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21 February 2022

Ukraine, Europe and the end of peace

Europeans no longer view war as unthinkable or themselves as spectators in a possible conflict.

By Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard

The Russia-Ukraine crisis could well turn out to be a watershed in the way Europeans think about their security.

Much of the political commentary to date has portrayed European governments as divided, weak and absent in the face of aggression from Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. However, as a new European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) poll of seven EU member states reveals, there is a surprising consensus among Europeans of the north, south, east and west that Russia will invade Ukraine at some point in 2022, and that Europe has a duty to defend Ukraine if it wants to preserve the post-Cold War liberal order.

Back in 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many European governments framed their country’s fight against the virus as a “war”. Now, in the face of stirring aggression on the Ukrainian-Russian border, there is fear that a real war is stalking Europe. This suggests that, for Europeans, the assumption that war is “unthinkable” is no longer true. As the ECFR survey shows, in almost every country, a majority now thinks that Russia will invade Ukraine during the course of this year.

Unlike the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014, the current crisis is seen as one of European concern: 73 per cent of Poles, for example, see a Russian invasion as likely. The same is true of 64 per cent of Romanians, 55 per cent of Swedes, 52 per cent of Germans and Italians, 51 per cent of those surveyed in France, and among a plurality of respondents (44 per cent) in Finland. This points to a recalibration, and one in which Putin might not have expected a unity of opinion. That over 50 per cent of Europeans agree that Russia’s stance towards Ukraine represents a security threat to their own country could be game-changing in how this crisis plays out.

For a long time, many in Europe viewed a future “Cold War” as one between the US and Russia or the US and China. Europeans would be spectators rather than participants. And, indeed, when the Russian troop build-up began in the summer of 2020, there was a lot of speculation in the media that Europeans would not care about, let alone be prepared to ride to the defence of, Ukraine.

The ECFR’s survey upends this assumption, even if it is probably still true that more Europeans do view Ukraine as messy and dysfunctional. The prevailing opinion today is that it should be defended from Russian action. The question, though, is who should step up to this plate.

On this, we found that in almost all of the countries surveyed, Europeans see Nato and the EU as the organisations best positioned to defend Ukraine. Remarkably, in Poland more people, by a small margin, see the EU as the natural defender of Ukraine’s sovereignty than Nato. This challenges the conventional wisdom that, when it comes to security, eastern Europeans are ready to dismiss the EU because they view the US as their only reliable partner.

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When it comes to the question of who they trust to protect their interests, the countries are not really divided between those who trust Nato and those who trust the EU. Respondents in Poland, Romania and Italy primarily place their trust in Nato. However, over 60 per cent of them believe the EU would also protect their interests should the conflict occur. Similarly, while Swedes and Finns trust the EU, most of them also trust Nato.

The political differences within the countries surveyed are also illuminating, and may be even more striking than the similarities between them.

For example, Germany defies stereotypes, with supporters of the governing centre-left and liberal parties (SDP, FDP and Greens) outbidding Christian Democratic Union (CDU) centre-right voters in their willingness to defend Ukraine. While the CDU has been the most outspoken about Germany defending Ukraine, our poll found that its voters are divided, almost equally, on the issue.

[See also: Russia’s efforts to create a pretext for war are no less dangerous for being risible]

In France, supporters of President Emmanuel Macron and his centre-right challenger, Valérie Pécresse, are most supportive of their country’s active defence of Ukraine, while those on the far right are split. The same applies in Italy, where there is consensus among those of the centre, but division among supporters of Matteo Salvini’s far-right party, Lega Nord. In Poland, meanwhile, a large majority of supporters of all parties want their government to defend Ukraine, but not all have confidence or trust in the ability of their ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to do so.

There is also still some reticence about the potential impacts that could arise from a European intervention. These differences may be best summed up by the phrase “remember what the Kremlin did to you last time”. For instance, beyond the threat of potential Russian military action against their own country, we found concerns in Poland about migration pressures; pronounced fears in Germany, Finland, Italy and Romania about the prospect that Russia could cut off their energy supplies; and concerns in France and Sweden about cyberattacks.

It shows that if Putin’s threats towards Ukraine were intended to make Europeans think about their security order, they have succeeded. And that, as a consequence, has strengthened the togetherness of EU member states.

The coming weeks will test whether Europeans can make the transition from a world shaped by soft power, to one defined by resilience and the capability of enduring pain to preserve values and a way of life. It is clear that the old cliché, that war is “unthinkable”, is no longer true.

Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard are founding members of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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