The Russian-Ukrainian crisis may well prove to be a turning point 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 A European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) poll of seven EU Member States reveals that there is a surprising consensus among North, South, East and West Europeans that the Russia will invade Ukraine at some point in 2022 and that Europe has a duty to defend Ukraine if it is to preserve the liberal post-Cold War order.
In 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many European governments called their countries’ fight against the virus a “war”. Today, with the turmoil of aggression on the Ukrainian-Russian border, there are fears that real war threatens 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 believe that Russia will invade Ukraine this year.
Unlike the 2014 Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the current crisis is seen as a European concern: 73% of Poles, for example, see a Russian invasion as likely. The same is true for 64% of Romanians, 55% of Swedes, 52% of Germans and Italians, 51% of French, and among a plurality of respondents (44%) in Finland. This points to a recalibration, and a recalibration in which Putin might not have expected a unity of opinion. The fact that more than 50% of Europeans agree that Russia’s position towards Ukraine poses a security threat to their own country could be a game-changer in how this crisis unfolds.
For a long time, many in Europe viewed a future “cold war” as a war between the United States and Russia or between the United States and China. Europeans would be spectators rather than participants. And, indeed, when Russian troop build-ups began in the summer of 2020, there was a lot of speculation in the media that the Europeans wouldn’t care, let alone be willing to come to the defense of the Ukraine.
The ECFR survey reverses that assumption, although it is probably still true that more Europeans see Ukraine as messy and dysfunctional. The prevailing opinion today is that it must be defended against Russian action. The question, however, is who should ride on that plaque.
Content from our partners
On this point, we found that in almost all the countries studied, Europeans consider NATO and the EU as the organizations best placed 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 prepared to reject the EU because they see the United States as their only reliable partner.
When it comes to who they trust to protect their interests, countries are not really divided between those who trust NATO and those who trust the EU. Respondents in Poland, Romania and Italy mainly place their trust in NATO. However, more than 60% of them believe that the EU would also protect their interests if the conflict were to break out. Similarly, while Swedes and Finns trust the EU, most of them also trust NATO.
The political differences within the countries studied are also illuminating, and may be even more striking than the similarities between them.
For example, Germany is defying stereotypes, with supporters of the centre-left and liberal ruling parties (SDP, FDP and Greens) outbidding centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) voters in their will to defend Ukraine. While the CDU has been the most outspoken about Germany’s defense of Ukraine, our poll found its voters are almost equally divided 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 center-right challenger, Valérie Pécresse, are most in favor of their country’s active defense of Ukraine, while those on the far right are divided. The same is true in Italy, where there is consensus among the centrists, 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 stand up for Ukraine, but not all are confident in the ability of their ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to do so.
There is also still reluctance about the potential impacts that could result from European intervention. These differences can best be summed up with the phrase “remember what the Kremlin did to you last time”. For example, beyond the threat of possible Russian military action against their own country, we saw concerns in Poland about migratory 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 over cyberattacks.
It shows that if Putin’s threats to Ukraine were intended to make Europeans think about their security order, they succeeded. And this, therefore, has strengthened the unity of the EU Member States.
The coming weeks will test whether Europeans can move from a world shaped by soft power to one defined by resilience and the ability to endure 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.