What Europe Thinks ...

March 31, 2022

What Europe Thinks ... About Russia

Even before Putin launched his war against Ukraine, the European public at large was ahead of their governments in expecting the Russian president to opt for violence. Support for Ukraine is widespread, while the thinking about Russia has fundamentally changed.

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A graph showing European attitudes take risks in supporting Ukraine
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By attacking Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin punctuated the equilibrium of European politics. The consequences of Putin’s war are being felt first and foremost by Ukrainians. Thousands have been killed; millions have been displaced. Many have found refuge in neighboring countries. In Russia, critics of the war face a degree of repression not seen in decades. Globally, wheat prices are soaring, further exacerbating food insecurity in the least well-off parts of the world.

The full impact of Putin’s decision to go to war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, can only be known in hindsight as can be the true motivations for his decision. What is clear now is that Europeans realize that they find themselves at a critical juncture where the future of Europe hangs in the balance.

In late January, as Russia was massing its troops along the border with Ukraine, in Belarus, and in the Black Sea, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) carried out a public opinion poll in seven EU countries—Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Sweden—which together account for almost two-thirds of the European Union’s population. Remarkably, while some governments saw the military build-up merely as an attempt to coerce Ukraine into making concessions at the negotiating table, their populations had already recognized the threat that Putin posed to both Ukraine and European security more broadly.

In all countries but Finland majorities believed a new Russian invasion of Ukraine to be “very likely” or “fairly likely” sometime in 2022. Concerns were greatest in Poland and Romania, but also in Finland respondents thought an attack to be more likely than not. Europeans were aware that the threat to Ukraine also affected their own countries: Polish respondents worried most about Russian military action and the weaponization of migration and energy ties against their country. Germans, Finns, the French, Romanians, and Italians primarily feared that the Kremlin would cut off their energy supply. Swedish citizens were most concerned about cyberattacks.

A Willingness to Come to Ukraine’s Aid

Despite these somewhat divergent threat perceptions, Europeans expressed their willingness to take a number of different risks to come to Ukraine’s aid in the case of a Russian attack. Most Europeans would welcome Ukrainian refugees, pay higher energy prices, weather cyberattacks and an economic downturn, if that was the cost for defending Ukraine. Polish respondents showed the highest, French respondents the lowest risk tolerance. Poles, Romanians, and Swedes even thought that the risk of military escalation with Russia was worth taking.

Europeans also believed that they should take on the Russian threat jointly. In six out of the seven surveyed countries majorities thought that both NATO and the EU should respond to Russian aggression—only Germans didn’t. EU citizens also displayed considerable trust in the two institutions to protect their interests in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, although they differed in their assessment of whether NATO or the EU should lead such a response. French respondents were least trusting: Just half of them believed that the EU would protect their interests and even fewer thought the same of NATO.

Now, as the possibility of war has become a reality, Europeans are recognizing the importance of international alliances to their own security—especially in Eastern countries fears are mounting. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Poles have expressed record-level, almost unanimous support for the country’s membership of NATO. Across Europe support for NATO membership has significantly increased. For the first time majorities in Finland and Sweden support their countries’ accessions to the transatlantic alliance. Both countries are also keen to emphasize that while they are militarily non-aligned, they are not neutral. And both countries have also delivered significant amounts of military aid to Ukraine in recent weeks. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who drew the ire of many for calling NATO “brain dead” back in 2019, is now on record for saying that “Russia has just provided an electroshock … the awakening” for the alliance.

A Turning Point?

Russian plans originally envisioned a swift victory over Ukraine. On day three of the war, state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency accidentally published a pre-scheduled editorial praising Putin for “restoring its [Russia’s] historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together.” But when he sent his troops to “kick in the door,” contrary to Putin’s dismissive view of Ukrainians, the “whole rotten structure” did not come crashing down. Instead, Ukrainians’ bravery and resolve to defend their country has stopped the Russian invasion dead in its tracks. At the time of writing—in mid-March—intelligence services assessed Russian losses to have been greater from three weeks of fighting than US casualties from 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Out of frustration over the lack of progress, Putin has taken to targeting civilians and humanitarian infrastructure and operations in Ukraine. The port city of Mariupol was under siege at the time of writing, cut off from food, water, and electricity. It is a tactic that Russian forces have employed and perfected in Grozny, Aleppo, and Eastern Ghouta to eradicate resistance and force submission.

So, it is on the backs of Ukrainians, who would have liked nothing more than to just carry on with their lives, that Germany conducts its “Zeitenwende”—a historical turning point—in foreign policy, and that the European Union is experiencing its geopolitical awakening. Had Ukraine’s government collapsed within days, as Putin expected, the international response to this act of aggression would likely have looked very different. Putin’s brutality and Ukrainians’ resistance, however, forced European leaders, Western European ones in particular, to adjust their views of Russia. Not least to adapt to the changing moods and fears of their constituencies.

In France, the war is shaping the presidential election campaign. With just weeks to go before the first round of the election on April 10, the presidential hopefuls have all condemned the attack on Ukraine. For the longest time, leaders of both the far right and the far left have lauded Putin’s Russia. But in this moment of crisis, French voters seem to be rallying behind their president.

The same is true in Hungary, unfortunately, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is facing a united opposition in the April 3 election. As the leaders of the other Visegrád countries visited Kyiv during week two of the war, Orbán doubled down on pro-Kremlin talking points to win over the Hungarian electorate, promising peace and stability by staying out of the war. In Turkey, the next general election is scheduled for June 2023. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been losing public support due to economic woes, but if he succeeds in positioning himself as an indispensable mediator between Ukraine and Russia, the warming of relations with Brussels and Washington could turn his fortunes around ahead of the election.

Thinking Differently

Europeans’ support for Ukraine and their changing view of Russia will long shape national and EU-level debates. As our poll had suggested before the attack, Europeans now show enormous solidarity with Ukraine. As in so many humanitarian emergencies, it has been civil society that has been leading the response to feed and house refugees.

While their government has worked to dismantle support systems for refugees in recent years, Polish citizens have shown commendable compassion toward the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled to the country since the start of the war. Europeans have also supported measures to punish the Kremlin and compel it to change course through crippling economic sanctions, including on Russia’s energy sector, at great cost to their own economies and finances. They have also called for their governments to supply the Ukrainian resistance with weapons and ammunition, fuel and medical equipment to sustain the fight for Ukraine’s freedom and for the freedom of Europe.

If the war continues much longer, these levels of solidarity might not hold. An economic downturn, a spill-over of the fighting to other countries, ever growing migration pressures, or disappointment with the international response to the crisis could all erode Europeans’ support. Political leadership at all levels and a softening of economic consequences, particularly for already marginalized parts of European societies, will be critical in the coming weeks and months, maybe even years.

Recognizing that one finds oneself at a critical juncture, does not reveal anything about the future direction of one’s journey. As the war rages on in Ukraine, the future shape of Europe remains undetermined. But one thing is clear: Since February 24, 2022, Europeans think differently about Putin’s Russia.

Rafael Loss is coordinator for pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Gosia Piaskowska is program assistant with ECFR's Euroean Power program.

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