Ukrainian service members are seen near a frontline in the Zaporizhzhia region on August 18. Photo: Reuters
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond

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.

Seven economic sanctions packages have already been announced by the EU alone, yet with August 24 marking the six-month anniversary of the conflict, cracks are showing.

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.

The schisms within Europe were laid bare in a June poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations. It showed that while Europeans feel strong solidarity with Ukraine and support sanctions, they are split over longer-term goals. There is a “Peace” camp (35 per cent) that wants a speedy end to the war, and a “Justice” camp that believes the more pressing goal is to punish Russia (22 per cent).

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.

(From left) Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, former Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hold a press conference, following a meeting in Kyiv to discuss Ukrainian EU membership, on June 16. Photo: AFP

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.

Changes of leadership could make a difference, too. Italy, which under former prime minister Mario Draghi was a strong supporter of Kyiv, could become significantly less so if the nation’s right-wing bloc, within which there is much sympathy for Russia, wins power next month.

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.


Ukraine-backed forces possibly behind strikes in Russian-annexed territory

Ukraine-backed forces possibly behind strikes in Russian-annexed territory
The level of risk in Ukraine remains exceptionally high. This is partly because Moscow’s “exit strategy” is not clear, and miscalculation is still a significant possibility. While the Russian military was ineffective to begin with, it now controls 20-25 per cent of Ukraine – amounting to an area the size of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands combined – and may hold much of this territory for years.

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.

A Ukrainian serviceman sits on a tank near a front line in Ukraine’s Mykolayiv region. Photo: Reuters
Following Russian territorial wins in recent months, Ukraine is amassing a large fighting force equipped with Western weapons to try to recapture some of its southern and eastern territory from Moscow. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered his military to focus in particular on recovering areas that are key to the country’s economy. Meanwhile, Russia is preparing for the next stage of its offensive by stepping up military operations “in all areas”.

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.

Nature of Russian invasion of Ukraine makes quick peace deal impossible

Pessimistic as this “war of attrition” scenario may seem, with the human cost – including for millions of refugees – largest of all, it is not the worst-case outcome. That future might be realised if the conflict escalates beyond Ukraine to involve Nato countries. Such a scenario, while unlikely, cannot be dismissed, given the volatility of the situation.

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