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2024 will prove a crucial year for EU, the Russia-Ukraine war, former State Department official says

Karen Donfried was in conversation with Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, on Tuesday about the current state of the war, and what the future might hold.

Karen Donfried and Mai'a Cross speaking at the front of a room about the current state of the Russia Ukraine war and it's impact on the EU.
The chat was the inaugural event in Northeastern’s Leaders in Foreign Service speaker series. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, mainland Europe was somewhat divided over the intelligence officials were receiving about the Kremlin and Ukraine. One part of the continent was sure that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t initiate a ground war, while the other — the countries geographically near the superpower — saw war as all but inevitable. 

That’s according to Karen Donfried, who was the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the time, and was leading the largest regional bureau at the State Department during the war. 

Donfried discussed the matter with Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern University, on Tuesday. They also talked about the current state of the war and what the future might hold. 

The chat was the inaugural event in Northeastern’s Leaders in Foreign Service speaker series.

Donfried opened the dialogue by providing a sketch of the pre-war landscape in the U.S. and Europe. She said she accompanied Williams Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and other U.S. officials on a trip to Moscow in November 2021 to meet with senior Russian officials — including Putin by video call.  

“There was nothing that was said on the Russian side that made us think that this wasn’t very serious,” she said.

Still, Donfried said that some of her diplomatic counterparts simply couldn’t stomach the idea that Putin would take such a bold step. 

“Our allies in Western Europe accepted that intelligence, but intelligence is telling you what’s happening in that moment, and then you as a policymaker have to assess that intelligence,” Donfried said. “At the end of the day, most of our allies in Western Europe did not think that was going to happen. They felt that Russia had more to lose than to gain with a full-scale invasion.”

Once Russia did invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, NATO and the West’s response was swift. “One of the major accomplishments early on was this unified Western position in dealing with Russia after the invasion,” Cross said. 

America’s diplomatic engagement on the matter of the Russian threat “was very important to help the Europeans find a common position,” Donfried said. 

“In the run-up to the invasion, people were in different places,” she said.

But even as the invasion unfolded, European countries were reckoning with how to square such a cataclysmic development — one that shattered perceptions of geopolitical realities — with what they thought they knew about diplomacy and security in a post-Cold War world. Germany, in particular, responded by aggressively ramping up defense spending, among other measures, in what experts describe as the most dramatic overhaul of its foreign policy since unification in 1990, according to Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank. 

“The emphasis on Germany is so important because in foreign policy and in terms of the engine of European integration,” France and Germany have always been center stage, Cross said. “When you have one country change so dramatically … it really does beg the question: What’s next with the [European Union]?”

Donfried said she believes the war resulted in fundamental changes in the EU. Founded in 1993, the multinational alliance has focused primarily on economic issues, such as trade policy, climate policy and regional development. After the invasion, the EU enacted a series of sanctions and export controls targeting Russia in retaliation. 

“I think we have really seen the European Union act strategically since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Donfried said. “The beauty of the European Union is that it pulls all of those union states together.”

Both Donfried and Cross agree: 2024 marks a crucial moment for the EU, especially in light of the “increase in political polarization and a rise in far-right parties” in nearly every European country. Donfried argues that, should populist movements in Europe win out, Putin may feel emboldened to continue waging his war of aggression.  

“Many of those parties tend to be sympathetic to Russia,” Donfried said. “So what will the electoral politics mean, and how will that change some of the dynamics we’re seeing now in the European Union?”

And Western funding for support will also continue to prove critical, as Donfried argues in a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, adding that Kyiv needs “artillery shells, air defense missiles, deep-strike rockets and other critical military needs” to continue to beat back Russian aggression.