Europe battles to uphold its unity during the Ukraine war

Brussels-based Zelensky

As Kyiv gets ready to commemorate the somber and bloody first anniversary of Russia's invasion, Joe Biden's unexpected trip to Ukraine on Monday is a powerful demonstration of solidarity and a purposefully strong message to Moscow.

The Ukrainian government was understandably thrilled to see the US president, but one statement caught my attention as a professional Europe observer.

Andriy Melnyk, the deputy foreign minister, expressed gratitude for "the presence of our significant, primary partner. ".

Not Europe, should it?

The security of Europe is most seriously threatened by Vladimir Putin's aggressive ambition. His invasion of Ukraine has restarted conventional warfare on a scale that has not been seen in this continent since World War Two.

He has destroyed the sense of calm and relative security that most of us had grown accustomed to. A nuclear attack is being discussed as a potential event for the first time since the Cold War, however remote.

But Europe, both inside and outside the EU, is made up of numerous and varied components.

The Russian invasion has served as a stark reminder to Europeans – including President Macron of France, a typically outspoken supporter of Europe's "strategic autonomy" – that the continent cannot rely solely on its own defense. In comparison to the US (and even there, some minor political fractures are starting to show), the money, the military, and the united resolve aren't there.

In spite of this, the Kremlin underestimated Europeans last year.

It made a wager that they would be completely divided, weak, and only interested in their own immediate interests (like stable energy prices). additionally, China's interference with the United States. Vladimir Putin miscalculated how determined leaders would be to support Ukraine and their vision of stability in Europe.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia altered Europe.

With unprecedented sanctions against Russia, nations have united—some more slowly and reluctantly than others. The initial red lines set by the Western allies have been repeatedly crossed as they have banded together to send Ukraine ever-more-potent weapons.

That unity, however flawed, still exists as the war approaches its second year. Although there are a few reasons why there are hints of public unrest.

Worshippers queue to light candles in the Marcus church in Berlin
A million or so Ukrainian refugees have found refuge in Germany.

Germany is a major European power.

When I recently visited the Markus church in Berlin's Steglitz neighborhood, it was crowded.

German locals and refugees sat side by side as the ethereally lovely voices of a Ukrainian mother and daughter singing traditional songs floated out into the chilly night.

Germany refers to the conflict as a "watershed moment," despite the fact that it has conspicuously failed to take the lead in the Ukraine crisis. To aid Kyiv, they changed post-war defense strategies and extended their arms to about a million refugees.

Germany's leaders agreed to send missile launchers, heavy weapons, and most recently, its prestigious Leopard 2 tanks to help Ukraine repel Russian forces invading the country along with other European allies.

However, the feeling of unity is waning a little. not just in Germany.

In stark contrast to the statements made by the political leaders of Europe, 48% of the populace wants a swift end to hostilities, even if it means Ukraine ceding some of its territory to Russia.

That was the conclusion of a survey conducted at the end of 2022 and released by the research organization Euroskopia, which was based on responses from 9,000 people across nine EU countries.

This is not to say that almost one in two Europeans are getting ready to abandon Ukraine. I frequently travel across Europe as the editor of the BBC. Everywhere I go, people express their desire for the suffering to end.

However, as the bloody conflict rages on, opinions about how much people want their nation to remain involved, how much it will cost them, their families, or their businesses (consider the skyrocketing cost of energy), the possibility that the conflict will "escalate" outside of Ukraine and possibly involve nuclear attacks, and how far they believe Russia should be rebuked or sanctioned differ sharply.

Ukrainians are undoubtedly becoming more and more war-weary, whether they are refugees looking for housing or politicians in Kyiv trying to rally more military support.

As Nina from Kharkiv and I sat together in the back of the Berlin church, she exclaimed, "One month, two months, three months... I was with a German family for eight months!".

They felt more like a real family. Wonderful. I wasn't actually asked to leave, either. Nevertheless, I was aware that it was bad. The good times only last so long with guests. When this war will end is a mystery to us. " .

Sven Grebenstein, a church chaplain, claims that donations for refugees have dropped by an alarming 95% since the conflict began.

He believes that Germans have been more preoccupied with the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, which is connected to the conflict, than they have been with their general weariness over the Ukraine war.

"A year ago, Germans were volunteering at an unprecedented rate. Both of their resources, time and money, were freely given.  But then they saw their bills - gas, electricity and food - shoot up. They began being more prudent with any money they might require for themselves. ".

A man working in a glass-blowing factory
Power-intensive industries are struggling with rising costs everywhere, including in Italy.

