A Europe United Behind Ukraine: But for How Long?

Published: Apr 3, 2023  |  

Investigative journalist and writer

It is not the sort of landmark we’d celebrate but February 24 was the anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. A full 12 months of bloodshed, displacement, smashed infrastructure and alleged war crimes, punctuated by reminders that wronged populations have an extraordinary capacity to fight back—often with unparalleled reserves of warmth and humanity.

Across the world, admiration for Ukraine’s tireless leadership and people, thrust into a conflict they did not want, has soared. When the initial shock of war returning to Europe abated, some experts asked how long international support for Ukraine would last once prices soared. The true cost of conflict became apparent and economies still fragile after the Covid-19 pandemic creaked.

In particular, the continent’s over-reliance on Russian energy supplies and Ukraine’s crops left many wondering whether, behind western Europe’s mask of support for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the political cracks would soon appear. The prevailing opinion across countries polled by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in May 2022 was that the war should end as quickly as possible.

According to a recent follow-up poll for the ECFR, Ukraine now enjoys stronger levels of support across Europe than it did last May. Indeed, the new poll shows European public opinion moving away from a position of ending the war as soon as possible with territorial costs for Kyiv. Most European states now want Ukraine to regain all of its lost territory.

In contrast, Russia is deemed to be an “adversary” or “rival” by an average of 66% of respondents in European states.

The YouGov and Datapraxis poll was conducted across nine European Union (EU) member nations, including Germany and France, as well as the post-Brexit United Kingdom. It suggests a “fusing” of political opinion between Europe’s liberals and nationalists over Ukraine. Interestingly, it also reveals improvements in the way both the EU and United States are perceived across Europe.

Surprisingly, even among those polled in Britain “the prevailing view is that the EU is in a stronger, or as strong, state than one year ago.” Some 40% of Britons agree the EU is “stronger” or “as strong,” compared with just 32% who believe Brussels is “much weaker” or “still weak.” 

President Joe Biden’s administration has also emerged well from global perceptions of the war. A year on, the U.S. is deemed “stronger” by all ten nations polled.

The research authors, political scientist Ivan Krastev and foreign policy expert Mark Leonard, point out that while Europe is currently united over Ukraine, three key challenges could “blow up” the consensus: looming economic pressures; battlefield defeats for Ukraine; and the potential return of migration as a political issue as the summer nears. This goes a long way to explaining why the report accompanying the polling is entitled Fragile Unity.

In Italy, for example, the potential seeds of disunity already exist. While Italians as a whole continue to back Ukraine, supporters of the ruling right-wing Brothers of Italy party would prefer that the war ends as quickly as possible—even if that means ceding some territory to Russia. Supporters of right-wing or far-right parties in France, Spain and Portugal are similarly more inclined to support Ukraine ceding territory to sue for peace.

Predictably, the continued impact on the cost of living remains a potential unity faultline—as does the cost of the refugee crisis which has hit Europe in recent years. Specifically, the ECFR warns that the potential consequences of tackling further spikes in immigration numbers threatens to crack the current unity between liberal and nationalistic factions.

Referring to general economic conditions, the report states: “There has been a bloc-wide increase in concerns regarding day-to-day costs. These fears, about making ends meet, were most pronounced in Italy, where 34% of those surveyed (up from 25%) identified this as a chief concern.

“There were also marked increases in Spain (21% in May 2022 to 28% in January 2023), France (27% to 31%), Portugal (25% to 29%) and Romania (17% to 21%).”

Leonard said: “The next year could put real pressure on this [unity]—if Ukraine suffers setbacks on the battlefield, the costs of refugees rise, or Washington pulls back. European leaders should use this year to prepare for stormier times ahead.” 

It is worth remembering that the ECFR’s research was published shortly before the recent visit to Moscow of China’s president Xi Jinping. When Xi and Russian president Vladimir Putin parted company after two days of talks—described by one foreign policy expert as a “bromance”—it was not clear what support for Russia had been pledged by China. Clearly, the two states have forged a strategic alliance.

The worst-case scenario for Europe and the U.S. is the supply of Chinese military hardware to Russia’s struggling army—a move which threatens to turn Ukraine into a prolonged proxy war between China and the U.S.

Here, there are two main schools of thought. If China continues to supply to Russia mere dual-use technology—commercial products with military applications, such as microchips or drones—a Ukraine supported by the U.S. retains a strong chance of victory by ousting Russia’s troops from pre-war borders. But if China moves towards supplying Russia with weaponry—even at risk of secondary sanctions—then the world may be in for a long war and pressure could increase on Ukraine to cede some territory in order to secure peace.

It remains to be seen whether European unity holds if such scenarios play out.

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