London (CNN) — As the world watches and nervously waits to find out if Russian President Vladimir Putin will order his forces to invade Ukraine, European diplomats find a small silver lining to the unfolding crisis in Eastern Europe.
The European Union (EU) and NATO have been remarkably united throughout this episode, which months ago was by no means a certainty.
Behind the scenes, diplomats, NATO sources and EU officials have praised the “unprecedented levels of unity and coordination” that have “strengthened the transatlantic alliance” as both institutions have worked in unison with each other and with the United States. , as an EU official put it.
A senior European diplomat working at NATO said they were “really surprised but grateful” by the regular contact and cooperation between EU and NATO leaders, which has allowed messages to Moscow to be “coordinated and consistent.” at the highest diplomatic level”, despite the cultural and geographical differences of all stakeholders”.
While the two institutions should be natural partners on paper, this level of unity was never secure. Relations between the two Brussels-based agencies have been strained in recent years. A particular low point came in 2019, when President Emmanuel Macron of France, the EU’s biggest military power since the UK’s departure, said that what “we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO”, arguing that Europe needed to start by thinking of itself as a strategic geopolitical power.
Macron has been Europe’s strongest advocate of what Brussels calls “strategic autonomy,” an umbrella term used to describe the EU’s diplomatic independence from larger global powers like the United States and China.
A big part of this drive towards autonomy has been the EU’s growing differences with traditional allies like the US and the UK over economic and political relations with countries like Russia and China. In the 27 member states of the EU there are different levels of dependence on Chinese investment and Russian gas. Some EU nations are relatively relaxed about friendly relations with Moscow as a matter of economic expediency, while others, notably the former Soviet nations, view what is happening in Ukraine with greater concern and view Putin’s Russia with a degree of skepticism similar to that of the United Kingdom and the United States.
The EU has also pushed for greater control of its own security, including the ability to deploy troops in its own right. Last year, the bloc unveiled plans for something called “Strategic Compass,” a proposal that would give Brussels centralized power to activate “rapid deployment groups” of up to 5,000 troops provided by member states to tackle specific problems. Not all member states were enthusiastic about the idea, as they fear it would undermine the security provided by NATO, meaning the proposal could be watered down and virtually ineffective.
With that in mind, a crisis like the one in Ukraine could almost have been tailor-made to sow division within the EU in a way that would prohibit taking strong action like sanctions against Russia, and create a huge headache at the time. to work alongside NATO in a unified Western response.
Yet in the face of Russian aggression, the EU has been unusually united and has complemented NATO’s hard line, officials say.
Officials say the reason it has worked so well is because the EU has stuck to its strengths, as has NATO. A senior NATO official told CNN that the Ukraine crisis has been a “litmus test” for how the two should operate.
“NATO is a political and military alliance and can talk about reinforcing defenses on Europe’s eastern flank. The EU is more of an economic power that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the US when it comes to sanctions,” the official added.
NATO officials, who in recent years have felt irritated and privately slighted by the EU and its global ambitions, have acknowledged that Brussels has played a role in the crisis that no other body could match.
A senior NATO diplomat explained that the EU has rapidly drawn up proposals for a package of support funds, sanctions against Russia and emergency gas supplies. “We can’t do that, we don’t have the authority and even without the proposal, the Western response would undoubtedly have been much weaker,” they said.
However, despite all the warm words and “cooperation projects” on Ukraine, both sides accept that once this crisis is over, however long it may be, a frost could return two of the defenders of democracy most important in the West.
“What has worked well in this case is a clear delineation of duties based on competencies. Where it won’t work in the future is where that line blurs. The EU has recently decided that it wants to be a security actor and has made some mistakes in this crisis,” a NATO official said.
Multiple sources noted the coordinated response to a letter sent by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to various countries, including the US, Canada and European nations, outlining Russia’s security concerns. Brussels is pleased to point out that despite sending the letter to dozens of national governments, Lavrov only received two responses: from NATO and the EU.
An EU official told CNN that they “can’t think of a better example of the two agencies coming together as partners than the coordinated response to Lavrov.”
But the senior NATO official explained that they thought the EU “wasted too much effort by writing a response to a letter that had probably been written in five minutes and was designed to cause disruption.” In that sense, the official believes that the EU was “naive” and played into Russia’s hands, since the coordinated response “consumed attention here for weeks, but ultimately achieved little.”
The European diplomat said that this crisis in particular has worked well because “it has been handled at a very high diplomatic and geopolitical level. Things like coordinated visits and visible meetings of leaders.” However, they are also pessimistic that anything “in the weeds like energy or cyber security” will see a return to two institutions with conflicting interests. In fact, those problems could even become factors in Ukraine.
But any complacency in European capitals may be premature. Obviously, the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border remains harsh and frightening. Clearly, the Western response to date has only pacified Putin so far and things could still get very ugly. Yet after years of private and sometimes public hostility, the EU and NATO have found a way to stay on the same page at a time of great uncertainty for the West. And with numerous crises looming beyond Ukraine, that can only be a good thing.