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Unanswered queries

European consensus on the Ukraine war is under strain

Krishnan Srinivasan Published 01.04.23, 04:35 AM

Sourced by the Telegraph

From the earliest times, philosophers have argued about the existence and, if so, the nature of a just war. The seventeenth-century Dutchman, Hugo Grotius, maintained that war was justified if a country faced imminent danger and the use of force was necessary and proportionate. But until this day, there is no consensus on the issue. This accounts for the divergence of views on the Ukraine war, where Kyiv regards the Russian attack as an invasion while Moscow regards it as preemptive action for its security and that of Russian sympathisers and coreligionists in eastern Ukraine, the Donbas. On Russia’s north and western borders with Europe lie nine countries; six hostile, one (Belarus) an ally, and two (Moldova and Hungary) ambiguous. Russia’s border with Ukraine is 1,000 kilometres; if Sweden and Finland join NATO, the length of the Russia/NATO border will be 2,500 km.

The visit by the president of the United States of America, Joe Biden, to Kyiv in February, projected as audacious by the Western media, was hardly that — the Russians had been alerted in advance by Washington in a ‘deconfliction procedure’. But it did reveal that support to Ukraine still subserves the domestic agenda in many countries in the West. The visit also underlined the US’s role as the main security partner of Ukraine although the brunt of the pain is being suffered by Europe. What is no longer heard of is the strategic autonomy sought only recently by Paris and Berlin.


Whereas a favoured cliché among Western leaders is to support Ukraine for ‘as long as it takes’, there is a growing gap between them and their voters that might prove unsustainable. Europeans are beset by higher costs of living, spiralling food and energy prices, the prospect of recession, and the burden of eight million registered refugees. Many nations had businesses with strong links — now severed — with Russia. Consequently, popular views differ sharply on how much they want their country to be involved in the conflict, at what cost, and to what extent they think Russia should be pushed back or punished. Opinion is also starting to get exercised by the huge amounts of unaudited public money sent to Ukraine, a notoriously corrupt country, when private fortunes are being made by some Ukrainians. There are seven billionaires in Ukraine according to Forbes; and President Volodymyr Zelensky is worth “roughly $20 million.”

In contrast to the pro-war rhetoric of politicians, a December Eurobarometer poll found that while 74% of European Union citizens approved of the bloc’s support for Ukraine, that support fell below 50% in Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus and Slovakia, and was marginally over 50% in Hungary, Romania and Austria. A January poll by Euroskopia noted that 48% of the European public wanted a quick end to the hostilities, while a majority in Austria (64%), Germany (60%) and Greece (54%) and 50% in Italy and Spain favoured an early land-for-peace compromise with Russia. Half the Italians would not send any more weapons to Ukraine and only 26% support greater sanctions against Russia, if they make life more expensive. In France, this is 27%. Even in the US, voices are heard that if that country has $50 billion to spare for Ukraine’s support, the money would be better used to address climate change and the growing divisions in race and inequality. A poll from Associated Press-NORC Chicago shows that only 19% repose confidence in Biden’s Ukraine policy, 37% have limited confidence, and 43% have none.

The strategic, industrial, economic, political and military situation in Europe is deteriorating due to the consequences of sanctions against Russia, and the high cost of production has forced the closure of European industries resulting in unemployment. In Germany, the European economic powerhouse, around a million refugees from Ukraine were taken in but solidarity is slipping. On March 27, pushing for wage increases of 10% to 12% due to high inflation, transport staff across Germany went on strike, paralysing rail, road, port, airport and underground systems. Public donations for refugees have plummeted by 95% from one year ago and the Germans are increasingly sceptical about the West’s approach, especially after revelations by the American investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, regarding the US-Norway sabotage last September of three of the four Nord Stream natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany owned by Russian, German, Dutch, French and Austrian companies. This destruction has made the position of the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, precarious in case it is later found that he was privy to the intended sabotage. Germany now pays 10 times the market price for gas from the pre-crisis level, Europe has become dependent on energy imports from the US, and Norwegian gas exports have also benefitted hugely. Predictably, Washington dismissed Hersh’s report as “utterly false and complete fiction” but in a move to obfuscate its involvement, has now inspired leaks to suggest that the Ukrainians were responsible.

While opinion polls indicate growing European frustration with the Ukraine war, no similar assessment is available from Russia even though the best informed Levada Center places the popularity of President Vladimir Putin between 77% and 82%. Observers are surprised that the massive US/EU sanctions against Russia, a US$2 trillion underdog battling the US$23 trillion American economy and the US$17 trillion EU economy, have not led to its collapse. Russia’s economy may have shrunk by about 3%-4% but it could grow over the current year. The sanctions do not have the United Nations Security Council’s mandate and are, therefore, not global, which makes them relatively easy to circumvent. While the Russian military has performed worse than expected, the Russian economy has performed better.

Apart from the inveterate Russophobes — the Baltic states, Poland, the Netherlands and Britain — and reflecting the increasingly fractured public opinion, there is scant unity among Europe's leaders on their future dealings with Russia. Should they isolate it or try to reintegrate based on the premise that the security of Europe cannot be meaningful without Moscow being included? These questions are ever-present but they are yet to be addressed.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary

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