The EU’s vulnerability was the European politics of inevitability: the fable of the wise nation. Citizens of west European member states thought that their nations had long existed and had made better choices as they learned from history, in particular learning from war in Europe that peace was a good thing. As European empires were forced to abandon colonies and joined the process of integration, this fable of the wise nation smoothed the process, allowing Europeans to look away from both defeat in colonial wars and the atrocities they committed as they lost.
In history there was no era of the nation-state: generally (with exceptions such as Finland), empire ended while integration began, with no interval in between. In the indispensible cases of Germany, France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal there was no moment between empire and integration when the nation was sovereign and the state flourished in isolation. It is true that citizens of these countries unreflectively believe that their country has a history as a nation-state: generally, after a moment of reflection, they realize that this is not the case. Such reflection does not usually take place, because history education throughout Europe is national. Lacking serious education in their own imperial pasts, and lacking the comparative knowledge that would allow them to see patterns, Europeans settled for a falsehood. The fable of the wise nation, learned in childhood, comforted adults by allowing them to forget the true difficulties of history. By reciting the fable of the wise nation, leaders and societies could praise themselves for choosing Europe, when in fact Europe was an existential need after empire.
By the 2010s, citizens of east European states were making the same mistake, albeit in a different way. Although most of the anticommunist dissidents had seen the need for a “return to Europe” after 1989, actual membership in the European Union after 2004 or 2007 allowed for forgetfulness. The crises after the First and Second World Wars, when the nation-state as such had proven untenable, were recast as unique moments of national victimhood. Young east Europeans were not taught to reflect on the reasons for state failure in the 1930s or 1940s. Seeing themselves exclusively as innocent victims of German and Soviet empire, they celebrated the brief interwar moment when nation-states could be found on the territory of eastern Europe. They forgot that these states were doomed not just by malice but also by structure: without a European order, they had little chance to survive.
The EU never attempted to establish a common historical education for Europeans. As a result, the fable of the wise nation made it seem possible that nation-states, having chosen to enter Europe, could also choose to leave. A loop back to an imagined past could seem possible, even desirable. And so a politics of inevitability created an opening for a politics of eternity.
In the 2010s, nationalists and fascists who opposed the EU promised Europeans a return to an imaginary national history, and their opponents rarely saw the real problem. Because everyone accepted the fable of the wise nation, the EU was defined by both its supporters and opponents as a national choice rather than as a national necessity. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage in Great Britain, the Front National of Marine Le Pen in France, and the Freiheitliche party of Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, for example, all resided comfortably in the politics of eternity. The leaders of one EU member state, Hungary, built a right-wing authoritarian regime inside the EU beginning in 2010. Another EU member state, Greece, faced financial collapse after the world financial crisis in 2008. Its voters moved to the far Right or far Left. Hungarian and Greek leaders began to see Chinese and Russian investment as an alternative route to the future.
The explicit Russian rejection of a European future was something new. Russia was the first European post-imperial power not to see the EU as a safe landing for itself, as well as the first to attack integration in order to deny the possibility of sovereignty, prosperity, and democracy to others. When the Russian assault began, Europe’s vulnerabilities were exposed, its populists thrived, and its future darkened. The great question of European history was again open, because certain possibilities in Russia had been closed.
Russia under Putin was unable to create a stable state with a succession principle and the rule of law. Because failure had to be presented as success, Russia had to present itself as a model for Europe, rather than the other way around. This required that success be defined not in terms of prosperity and freedom but in terms of sexuality and culture, and that the European Union (and the United States) be defined as threats not because of anything they did but because of the values they supposedly represented. Putin executed this maneuver with stunning rapidity as he returned to office as president in 2012.
Until 2012, Russian leaders spoke favorably of European integration. Yeltsin accepted Europe as a model, at least rhetorically. Putin described the approach of the EU to Russia’s border as an opportunity for cooperation. The eastward enlargement of NATO in 1999 was not presented by Putin as a threat. Instead, he tried to recruit the United States or NATO to cooperate with Russia to address what he saw as common security problems. After the United States was attacked by Islamist terrorists in 2001, Putin offered to cooperate with NATO in territories that bordered Russia. Putin did not present the EU enlargement of 2004 as a threat. On the contrary, he spoke favorably that year of future EU membership for Ukraine. In 2008, Putin attended the NATO summit in Bucharest. In 2009, Medvedev allowed American aircraft to fly over Russia to supply troops in Afghanistan. In 2010, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, the radical nationalist Dmitry Rogozin, expressed his concern that NATO would leave Afghanistan. Rogozin complained of NATO’s lack of fighting spirit, its “mood of capitulation.” He wanted NATO troops at Russia’s border.
The basic line of Russian foreign policy through 2011 was not that the European Union and the United States were threats. It was that they should cooperate with Russia as an equal. The decade of the 2000s was the lost opportunity for the creation of a Russian state that might have been seen as such. Russia managed no democratic changes of executive power. What had been an oligarchy of contending clans in the 1990s was transformed into a kleptocracy, in which the state itself became the single oligarchical clan. Rather than monopolizing law, the Russian state under Putin monopolized corruption. To be sure, the state provided a measure of stability to its citizens in the 2000s, thanks to exports of natural gas and oil. It did not deliver the promise of social advancement to the bulk of the Russian population. Russians who founded businesses could be arrested at any time for any imagined violation of the law, and very often they were.
In matters of peace and war, Moscow also took actions that made it harder for Europeans to see Russia as an equal. In April 2007, Estonia was crippled for weeks in a major cyberattack. Although the event was confusing at the time, it was later understood to be the first salvo in a Russian cyberwar against Europe and the United States. In August 2008, Russia invaded its neighbor Georgia and occupied some of its territories. The conventional assault was accompanied by cyberwar: the president of Georgia lost control of his website, Georgian news agencies were hacked, and much of the country’s internet traffic was blocked. Russia invaded Georgia to make European integration impossible for its neighbor, but was in fact renouncing it for itself.