Europe fights to maintain its unity in the Ukraine war

Brussels Zelensky

As Kyiv gets ready to commemorate the somber and bloody one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion, Joe Biden's unexpected trip to Ukraine on Monday is a striking demonstration of solidarity and an intentionally strong message to Moscow.

The Ukrainian government was understandably thrilled to see the US president, but as a dedicated observer of Europe, one comment in particular caught my attention.

Andriy Melnyk, the deputy foreign minister, praised "the presence of our important, main partner.". ".

That ought to be Europe, right?

The primary threat posed by Vladimir Putin's aggressive ambition is to European security. He has reintroduced conventional warfare to this continent on a scale not seen since World War Two as a result of his invasion of Ukraine.

The sense of calm and relative security that most of us were accustomed to has been shattered by his actions. The possibility of a nuclear attack is being discussed as a real possibility, albeit a remote one, for the first time since the Cold War.

However, Europe is made up of many different parts, both inside and outside the EU.

The Russian invasion has served as a stark reminder to Europeans—including France's President Macron, a vocal supporter of Europe's "strategic autonomy"—that the continent cannot rely solely on itself for defense. Compared to the US (and even there, some minor political fractures are beginning to show), there isn't the same amount of money, military power, and unifying resolve.

Having said that, the Kremlin underrated Europeans last year.

It staked on their weakness and complete division, with each nation only considering its immediate interests (such as stable energy prices). China also serves as a distraction for the United States. Vladimir Putin underestimated the leaders' willingness to support Ukraine and their vision of stability in Europe.

Europe was altered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Despite differences in speed or reluctance, nations have united to impose unprecedented sanctions on Russia. The initial red lines set by the Western allies have been repeatedly crossed as they have united to send increasingly potent weapons to aid Ukraine.

That unity, however imperfect, continues to hold as the war approaches its second year. Despite the fact that there are some signs of public unrest.

Worshippers queue to light candles in the Marcus church in Berlin
An estimated million Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed in Germany.

Take Germany, a major player in Europe.

When I recently went to Berlin's Steglitz neighborhood, the Markus church was crowded.

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

Germans refer to the conflict as their "watershed moment," despite the fact that the largest economy in Europe has glaringly failed to take the lead in the Ukraine crisis. They changed post-war defense strategies to aid Kyiv and welcomed about a million refugees.

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

But the feeling of unity is waning slightly. Not just in Germany, either.

Contrary to what the political leaders of Europe have declared, 48% of the populace wants an immediate end to hostilities, even if it means ceding some of its territory to Russia.

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

This does not imply that nearly a quarter of Europeans are getting ready to abandon Ukraine. I frequently travel across Europe in my capacity as the BBC's Europe editor. People always tell me they want the suffering to end wherever I go.

However, as the bloody conflict rages on, opinions on how much people want their country 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.

Whether they are refugees looking for housing or politicians in Kyiv trying to rally more military support, Ukrainians are undoubtedly having to deal with war fatigue more and more.

In the back of the Berlin church, Nina from Kharkiv told me, "One month, two months, three months... I was with a German family for eight months.".

They felt like a true family. Wonderful. Additionally, I wasn't actually asked to leave. But I was aware that it was bad. However, they shouldn't stay too long. When this war will end is unknown. " .

According to church chaplain Sven Grebenstein, donations for refugees have dropped by a startling 95% since the conflict began.

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

"A year ago, Germans were lining up to lend a hand. They gave freely of their time and resources.  But then they saw their bills - gas, electricity and food - shoot up. They began being more cautious when handling any cash they might require for themselves. ".

A man working in a glass-blowing factory
Power-intensive industries are suffering from rising costs both here and abroad.

Before the EU imposed sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine, both Italy and Germany were heavily dependent on Russian gas. The crisis in energy was severe.

According to polls, half of Italians oppose sending more weapons to Ukraine. Only 26% of respondents support additional sanctions against Russia, even if they increase costs of living. The same study claims that France has a percentage of 27%.

The strong support for NATO and military aid expressed by President Macron or Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni contrasts sharply with this. You can't help but wonder if the disparity between leaders and voters is healthy.

In Italy, you frequently encounter suspicion of the US and Nato as well as an openness to the Russian narrative.

Near Venice, the island of Murano is renowned for its eye-catching, long-standing glassblowing artisanal craft.

Glass must be molten in order to be mouth-molded into beautiful vases, stools, bowls, and even chandeliers. The temperature in furnaces is maintained between 1200 and 400 C.

The industry has been completely destroyed by rising energy costs. However, I discovered that many employees at the Wave Murano Glass factory were reluctant to place the blame on Moscow.

Although the young Gabriele told me he didn't want to draw comparisons between his family's suffering and that of Ukrainian citizens, he insisted that war had claimed victims everywhere. For him and his aging parents who are living on a basic state pension, the cost-of-living crisis is acutely felt. He claimed that the war needed to end even though he was not an expert on politics or who was right and who was wrong.

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

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
In Estonia, which borders Russia, NATO has increased its presence.

A completely different view of Europe can be found in the Baltic states, which are located 2,000 kilometers to the north-east.

Losing business and investment is not seen as a barrier to taking a tough stance against Moscow, and public sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of providing Ukraine with strong support. Little Estonia gives Ukraine's military more than 1% of its GDP. .

When it comes to dealing with Russia, the Baltic states are considered some of Europe's most "hawkish" or hardline nations. The profiles of Poland and the UK are comparable, and the Netherlands is not far behind.

Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, which also happened to be Estonia's independence day, hit home particularly here, according to Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur.

Before the Soviet Union's collapse, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied for almost 50 years. They have always lived in constant fear of being invaded again because they are geographically close to Russia.

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 the Kremlin's intentions for Ukraine and potentially reasserting its influence over other neighbors, as a "regional issue.".

Former German ex-chancellor Angela Merkel's top aide Ambassador Christoph Heusgen served as the conference's chair this past weekend. Many now hold her responsible for tying her nation too closely to Russia.

He insisted that the relationship between Germany and Russia was incredibly complicated when I questioned whether he now thought he had been blindsided. You only need to reflect on the 20 million people that the Nazis massacred on territory that was then under the control of the former Soviet Union. However, he acknowledged that Western European leaders' views on Russia had unquestionably changed in recent years.

"They are aware that Europe is being attacked. He informed me that this was an all-encompassing assault on the European security system.

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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