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Growing pessimism in Europe about the Russia-Ukraine war

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There is growing pessimism in Europe about the Russia-Ukraine war, and fears that a Donald Trump win at this year’s US presidential elections will make a Ukrainian victory “less likely”, according to a new multi-country survey report published today by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). This landscape will make the quest to define peace “a critical battleground”, not only in the upcoming European elections, but for the conflict itself. In order to continue making a persuasive case to support Ukraine, EU leaders will need to change their tenor so as not to come across as unrealistic to a sceptical public.

ECFR’s latest report, Wars and Elections: How European leaders can maintain public support for Ukraine, is authored by foreign policy experts Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, and pulls on YouGov and Datapraxis public opinion data from 12 EU member states (Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden), conducted in January 2024. The purpose of the report is to understand the current state of opinion on Ukraine and to put forward a strategy for how EU leaders can best make the case for European support for Kyiv in a more difficult environment. 

The poll reveals a mixed picture – with some ground for optimism and some challenges that will need to be taken into account when leaders make the case for continuing or scaling up support for Kyiv. While just 10% of Europeans now believe Ukraine will triumph in the war, a majority of Europeans are not in the mood for appeasement and there is widespread backing for maintaining, and even increasing, levels of European aid to Kyiv in the event of US policy pivot.

The report’s co-authors, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, note several trends within this dataset that should influence political communication in the coming period. First, the realisation that Russia’s war in Ukraine is now primarily seen as a European war, which Europeans are responsible for; second, a pessimism when it comes to the outcome of the war, and whether Ukraine can secure a battlefield victory; third, a reconfiguration of support for Kyiv among its neighbours, including Poland, where the sense of togetherness has started to wane, against opinion in countries further afield, like Portugal and France, where support appears surprisingly firm; and, fourth, that the Trump effect on global politics is already underway, even before confirmation that he will be able to lead a campaign to return to the White House.

Key findings from ECFR’s latest survey include:

  • There is growing pessimism in Europe about the outcome of the war. 
  • Just 10% of respondents, on average across the twelve countries surveyed, now believe Ukraine will triumph over Russia - while twice as many (20%) predict a Russian victory in the conflict. Ebbing confidence in the Ukrainian war effort is visible across Europe, and, even in the most optimistic member states surveyed (Poland, Sweden, and Portugal) fewer than one in five (17%) believe Kyiv can prevail. In all countries, the most prominent opinion (shared by 37%, on average) is that a compromise settlement between Ukraine and Russia will manifest.
  • Support for Ukraine is broad in Europe, though there are some countries where most would prefer to push Kyiv to accept a settlement. 
  • In three countries - Sweden, Portugal and Poland - there is a preference for supporting Ukraine in fighting back its territory (50%, 48%, and 47%, respectively). In five others – including neighbouring Hungary (64%), Greece (59%), Italy (52%), Romania (50%), and Austria (49%) – there is a clear preference for pushing Kyiv to accept a settlement. Elsewhere, the public is divided, including in France (35% fight back vs. 30% negotiate a settlement), Germany (32% vs. 41%), the Netherlands (34% vs. 37%), and Spain (35% vs. 33%).
  • Many see the Ukraine war as existential for Europe.
  • When asked which conflict – between the war in Gaza, involving Israel and Hamas, and the war in Ukraine – has had the most impact on their ‘country’ and on ‘Europe’, 33% and 29%, respectively, selected Ukraine. This contrasts with just 5% and 5%, respectively, selecting the conflict in Gaza. This suggests that Europeans are increasingly interpreting the war in Ukraine, and its outcome, as regionally significant and one that they are responsible for.
  • Europeans see the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House as “disappointing”.
  •  56% of respondents to ECFR’s survey would be “fairly disappointed” or “very disappointed” if Donald Trump was re-elected as US president. Hungary was the only outlier to this view. Here, 27% indicated that they would be ‘pleased’ by this outcome while only 31% said they would be ‘disappointed’. Those hopeful for a Trump victory constitute a majority among supporters of just one major political party – Fidesz – across the countries surveyed. Among other right-wing groupings, which were previously sympathetic to the former president, only about a third of supporters of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), or Italy’s Fratelli d'Italia would be “pleased” by his return – and sentiment is weaker still among supporters of France’s Rassemblement National (RN) and Poland’s Law and Justice parties.
  • There is a fear Donald Trump will negatively impact the course of the war and make a Ukrainian victory “less likely”.
  • 43% of Europeans, on average, think that a second Trump presidency will make a Ukrainian victory “less likely”, while only 9% expressed a view to the contrary.
  • 41% of Europeans, on average, believe that the EU should either ‘increase’ or ‘keep’ its support for Ukraine at current levels, in the event of an American withdrawal of aid under Trump. 
  • Though only a minority (20%) of Europeans would increase support to Ukraine to compensate for a US pull-out, 21% indicated that they would prefer to keep the level of support unchanged. A third of respondents (33%) would prefer the EU to follow the US in limiting support.

The authors note that Europeans are not in a “heroic mood”, or, indeed, even optimistic about the situation in Ukraine, two years on. However, even against this backdrop, they contend that the commitment of Europeans to preventing a Russian victory has not moved. It is also underpinned by a wider public position that, even in the event of the US withdrawing its backing of Ukraine, the EU should either ‘keep’ or ‘increase’ its support to Kyiv.

Krastev and Leonard believe that this competition between depressed public confidence about how the war will end and the maintenance of support to prevent a Russian victory has created a new dichotomy. The challenge for Western policymakers now, they argue, will be to define what a 'just peace' looks like and establish a narrative that prevents Trump - and Vladimir Putin – from posing as advocates of peace in a conflict that is still far from decided.

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Commenting on ECFR’s latest pan-European survey, co-author and ECFR founding director, Mark Leonard, said:

“In order to make the case for continued European support for Ukraine, EU leaders will need to change how they talk about the war. Our poll shows that most Europeans are desperate to prevent a Russian victory. But they also don’t believe that Ukraine will be able to recover all of its territory. The most persuasive case for a sceptical public is that military support for Ukraine could lead to a durable, negotiated peace that favours Kyiv, rather than a victory for Putin.”

Ivan Krastev, co-author and Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, added:

“The big danger is that Trump – and Putin who has hinted that he is open to negotiations – try to portray Ukraine (and its backers) as the ‘forever war’ party while they claim the mantle of ‘peace’.  

Russian victory is not peace. If the price of ending the war is turning Ukraine into a no man’s land, this will be a defeat not only for Kyiv but for Europe and its security. Now when Moscow advocates negotiations, it is important for both Ukrainian and Western publics to know what is not negotiable when it comes to the future of Ukraine. From a Western standpoint, what is unnegotiable is the democratic and pro-Western choice of Ukraine.”

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