Italy and Germany were both heavily dependent on Russian gas before the EU imposed sanctions on Moscow as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. The energy crisis had an impact.

Opinion polls indicate that 50% of Italians oppose sending more weapons to Ukraine. Only 26% of people say they would support more sanctions if they would make life more expensive against Russia. According to the same study, France's percentage is 27%.

Contrast this with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's or President Macron's vehemently pro-Nato, pro-military aid stance. You can't help but wonder if that disparity between political leaders and so many voters is long-lasting.

In Italy, you frequently run into people who are suspicious of the US and Nato and who are receptive to the Russian narrative.

The captivating, age-old artisanal craft of glass blowing is well known in the nearby city of Murano.

The glass must be molten in order to produce beautiful mouth-molded vases, stools, bowls, and even chandeliers. A constant temperature of 1200–1400C is maintained in furnaces.

Soaring energy costs have completely destroyed the industry. But when I went to the Wave Murano Glass factory, I found that many of the employees were reluctant to place the blame on Moscow.

The young Gabriele told me he didn't want to compare the suffering of his family to that of Ukrainian citizens, but he insisted that war had claimed victims everywhere. He and his aging parents, who are both receiving a basic state pension, are very much affected by the cost of living crisis. He claimed that the war needed to end despite his lack of political or moral expertise.

Italian attitudes were impacted, according to Roberto Beltrami, the founder of the factory, by the fact that so many companies had long-standing ties to Russia.

Moscow is well aware of this.  Italy and Germany are big targets of Russian disinformation campaigns.

Female soldier from Denmark stands in front of snowy forest
As Estonia shares a border with Russia, NATO has increased its presence there.

You can find a completely different view of Europe in the Baltic states by traveling 2,000 kilometers to the north-east.

The public is overwhelmingly in favor of Ukraine receiving strong support, and losing business and investment is not seen as a barrier to taking a tough stance against Moscow. Little Estonia gives Ukraine military assistance at a rate of more than 1% of its GDP. .

When it comes to dealing with Russia, the Baltic states are among those in Europe that are considered to be the "hawkish" or hardline nations. The profiles of Poland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are comparable.

The invasion by Russia on February 24, 2022, which also happened to be the anniversary of Estonia's independence, hit home particularly here, according to Estonia's Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur.

Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied for nearly 50 years. Due to their proximity to Russia, they have always experienced constant fear of invasion.

Members of the EU and NATO, they are relieved that other Western nations now perceive Russia as a strategic threat to all of Europe, as opposed to dismissing as a "regional issue" the Kremlin's intentions for Ukraine and the possibility of it reasserting its influence over other neighbors.

Former German ex-chancellor Angela Merkel's top aide, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, presided over the weekend's annual Munich Security Conference. Many now hold her responsible for her country's overly close ties to Russia.

He insisted that the relationship between Germany and Russia was incredibly complex when I asked him if he now felt that he had been blind in his thinking. You only need to think back to the 20 million people that the Nazis massacred on territory that was once part of the Soviet Union. But he acknowledged that the attitude of Western European leaders toward Russia had unquestionably changed by this point.

They understand that this is an assault on Europe. He said, "This is an all-encompassing assault on the European security architecture.

It's for this reason the EU is now turning its attention, though critics argue not enough, to Moldova and Georgia.  Even to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

And it's why the Baltics describe themselves as Europe's front door.  They've long called on the West to bolster them in order to protect the continent from an aggressively ambitious Russia.

In the snowy wilds of the dense pine forests outside Tallinn, the Estonian capital, I saw for myself how Nato had paid attention.

Its presence in the region has been massively increased.  A huge military exercise was under way, complete with tanks, Chinook helicopters and trench warfare.

The multinational troops I spoke to - from France, the UK, Denmark and of course Estonia - were clear why they were there.

"I'm proud to defend Europe," Julien, a young French lieutenant, said smilingly.

"We are one," declared Bernadita, a military planning officer from Copenhagen.  "And an attack against one of us is an attack against all. " .

But public disengagement we're seeing in pockets of Europe must give pause for thought.

And after the conflict finally ends?

Never mind a divided public, there's no unity even among Europe's leaders as to how to deal with Russia.

Isolate or try to re-integrate, based on the premise that the future security of Europe cannot be meaningfully discussed without Moscow somehow being included? These questions are looming but as yet, unanswered.

.  "I personally believe, and I think many do, that if Putin would be able to conquer Ukraine, he wouldn't stop there.  He would continue to.  reinvigorate and re-establish the Soviet Union in all those territories that he believes Russia lost.  Moldova is talked about.  But I think also he has put his eyes on the Baltic countries. "

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