As Ukraine faces a war of attrition, European unity is fracturing
- While EU support for Ukraine remains strong, Europeans are divided over long-term goals, with some wanting a swift return to peace and others calling for a decisive defeat of Russia
- This split may widen as the war drags on, with both Moscow and Kyiv willing to pour more resources into the conflict
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, one of the genuine geopolitical surprises has been the stronger-than-expected unity the West has shown against Moscow.
Hungary has been the most outspoken outlier so far. Yet even behind wider European public statements of support for Ukraine, there are significant differences of opinion, including between Western European nations such as Germany and France, and Eastern states which want to see a tougher response, such as the Nordics, Baltics and Poland.
In all countries, apart from Poland, the “Peace” camp is larger than the “Justice” camp. European citizens also worry, increasingly, about the cost of sanctions and the threat of military escalation.
So far, these differences have been camouflaged quite successfully by the Brussels-based club. However, this may become harder to do as the economic and political pain of the Ukraine crisis cuts deeper.
With European unity becoming more elusive as time goes by, uncertainty remains over how much longer the war will last.
It is unlikely that a decisive victory for either side is imminent, as long as Moscow is prepared to expend huge resources in the conflict, while Ukraine continues to be supplied extensively by the West.
The most likely scenario therefore is a “war of attrition” that could even last into 2023, albeit potentially at a lower fighting tempo.
Moreover, the Western alliance led by the United States has declared that its own strategy is to inflict a defeat on Russia. This is an important change in the history of Nato, and raises the stakes further.
Historically, wars have tended to end in two ways: when one side imposes its will on the other on the battlefield, then at the negotiating table; or when both sides embrace a compromise they deem preferable to fighting. Unless something big changes, neither appears likely in Ukraine, especially as both sides are prepared to expend massive resources in the conflict.
The economic impact of the war may also be exacerbated by Russia further cutting gas supplies, at least periodically, to an increasing number of EU nations in the coming months. The bloc’s energy ministers have already agreed on a controversial new plan to reduce gas use by 15 per cent from next month to March 2023.
This would be a genuine catastrophe; the use of nuclear or chemical weapons could not be completely ruled out. Sanctions would multiply, and there might be wider economic collapse, expediting the impulse towards deglobalisation.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics