense spending has been shelved. And the debates over why Germany refuses to supply weapons to a country under pressure also ended.

"Putin managed to unite NATO in ways that I didn’t think I would ever see again after the end of the Cold War," says former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It’s an impression that is shared by many in Washington.

Trump’s time in office marked the lowest point in NATO’s history. At the Brussels NATO summit in 2018, the then U.S. president was only barely dissuaded from withdrawing from the Western defense alliance. Now, it’s not only NATO that is experiencing a renaissance. The spirit of the alliance is, too – the idea that democracies of the West must stand together to defend their sheer existence.

The change in direction is so dramatic that many in Washington have yet to grasp it, says Heather Conley, the new president of the German Marshall Fund. And it’s not just NATO states that have rediscovered the value of the defense alliance. Even traditionally neutral countries like Switzerland have recognized the importance of taking a stance in this historical situation, she says. "They're rising to this catastrophic moment for Europe.”

For the U.S., this is all the more pleasing because it had largely refrained from publicly putting pressure on its allies in Europe, especially Germany. "Leading from behind" has been the motto of Biden’s people. Internally, they made no secret of how unhappy they were with Germany’s stance on many issues.

But the new government didn’t want to appear as bellicose as Trump, also because it knew that would only trigger fresh anti-American sentiment among Germans. Ultimately, the power of the facts was strong that the German government toed the Americans’ line on almost all points. "The time was just right," says Michael Werz of the Center for American Progress.

Asia: Fire on the other Shore

Among military officials, Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island chain, is considered "America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier." Around half of the 54,000 U.S. troops in Japan are stationed here. In February the U.S. moved more F-35A fighter jets to Kadena Air Base, and Tokyo is also considering strengthening its own defense systems. The Ukraine war may seem to be far removed from the Western Pacific, but the Russian invasion at the other end of the Eurasian continent has startled the countries of East Asia.

Because China is a major power in the region that could also move to annex a smaller state. About 600 kilometers southwest of the main island of Okinawa lies the democratic island republic of Taiwan, which the government in Beijing considers to be part of its territory.

The Ukraine war, one Japanese newspaper commented, is "not a fire burning on the other shore," but rather an event that requires a clear commitment from U.S. allies, including Japan and South Korea. Indeed, both countries joined the sanctions adopted by Western countries, and the government in Tokyo also adopted tighter restrictions on exports of semiconductors and other technologies to Russia.

Taiwanese air force helicopters during a flag flyby rehearsal ahead of the country's National Day in October

Taiwanese air force helicopters during a flag flyby rehearsal ahead of the country's National Day in October

Foto: Ritchie B. Tongo / epa

The alliance with the EU and the U.S. is obvious, because Japan and South Korea both share democratic values such as freedom, equality and the rule of law. But their close economic ties and proximity to China mean that South Korea, in particular, is otherwise acting more cautiously.

The Ukraine crisis could now become a turning point. "If we tolerate the use of force to change the status quo, it will have repercussions for Asia," warns Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. If Tokyo and Seoul were to accept aggression against a small state, they could set a dangerous precedent in their region.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that it is time to provide stronger protection to Taiwan. And Go Myong-Hyun of the Asian Institute in Seoul says, "Before the Ukraine crisis, we nodded when Beijing declared that Taiwan was part of China. We completely ignored the other side. But now we realize that we can’t just accept this." The invasion of Ukraine fundamentally changed international relations. "The future will be more confrontational."

The view is similar in the U.S. On Wednesday, Mike Mullen, the ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, landed in the capital Taipei at what he described as a "very difficult and critical moment in world history." Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen responded that her country, like Ukraine, is on the front line when it comes to defending democracy. "History teaches us that if we turn a blind eye to military aggression, we only worsen the threats to ourselves."

China: "Fuck NATO"

The first spring sun is shining, and birds are chirping in the avenue running toward the Russian Embassy in Beijing. At first glance, it seems as though, as usual, only a few Chinese police are guarding the embassy, but then first three, then a dozen athletic men in baseball caps can be seen who have been posted in front of the wall. They are plainclothes agents. China has discreetly ramped up the protection of its strategic partner.

The palatial embassy, a monument to Moscow’s special position in Beijing, rises behind the lattice gates. The Soviet Union assisted in the birth of the People's Republic, becoming the first government to recognize Mao's state in 1949 and sending experts to help build the "New China." Tensions existed even then, but Beijing considered Moscow a big brother until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Soon after, relations deteriorated rapidly, as Mao now believed counterrevolutionaries were at work in Moscow. In 1969, soldiers from both sides engaged in border skirmishes, and war between the two nuclear powers was just barely averted. Three years later, during his historic trip to China, U.S. President Richard Nixon achieved the diplomatic coup of bringing the previously isolated country over to Washington’s side.

Beijing has applied "five principles" to its foreign policy: territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit as well as peaceful coexistence. Each of these points is being kicked into the dust by Putin in Ukraine right now.

So which way is Beijing leaning in his crisis? Toward its stated principles – or toward the geopolitical advantages it expects from its strategic partnership with Russia?

Russian leader Vladimir Putin together with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in Beijing on Feb. 4

Russian leader Vladimir Putin together with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in Beijing on Feb. 4

Foto: Alexei Druzhinin / AP

In early February, when Putin visited Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared that the partnership between the two countries "knows no borders." It isn’t known whether Putin personally informed Xi of his invasion plan. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that, according to a Western intelligence source, senior Chinese officials urged their Russian counterparts in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics. However, it is unclear whether the two leaders themselves discussed the impending invasion. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington denied the report.

After the outbreak of war, Beijing needed a few days to gather its bearings. But the distance it has since placed between itself and Putin is minimal. Chinese diplomats are speaking to both sides and have abstained from votes in the Security Council and the UN General Assembly. But to this day, Beijing still isn’t using the word "invasion" to describe what has happened in Ukraine and instead emphasizes Russia’s "legitimate demands concerning its security."

One should "seriously doubt" that Beijing will fall into Putin’s arms, says Shi Yinhong, a politics professor at Beijing People’s University and, until January, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Council. Shi is one of the few who still discuss sensitive issues with foreign journalists in China’s repressive political climate – and he asks to be paraphrased as a precaution. In his view, Putin has maneuvered himself into a dead end, yet China won’t publicly position itself against his "unbridled war." For Chinese leaders, it’s convenient that the war is diverting Washington’s attention from China.

In the view of Zhao Tong, a nuclear and disarmament expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Beijing, China faces "one of the most consequential questions for decades" in its stance on the Ukraine war. He says that while it is a "theoretical" possibility that Beijing could break with Putin, even though it would be in line with China's economic interests, it is unlikely under the circumstances. The leadership doesn’t want to be drawn into a war and at the same time doesn’t trust the Western alliance either.

Victor Gao, vice president of the pro-government think tank Center for China & Globalization, is more specific. He argues that Ukraine should permanently declare itself to be a neutral country "like Switzerland." The alternative to such a move would be "a nuclear Armageddon," Gao said. You could call it "unheroic," but in his view, such a compromise is "the right way to save human civilization."

China can thus be ruled out as a partner of the West in the confrontation with Putin. This could also be seen on the outer wall of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday. Staff there had put up posters in the colors of the Ukrainian flag with a slogan written in Chinese characters: "Stand with Ukraine."

Like all diplomatic missions in Beijing, Canada’s is well secured, guarded around the clock by the People’s Armed Police. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, someone managed to smear one of the posters in broad daylight. Police officers must have been looking the other way when the vandal left their message: "Fuck NATO."