The West’s Ukraine policy appears to have reached an inflection point. Washington and Brussels have now spent more than $200 billion on the war—a figure that, adjusted for inflation, far exceeds the entire cost of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe in the wake of World War II. After the failure of last year’s much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have found allocating new money to the war effort an increasingly daunting task. The European Union finally pushed through a €50 billion ($54 billion) funding package for Ukraine last month, but this came after months of pushback from Hungary. Meanwhile, war-skeptical parties are surging in the polls in several countries, propelled by voters reeling from the severe cost-of-living crisis the war and Western sanctions have unleashed. 

The Ukraine war has also been a strategic disaster for the Continent, quashing any lingering aspirations for Europe to achieve genuine strategic autonomy, vassalizing Europe to the United States and leaving it at its weakest since the end of World War II. Regardless of how the Ukraine conflict eventually turns out, Europe—especially Western Europe—has lost.

So why do European leaders remain so hostile to diplomatic efforts to end the war? In recent weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron went so far as to suggest European or NATO troops could be deployed to Ukraine, then doubled down when his remarks drew criticism, insisting that the war is “existential” for Europe and nothing should be “off the table.” Such claims aren’t based on reality, however. European security isn’t “at stake”: Russia is unable to conquer and hold even half of Ukraine, let alone expand beyond it. And the common myth in the West that Putin aims to restore the Soviet empire is just that: hyperbolic mythology detached from reality.

Still, EU elites’ commitment to Ukraine, no matter the costs, is too deliberate and systematic to be dismissed as madness or sheer incompetence. Lurking beneath the clamor for European unity is a political struggle to establish supranational EU sovereignty—a project that trumps all other considerations, including Europe’s own strategic autonomy. Macron’s worry that the Russian victory in Ukraine (a non-EU state) would obliterate Europe’s “credibility” makes sense when we recognize that he and other leaders are engaged in a comprehensive project of top-down state-building in which Ukrainian plight plays a foundational role. 

Ukraine has become central to the agenda of transforming the European Union from a regional and institutional association of multiple nations into a sovereign administrative superstate—a “United States of Europe.” The European establishment has an ontological attachment to Ukraine: In the minds of many European technocrats, “Europe” always included Eastern Europe but excluded Russia. The conflict in Ukraine thus reaffirms the conceptual territorial boundaries of their imagined continental state. But more importantly, the narrative built around Ukraine’s tragic situation is instrumental to the European Union’s statist ambitions and pursuit of political legitimacy. 

Given the prevalence of the nation-state model and belief in popular sovereignty as the basis for state legitimacy, all modern states—even ostensibly transnational and imperial ones—must legitimize themselves through establishing identity with a people. The modern Leviathan is a parasite that feeds on the mythos of the demos. It can’t exist without a host to live off of and eventually subsume.

In the modern era, when sovereignty and political legitimacy hinge on “identity,” the who-ness of the ruled, rather than the specific qualities of the rulers, justifies power. The invasive, ever-growing tentacles of the modern state are nestled behind a hypostatized, self-legitimizing “We” (the people), a constructed or projected monolith that the ruling class ritualistically and routinely adulates to greenlight every overreach. Modern states are thus not only impersonal and faceless, but formed atop a web of myths and stories about the people.

Yet not only is there no historical European “people” for a projected United States of Europe to embody, EU technocrats viscerally despise the romantic idea of nationhood that forged modern states out of the pre-existing traditions and cultures of 19th-century Europe. Instead, the late-modern attempt at European nation-building hinges on constructing a common civic identity. In other words, to establish its legitimacy, the new superstate’s aspiring ruling class must harness and socially engineer a pseudo-mythical, abstract, and ahistorical demos based on liberal cosmopolitan values, those into which they have been socialized postwar.

Recognizing the emotive power of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian dominance, European elites have appropriated this struggle to preach the ideological precepts that for them signify “European-ness” and, indeed, civilization itself. Seemingly overnight, Ukraine came to stand for enlightened “European values”—freedom, democracy, tolerance, good governance, and so on—with Russia transformed into civilized Europe’s opposite, the barbarian horde at the gate. As the sociologist and Compact contributor Frank Furedi has written, Ukraine is now a wellspring of moral authority and a source of collective redemption whereby “faith in the ‘West’ is validated by the ‘heroes in Ukraine.’”

