One Putin move and behold: West's unity tightens overnight

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FILE - People walk past a currency exchange office screen displaying the exchange rates of U.S. Dollar and Euro to Russian Rubles in Moscow's downtown, Russia, Feb. 28, 2022. Ordinary Russians are facing the prospect of higher prices as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting. That's led uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

BRUSSELS – Within days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved what remained out of the grasp of the European Union for many decades — to jointly buy and send weapons to a war zone — and restored something that was broken for years — trans-Atlantic unity.

For years, Putin could sit back and relish in unseemly scenes of Western disunity — ranging from the Britain's Brexit move out of the EU in 2016, Hungary's long-standing antipathy towards its EU headquarters and, equally, the rift created by former President Donald Trump that has far from fully healed under Joe Biden.

For Putin, the timing seemed perfect for his invasion of Ukraine since it had the potential of opening the cracks of division even further, with a war on the continent forcing everyone far outside their diplomatic comfort zone.

“And just as Vladimir Putin thought that he would destroy European unity, exactly the opposite thing has happened,” European Council President Charles Michel said in an interview with a small group of reporters on Monday.

“Cooperation is solid as a rock,” he said. “This is demanded by the circumstances of history. Demanded by circumstances that none of us could have imagined,” Michel added.

Washington could not agree more. “President Putin has been one of the greatest unifiers of NATO in modern history, so I guess that is one thing we can thank him for,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Richard Haass, president of the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “stunning” how European politics have been transformed in recent days.

“Putin has done what no one in the West could do, which is revive the concept of the West,” Haass said.

On Monday, Biden was leading another videoconference with EU, Britain and other Western leaders to solidify a common package of sanctions that are unprecedented in scope and unity. Over the weekend, Brussels and Washington announced financial sanctions within minutes of each other, all targeting the central bank and cutting Russia out of much of the SWIFT international financial transaction system.

The Europeans also closed their airspace to Russian planes, and they all agreed on a list of Russian oligarchs to hit. Seeing the West gel together instead of break apart, Putin on Monday went to the old lingo that the West loved to use itself in the Cold War days of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

Centering his wrath on Washington, he described Western allies as U.S. “satellites which humbly fawn on it, kowtow to it, copy its conduct and joyfully accept the rules it offers to follow.”

“So it’s fair to say that the entire Western bloc formed by the U.S. to its liking represents an empire of lies,” Putin said.

Western powers will take such unity as a compliment these days, and it was unheard of before Putin started massing troops on Ukraine's border.

Especially, the stance within the 27-nation EU is a sea change that was achieved within a few ebbs and flows.

“This is a watershed moment,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in the wake of Sunday's decision for the EU “to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack.”

This is the same European Union based on a post-World War II peace project that would only turn swords into plowshares to recreate a welfare continent of unprecedented riches. It was that same European Union that received the Nobel Peace Prize 10 years ago for what it could achieve without the use of weapons.

It was also the same bloc that for years has vaunted the value of what it calls soft power — diplomacy, aid, cultural exchanges — instead of the raw power that comes through the barrel of a gun.

All this change in barely a week. Now, Michel says: “There is no space for weakness and we need to show a firmness.”

Nowhere has the change been more pronounced than in Germany, the EU’s leading economic power but also a country that has been reluctant to invest heavily in military power, in large part because of its militaristic past which resulted in the horror of World War II.

Germany has faced persistent criticism over recent years for failing to meet a NATO target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense. On Sunday, though, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would commit 100 billion euros ($113 billion) to a special fund for its armed forces and raise defense spending above 2% “from now on, year for year.”

Scholz also has done an about-face on Germany’s refusal to export weapons to conflict zones, pledging to send anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine.

“If our world is different, then our policy must be different as well,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said. The policy U-turn was executed by a government led by center-left Social Democrats sometimes criticized as being soft on Russia and a Green party that has a pacifist heritage

That world changed as well for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — often seen as the EU's version of an autocrat leader much like Putin is. For years, he has been railing against the EU as meddlesome, was friends with Putin and was seen as someone who could break the bloc from within.

Especially since EU sanctions against Russia require unanimity among all 27, the moment beckoned. Still Hungary, fell in line as much as the others when it came to sanctions — within days.

“I spoke immediately with Viktor Orban when we faced this new situation and I can tell you, it was less difficult than expected to have the support of Hungary," Michel said.

It might still be early days in the war though and tougher moments might lie ahead with even bigger decisions to make, especially since Putin and his circle have had time for many years to prepare for any eventuality.

“They do have the ability to keep going for some time despite the pain,” said Amanda Paul of the European Policy Center think tank. “So it means that the West will need to be very committed and very determined to keep pushing and pushing.”

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Geir Moulson in Berlin, Chris Megerian and Zeke Miller in Washington and Lorne Cook and Mark Carlson in Brussels, contributed to this report.