Daniel Larison doubts it, but I think there’s some truth to the assertion, certainly based on my anecdotal experience with the Belgians I used to work with and the various other Europeans I met in my banking days. The discomfort with the idea is bound up in the logic of the European project.
The syllogism works something like this.
Nationalism caused World Wars I and II, which nearly destroyed European civilization. The only way to avoid a repeat is to put an end to aggressive nationalism as a force in European affairs. That means either submitting to some form of imperial foreign domination, or creating some new institution that transcends nationalism. The latter would, obviously, be preferable.
If the European project is legitimate, therefore, it is precisely because it transcends nationalism. If it transcends nationalism, it can’t be about creating a European “nation” out of Germany, France, Italy, etc., that behaves the way a traditional nation does. Therefore, it can’t be defined in national terms—as a union of Western Christian peoples (implicitly excluding Orthodox Christians and Muslims), for example, nor, ultimately, in geographic terms. In theory, the EU is a project with no natural borders. Therefore, it’s not at all absurd to look forward to the day when Russia itself will be incorporated into the EU in some fashion, to say nothing of former Soviet Republics like Ukraine.
Back in the 2000s, before the EU went into perpetual crisis, I used to hear this sort of thing all the time. Now, not so much—given the amount of trouble Greece and Portugal have caused, and how much trouble adoption of the Euro caused for Spain and Ireland, nobody is that eager to expand the European periphery particularly quickly these days. But the ideological underpinnings are still there.
Sphere-of-influence thinking is also threatening for Europeans because it threatens the EU internally. Back in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia came apart, Germany moved very quickly to recognize Croatia and Slovenia. France was traditionally more aligned with Serbia, but came around to support the German position fairly quickly, for the sake of European unity. This unity has frayed badly as a result of the Iraqi and Libyan wars, but it’s still very much a European ideal. So if Russia is allowed to have a sphere of influence, does that mean Germany is allowed one as well?
When you hear Atlanticist grumbling about Germany and the EU members east of it not supporting the Libyan adventure, or intervention in Syria, you’re not just hearing an echo of neo-conservatism; you’re also hearing an anxiety that Europe be something other than Greater Germany, and, by implication, that the Germans should go along with whatever project “European” leaders come up with (even if those leaders aren’t representative at all of European opinion or European interests).
Moreover, if you think about it, if Europe’s states had spheres of influence of their own, Germany’s natural sphere would be to its east. In other words, in a world of Great Powers competing for spheres, Ukraine would be a zone of competition between Germany and Russia. Nobody wants to frame the situation that way, because nobody wants to live in that world again.
So I don’t think elite European surprise and dismay at Ukraine’s decision is really about an arrogant assumption that their sphere of influence extends to Russia’s borders. It’s about an arrogant assumption, which in turn is rooted in a fundamental insecurity, that Europe is the final form of political organization which, naturally, everyone would want to join, and it’s Europe’s decision when other states are ready to do so. The idea that Europe could actually be in competition with other political entities (like Russia) does suggest that it needs to be more like a state. And that’s a threatening idea.
All that having been said, it’s also worth pointing out that, to Russia, Ukraine is not just another country on its borders that was once part of the Soviet Empire. Ukraine is intimately bound to Russia’s history, has a very large Russian-speaking population, and has little history as an independent country. From an ethnic Ukrainian perspective, of course, Ukraine has been one of the signature victims of Russian and Soviet imperialism—and point most prominently to the seven million deliberately starved to death by Stalin. In other words, ethnic Ukrainians and metropolitan Russians see Ukraine’s destiny and identity very, very differently.
That usually doesn’t bode well. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I’ve been fretfully expecting Ukraine to wind up like Yugoslavia, or, more optimistically, like Moldova or Georgia, and thankfully it hasn’t come to that. But I’m not at all surprised that Russia is playing very hard ball to make sure that Ukraine remains within its orbit—harder ball than it would dare to play with, say, the Baltic states.