The deeper source of the European establishment’s fixation on Ukraine is precisely its position as a victim of “aggression” by a larger and more powerful enemy. As Nietzsche was the first to grasp, modernity is an epoch in which the world is experienced primarily through the lens of oppression and identities are formed out of the “ethic of ressentiment”: The downtrodden are deemed inherently righteous and accorded the ultimate moral value. Under this dispensation, the defense of “the oppressed” becomes the basic ideology for statecraft, serving as a vehicle for the ruling class to gain and consolidate power, sanctifying their supremacy and planting the seed for their future power as the great liberators.

This “victimism” has provided the organizing principle behind much of the European Union’s sociopolitical agenda: Its promotion of multiculturalism, diversity, and LGBTQ rights, its policies on hate speech, immigration, and education all pivot on identifying scapegoats and sacralizing a socially vulnerable and “unprivileged” minority. Saving the virtuous victim generates moral currency and serves as a legitimation mechanism for Brussels, ensuring its continued institutional and bureaucratic empowerment. Ukrainian suffering offers a new opportunity to expand the victimist narrative that already drives EU policymaking. “Ukraine” (as mythology) comes to play a major role in the scheme to settle the boundaries of the new Europe to the exclusion of Russia; and in identity formation—the basis on which Europe’s neo-feudal elites seek to forge their new, cosmopolitan European burghers. 

The will to invent and manufacture such a demos requires demoting, leveling, and ultimately re-socializing the real historical peoples that already inhabit Europe but whose complicated histories and regular insistence on difference and particularity make them unsavory, uncouth, and outdated in the minds of an EU establishment that prefers a more isomorphic and homogeneous Europe. Their imagined polity is an abstract, transnational, and legalistic “nation-state” whose citizens are primarily bound to universal values, and animated by global social justice and the utopian quest to eliminate oppression as such. 

With the historical memory of Nazi atrocities that originally inspired a cosmopolitan union in Europe fading, the emotive image of defenseless Ukrainians fighting valiantly for their agency and freedom against fascistic oppressors is in many ways the ideal founding myth for an aspiring imperial nation hoping to baptize its new demos in the cleansing waters of human suffering. As the downtrodden victims to be saved by the enlightened humanitarianism of the ascendant empire’s “good Europeans,” Ukrainians are the perfect subject for this tragic mythopoesis and contrived unity.

The European commitment to Ukraine is a colossal strategic mistake that European elites defend out of a conviction that the ongoing tragedy there can be exploited to advance their enduring political aspirations for a federal European state and engineer a “European” polity from the top down—the most ambitious and absolutist exercise in ersatz nation-building and identity-formation ever attempted. Yet the cost for achieving such unquestioned political sovereignty in Europe seems to be the surrendering of Europe’s other long-term objective: geopolitical independence from Washington. 

“The narrative of ‘Western unity’ on Ukraine was always a mirage.”

The narrative of “Western unity” on Ukraine was always a mirage, a “noble lie” designed to hide the imperial nature of the US alliance system, its embedded imbalances tipped against Europe, and its demands on European economies. The European statist project is therefore paradoxical on its face: No modern state can claim to be truly sovereign while being subservient to another—even if that other state has similarly developed in a propositional, imperial, and ideological fashion. For now, however, ambitious EU leaders seem prepared for that sacrifice, believing that creating a solid foundation for their new continental “nation”-state is worth becoming a de facto protectorate of Washington for a decade or two, until such time that they gain the basic capabilities to chart their own course. 

Ultimately, the European Union’s ruling elites seek to centralize power in Brussels and disenfranchise member states. If the pursuit of this bureaucratic and totalistic ambition for political sovereignty comes at the expense of economic prosperity and strategic autonomy, this is apparently a price they are willing to pay. In this internal contest, Ukraine is merely a pawn: Ukrainians may be motivated by the defense of their own national sovereignty, but in reality, they are being sacrificed to elevate the new lords of Europe and further their quixotic dreams of a European superstate.

Arta Moeini is research director at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a senior fellow at MCC Brussels.


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