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How the Russian invasion of Ukraine has transformed Europe and the EU

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the best of times, Europe is a fractious continent where reaching consensus can be hard, and its leading institution, the European Union, can be slow and bureaucratic. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred the EU to unprecedented action, and it has united Europe in ways not seen in decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Brussels on the new political landscape emerging in Europe.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Over the years, I've covered the EU and NATO. So a couple of weeks into Russia's invasion, I went to Brussels to talk to old sources to get a sense of Europe's response. I met Bruno Lete at a cafe near the EU headquarters. Lete is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

BRUNO LETE: The level of unity and speed has been remarkable. I would say it's a first time that we've seen European Union moving so fast.

LANGFITT: Western intelligence agencies warned the Russians would invade, but most of Europe was still stunned when it actually happened.

LETE: The emotional shockwaves that this has injected throughout European Union are massive. I mean, the European continent has been guided by respect for borders, respect for sovereignty. Now you have a country, Russia, that is trying to shutter all these things that have been built since the end of the Cold War.

LANGFITT: And it wasn't just the invasion. It was also Russia lying about it, saying over and over that it wouldn't invade, until it did. Roland Freudenstein heads the Brussels office of the think tank GLOBSEC.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: I think there is a recognition in Brussels and in the member state capitals, of course, that we are looking at absolute evil.

LANGFITT: Preparing for the worst, the EU began drafting legislation for sanctions two weeks before the invasion. That allowed Europe to ban Russian airlines quickly and seize assets from oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin. The EU also did something unheard of. It began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weapons into a country, Ukraine, which isn't even a member. Stefano Sannino runs the European External Action Service, essentially the EU's State Department.

STEFANO SANNINO: I think from this crisis, what has become evident is that the European Union is not shying away from taking a more profile role in terms of providing security to the continent and beyond.

LANGFITT: Meanwhile, the Russian invasion hasn't gone well. Instead of splitting the U.S. and Europe, Putin has united them. And instead of toppling the Ukrainian government at the outset, Russian forces are heading into the fourth week of a grinding land war.

JURI LUIK: This was clearly not the Russian plan.

LANGFITT: Juri Luik is Estonia's ambassador to NATO.

LUIK: If what is happening today was a Russian plan, then, I mean, it's clearly something close to absurd. It's a massive failure of Russian armed forces and Russian leadership and Putin himself.

LANGFITT: But Russian troops continue to advance, and the EU and NATO still face a lot of challenges. For instance, NATO nations are not in complete agreement on just how far they should go to help Ukraine.

Last month, the top EU official said the bloc would send fighter jets to the country. Poland said it would send MiG-29s but wanted to fly them to an American base in Germany first to avoid Russian retaliation. The U.S. killed the deal. Tomasz Szatkowski, Poland's ambassador to NATO, explained.

TOMASZ SZATKOWSKI: Poland didn't want to appear as a country that would have to make a unilateral decision of either providing Ukraine with that sort of an assistance and exposing itself and possibly also exposing the alliance. I mean, the lesson is quite obvious. I mean, we have to consult better in official working channels.

LANGFITT: European leaders will also have to consult more on how to handle the growing number of refugees. The 3 million who've already fled Ukraine are putting pressure on neighboring countries, including Moldova, which is hosting more than 100,000. Daniela Morari is Moldova's ambassador to the EU.

DANIELA MORARI: The numbers are growing, and it's exceeding the capacities what we can accommodate as authorities in this country.

LANGFITT: Moldova is working with other countries to distribute refugees more evenly. Last week, the U.N. estimated at least another million will leave Ukraine, which will increase pressure on other nations to do more.

An additional pressure point - energy. Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, has urged other European leaders to stop importing Russian oil and gas. She spoke last week outside an EU meeting in Versailles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER SANNA MARIN: On one hand, we have these financial sanctions that are very hard. But in the other hand, we are supporting and actually financing Russia's war, purchasing oil and gas and other fossil fuels.

LANGFITT: But Germany, Europe's biggest economy, relies on that Russian gas for more than half of its supply and says an immediate boycott could lead to mass unemployment. Roland Freudenstein says countries may have to rely more on coal and nuclear power, which would be divisive, especially after Russian troops attacked two nuclear plants in Ukraine.

FREUDENSTEIN: I can see a situation where some member states will say, let's resurrect nuclear power as an alternative to Russian energy supplies and other member states saying, no, we've just seen how dangerous nuclear power is.

LANGFITT: What's the end game? In Brussels, there's still no consensus. Olga Oliker, who works with the International Crisis Group here, thinks both sides are battling to establish the strongest position for talks.

OLGA OLIKER: The Ukrainians are fighting for the negotiating table. The Russians are also actually fighting for the negotiating table, right? They want the Ukrainians to decide that this is too much pain to bear, that the destruction of cities, the damage to civilian populations, all the harm this is doing to Ukraine should be stopped. The Ukrainians are hoping that the global public reaction to all of that, plus the battlefield losses for the Russians, the embarrassment, forces the Russians to deal.

LANGFITT: Many here in Brussels hope sanctions cripple Putin's ability to wage war, but they worry Russia will continue to try to bomb Ukraine into submission. Peter Bator is Slovakia's ambassador to NATO.

PETER BATOR: What we are expecting is a protracted conflict.

LANGFITT: What is the risk that Ukraine becomes Syria?

BATOR: Very high. We have seen that Putin's army is not able to conquer Ukraine. They are coming back to their old traditional way, to encircle a city and then use the artillery and - you know, to push the city just to surrender.

LANGFITT: What is the likelihood the Ukrainians would surrender?

BATOR: I don't see that likely in the coming days, maybe even coming weeks. They have shown a lot of resolve and courage to defend, and that is telling us that we will really fight until the very last day.

LANGFITT: In other words, Europe could be looking at a dangerous stalemate in a country that borders four EU and NATO nations. Everyone I spoke to in Brussels sees Russia's invasion as a turning point for Europe. Here's how Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund put it.

LETE: We're going to an era, at least a decade of permanent instability. The geography of Europe has completely changed. No matter the outcome of Ukraine, Ukraine will remain in instability as well. You know, Russia will not give up its military presence on the borders.

LANGFITT: Meanwhile, NATO member states will send more troops to shore up the alliance's eastern flank, and, Lete says, Russia will continue to try to change Europe's strategic landscape any way it can.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUATARA'S "LOVE IS A CALCULATED RISK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.