The Irish Times view on Europe-Russia relations: the continent’s fateful barriers

Are we dealing with a freshly divided Europe, riven by the war in Ukraine, or with an ontological division between Europe and Russia?

Maps illuminate and educate because they clarify spatial relations and so it is with the wall map published by this newspaper today, entitled "Europe and Russia 2022 – membership and allegiances in western, central and eastern Europe".

It is a snapshot in time, reflecting current preoccupations and referring to relations in this particularly momentous year, which has seen Russia invade Ukraine in an act of imperial folly which questions its own historic European vocation.

The map portrays affiliations throughout a vast geographical area among its states and peoples. All 51 of the states listed are European in the broadest sense, participating in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – including Russia itself. Neighbouring states in north Africa, the Middle East and central Asia illustrate the often arbitrary distinctions between continental definitions. If we accept the conventional boundary between Europe and Asia in the Ural mountains, more than three-quarters of Russians are European; but this map hinges on the fateful barriers now being drawn between their differing allegiances.

Are we dealing, then, with a freshly divided Europe, riven by the war in Ukraine, or with an ontological division between Europe and Russia? The latter seems implicit in the call made since 1989 in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) by the United States, its hegemonic power, for "a Europe whole and free". Russia is effectively excluded from Europe by this definition, in keeping with the pattern of Nato expansion which has seen 12 former members of the Warsaw Pact join the alliance since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. An alternative map portraying that expansion, soon perhaps to be joined by Finland and Sweden, could be deployed to make the case for Russia's claims of insecurity.


Yet that simply cannot justify the invasion of Ukraine. It has appalled other Europeans and rallied them towards the very alliance and its leading power, which previously struggled to define new roles for themselves. The invasion, and the imperial thrust behind it, actually betray Russia’s own European vocation, repeatedly expressed historically by its modernising and progressive leaders, writers and social movements, and responded to by successive European counterparts in the search for a more comprehensive and inclusive security order for the continent as a whole.

This map is best interpreted and used to portray the current hostile state of allegiances in Europe resulting from the Putin regime’s aggression. The search for a negotiated peace in Ukraine is the most pressing and urgent task if a wider war is to be avoided. European leaders should link that to a longer-term vision which could search out, revive and institutionalise a comprehensive security order for our continent.