Kyiv is getting ready to remember the sad and bloody one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, and Joe Biden’s unplanned trip to Ukraine on Monday is a powerful show of solidarity and a message to Moscow to be taken seriously.
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, 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. In comparison to the US, they lack the resources, the military might, and the united resolve (and even there, some tiny political fractures are beginning to show).
Having said that, the Kremlin underrated Europeans last year.
It wagered on their weakness and complete division, with each nation only considering its immediate interests (like 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.
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.
“One, two, or three months later… I spent eight months living with a German family.” As I sat next to Nina from Kharkiv in the back of the Berlin church, she told me.
“They resembled 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.
“One year ago, Germans were lining up to lend a hand. They gave freely of their time and resources. But then their bills for gas, electricity, and food started to soar. They began being more cautious when handling any cash they might require for themselves.”
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 people say they would support more sanctions against Russia even if they would increase the cost of living. According to the same study, 27% is the figure for France.
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 understands this very well. Large targets of Russian disinformation campaigns are Italy and Germany.
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 military support at a cost of 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 understand that Europe is being attacked. The European security architecture is currently under attack on a broad scale “He told me. “Personally, I think many people agree that if Putin were to successfully conquer Ukraine, he wouldn’t stop there. In all the areas that he believes Russia lost, he would continue to “revive and re-establish the Soviet Union.” Moldova is brought up. But I believe he has also set his sights on the Baltic states.”
I think Putin has put his eyes on the Baltic countries. – Christoph Heusgen
Former German ambassador to the United Nations
Because of this, the EU is currently focusing on Georgia and Moldova, despite complaints that this is not enough. even to Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The Baltics refer to themselves as Europe’s front door for this reason. They have long pleaded with the West to support them in order to defend the continent from a belligerent and ambitious Russia.
I personally witnessed how NATO had paid attention in the snowy wilderness of the dense pine forests outside of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Its influence in the area has greatly increased. There was a significant military exercise going on, complete with trench warfare, Chinook helicopters, and tanks.
The multinational troops I spoke with, including those from France, the UK, Denmark, and of course Estonia, were very clear about their purpose in being there.
Julien, a young French lieutenant, grinned and said, “I’m proud to defend Europe.”
Bernadita, a military planner from Copenhagen, proclaimed, “We are one.” In addition, an attack on one of us is an attack on us all.
However, the public disengagement that we are observing in some areas of Europe must cause us to pause.
And when does the fight finally end?
Even among Europe’s leaders, there is disagreement over how to approach Russia, disregarding the divisions in the general public.
based on the idea that meaningful discussion about the future security of Europe cannot take place without Moscow being included, isolate or try to reintegrate? These questions loom but have not yet received an answer.