23.02 Review

Resilient Realism: Europe may not believe in Ukraine's military victory, but it must defend its pro-European choice

While Europeans are increasingly sceptical about the likelihood of Ukraine winning the war against Russia, this has not significantly reduced their confidence in the need to maintain support for Kyiv at current levels, or even increase support if the US stops providing assistance. This is the view of 42% of Europeans compared to 33% who believe it is necessary to cut support following America's lead. This is the main conclusion of a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), based on a broad survey of residents from 12 European countries. European public opinion is characterised at this stage not so much by war fatigue, as it is commonly characterised, but by a more realistic view of possible outcomes in the current circumstances. Whereas in the first year of the war the debate in Europe was between those who supported the war until Ukrainian victory and those in favour of ending it quickly, even at the expense of concessions, today it is a question of what terms of agreement are acceptable and what are not, insist the authors of the study, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. The war in Ukraine now appears to be an internal European affair even more so than it was a year ago. Meanwhile, Europeans mostly have a negative outlook on the prospect of Trump returning to the White House and believe that such a scenario increases Putin's chances of victory in the war, indicating a lack of trust in the peace formula he might propose. The authors insist that European leaders should focus on formulating acceptable and unacceptable terms for a ceasefire agreement, ensuring Ukraine's European choice, and its integration into European structures. They note that respondents who lean Eurosceptic are more likely to be in favour of cutting aid to Ukraine, while those who believe in the strength of European institutions are predominantly concerned with preventing Moscow from winning.

In the two years since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, European attitudes toward the conflict have changed dramatically. In the initial phase Europeans were emotionally mobilised and showed extraordinary solidarity with Ukraine, although they wanted the war to end as soon as possible. Last year, there was unity in supporting Kyiv until the return of all occupied territories. However, now, on one hand, they are more pessimistic, and on the other hand, they are not inclined towards a strategy of appeasing the aggressor. This is the main conclusion of a study by Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), and Ivan Krastev, head of the Centre for Liberal Strategy, which is based on a broad survey of residents of 12 European countries (Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Spain), conducted in January 2024.

On average, only 10% of respondents believe that Ukraine's victory is more likely to be the outcome of the war, while twice as many believe that Russia is more likely to be victorious. The largest group (37%) is convinced that the war will end with some form of agreement. This question focuses on the probable outcome rather than the desirable one, and the results indicate a more realistic view of the situation, rather than European fatigue from the war. Greater belief in Kyiv's military success is found in Poland, Portugal, and Sweden, but even in these countries, only 17% hold such a view. The strongest belief in Russia's victory in the war is found in Greece (30%) and Hungary (31%). At the same time, among those who believe that an agreement is the most likely scenario, only a little more than half (52%, i.e. 18% of the sample) would prefer to push Ukraine towards such an agreement, while 32% are ready to support Kyiv in its efforts to liberate Ukrainian territories. Overall, 31% of respondents are in favour of continuing military support for Kyiv, with almost half in Poland, Portugal and Sweden supporting this scenario but only 16% each in Greece and Hungary. 41% of Europeans would like to push Kyiv to negotiate, including the majority of residents of Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy and Romania. In France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, society is divided almost equally on this issue.

The authors of the study note a shift in the geography of European support for Ukraine after the second year of the war. While the closest neighbours were once considered the most consistent supporters of Kyiv, the strongest public support is now noted in Portugal and France, while it is declining in Poland. This is happening against the backdrop of changes in attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees (Poland has taken in the highest number, about which Re:Russia previously wrote here). In Poland, the highest percentage (40%) views those arriving from Ukraine as a threat. In the future, this could create a situation atypical for the EU, where immediate neighbours of Ukraine become major obstacles to its Eurointegration, experts warn. Migrants from Ukraine are best received in Sweden, where over half of the residents see them more as an 'opportunity' for their country than a threat. In Germany and Austria, about a quarter of respondents see Ukrainian refugees as a threat, and slightly more, about a third, see them as an 'opportunity’.

While Europeans are more sceptical about the possible outcome of the war in Ukraine, it now seems like more of an internal matter for Europe than it did a year ago. About 45% of respondents, on average, state that the Russia-Ukraine war and the conflict in the Gaza Strip are equally significant for the situation in Europe and their own country, while about a third emphasise the greater importance of the war in Ukraine. This is also evident in attitudes towards Donald Trump's 'peace initiatives'. The prospect of his return to the White House seriously worries most Europeans. More than half of those surveyed said they would be disappointed by his re-election, while only 14% said they would be pleased by it. In Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the potential return of Trump to power worries more than 70% of respondents, and even in Hungary, only 28% would be pleased if the Republican leader returned to the White House. Additionally, 43% of respondents believe that Trump's return would make Kyiv's victory in the war less likely (only 9% think otherwise). Overall, they perceive a negative impact of a new Trump presidency on the prospects of establishing peace in Ukraine.

It seems as though many Europeans see Trump's re-election as a gift to Putin, the authors of the study note, seeing him as a proponent of ending the conflict not in the interests of Ukraine and Europe but in his own and Moscow's interests. This poses a dramatic question for Europe: is it ready to bear the burden of supporting Ukraine without the US? According to the survey, European opinion on this matter is divided. 20% believe it necessary to increase aid to Ukraine to possibly replace American assistance, another 21% would prefer to maintain Europe's level of support at the current level, and a third (33%) — the largest group, but smaller than the first two combined — believe that Europe should also cut back on aid to Ukraine following the lead of the US.

In Sweden, Poland, and Portugal, supporters of the first viewpoint constitute the largest group, while the reduction of aid is supported by 15–22%. The greatest number of advocates for reducing aid is found in Austria, Romania, Hungary, and Romania (42–54%).

'Imagine that the US, under a new president, significantly limits support for Ukraine. What would you prefer Europe to do in such a situation?', % of those surveyed

Researchers note that if, immediately after the start of the war, the main contradictions in Europe were observed between those who supported Kyiv's swift victory and those advocating peace at any cost, it is now becoming increasingly evident that the war will inevitably end with some form of agreement. The main question now is what conditions would be considered acceptable for Ukraine and Europe. They continue to explain that consistent supporters of Ukraine are Europeans who view the EU's work more positively. Conversely, among Eurosceptics who view the EU's political system as dysfunctional, the most common view is that aid should be withdrawn and Ukraine should be pushed towards a peace agreement with Moscow. In other words, the question of the peace formula becomes another battleground between Eurosceptics and Euro-optimists — a battle revolving around the issue of European unity.

This confrontation may be further intensified by the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House, as he seems inclined to portray supporters of Kyiv as advocates of a meaningless ‘eternal war’, thereby rallying Eurosceptics around this concept. In this situation, European leaders should already be explaining to voters the difference between 'long-term peace' and 'peace on Russia's terms'. The key condition for an acceptable peace is that Ukraine's pro-Western choice and the process of its integration into European structures should not be subject to questioning and bartering. In this case, the idea of continued support for Ukraine will become a mobilising element of the European Unity Party on the eve of the upcoming elections in Europe.