How to Shore Up Falling Support for Ukraine
It has now been almost 700 days since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although most European leaders remain firm in their staunch support for Kyiv, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to maintain that same level of support among their publics. Cost-of-living concerns are leading many Europeans to question the sustainability of continued funding for Ukraine, and the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip has divided Europe’s attention in recent weeks. Meanwhile, although Kyiv’s counteroffensive continues, it has not yet delivered substantial territorial gains. The momentum generated by Ukraine’s success in the first year of the conflict has given way to a sense that, despite ongoing fighting, the frontline is not moving, and the risk of a frozen conflict is growing.
These concerns help explain the shift in attitudes on display in the surveys conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. This public opinion polling suggests that Europeans’ support for Ukraine’s continued fight has started to decline. The change, so far, has not been big—but its direction leaves no place for doubt. According to ECFR’s earlier poll, conducted in January 2023 in ten European countries, 38 percent on average wanted Ukraine to regain all its territory. But according to ECFR’s latest survey from September and October, this number has dropped to 34 percent. The percent of people who think that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine needs to end as soon as possible, even if it means Ukraine losing some territory to Russia, has essentially held steady at 28 to 29 percent. As a matter of comparison, the September data for the United States shows 43 percent supporting Ukraine as it continues to fight while just 17 percent prefer the war to end as soon as possible.
European support for Ukraine has not yet gone wobbly, but it might soon—not least because some politicians, in a heated election year, could try to get ahead of the trend. To avoid such an outcome, European leaders must do a better job of giving their constituents a convincing theory of how Ukraine can win the war and why it is essential to Europe’s future that it does. If they fail to do so, Kyiv may find itself losing crucial support in the weeks and months to come.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, European support for Kyiv has remained strong, which has underpinned the willingness of EU governments to agree to 11 rounds of sanctions against Russia. With their publics on board, European leaders have also signed up to provide Ukraine with impressive amounts of aid. EU countries and institutions have given Ukraine a total of $144 billion, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker: almost twice as much as the United States has given. To help Ukrainian refugees, EU governments activated what is known as the Temporary Protection Directive in the first months of the war, allowing Ukrainians to enter the EU and move freely between countries without undergoing usual procedures. Given EU governments’ deep fear of the political consequences of more open border policies, this was a particularly strong indicator of the confidence that the EU political class had in public support for the Ukrainian cause.
But support for Kyiv is now under pressure. Since the beginning of 2022, ECFR has been monitoring people’s attitudes about the war in Ukraine. Among other things, we have been asking whom they consider as the biggest obstacle to peace between Ukraine and Russia, and whether they would prefer for Ukraine to regain all of its territory (“even if it meant a longer war”) or for the war to end as soon as possible (“even if it meant Ukraine had to lose parts of its territory”). We conducted our most recent poll this fall—before the Hamas attack on Israel—in Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, with an overall sample of 15,000 respondents. We previously surveyed the same countries (except for Switzerland) in January 2023, and most of these countries (except for Denmark, Estonia, and Switzerland) in April and May 2022.
Support for Kyiv is now under pressure.
According to the latest survey, there has been, over the past months, a modest but consistent drop among Europeans in their preference for Ukraine to continue fighting. There are still countries where the preference for Ukraine to regain all its territory, rather than for the war to end as soon as possible, prevails: by 63 to 13 percent in Estonia, by 46 to 24 percent in Denmark, by 43 to 22 percent in Poland, and by 41 to 19 percent in the United Kingdom. These four differ from more dovish countries, where the opposite view (for the war to end as soon as possible, even if it means Ukraine loses parts of its territory) is dominant: by 46 to 14 percent in Italy, 40 to 28 percent in Germany, and 38 to 16 percent in Romania. The French are currently divided equally, 28 to 28 percent, between the two options. But in all these countries, numbers for the more hawkish option have gone down since January: most notably, from 52 to 43 percent in Poland, from 35 to 28 percent in France, and from 26 to 14 percent in Italy. (Respondents could also say “none of these,” “don’t know,” or a third substantive option: “Western dominance of the world needs to be pushed back, even if it means accepting Russian territorial aggression against Ukraine.” On average, these three responses were chosen, respectively, by 16, 16, and 6 percent of European respondents.)
The most consequential change appears to be taking place in Germany, where a dovish option now leads with a clearer margin (40 to 28 percent) than at the beginning of the year (39 to 33 percent). But the direction of change is evident in every other country, except Portugal, leaving no room for doubt: public belief that Ukraine should keep fighting to regain all its territory, no matter how long it takes, is waning.
The view that Russia is the chief obstacle to peace has also decreased in every European country since the time ECFR asked about it in April 2022. The drop is slight: on average, it is a decrease of only eight percentage points. A majority of Europeans (52 percent) still consider Russia as the main obstacle to peace, while less than a quarter (23 percent) blame the United States, Ukraine, or the EU. But 20 months ago, the proportion was 60 to 19 percent. And there are currently countries, such as Romania, where the West started to be seen as a bigger problem than Russia (a huge shift from 24–42 percent earlier to 38–30 percent today); or Italy, where the two sides are currently blamed equally. Here, again, the direction of change is hard to dispute: Europeans are starting to question whether Russia is the only impediment to peace.
In European countries closer to the conflict zone, support for Ukraine usually remains strong. But even in eastern European countries, there is evidence that people are getting increasingly tired of the war and its consequences.
In Poland, support for accepting Ukrainian refugees has steadily decreased, from 83 percent in March 2022 to 65 percent in September 2023, according to eupinions, an independent public opinion platform. Ahead of the country’s parliamentary election, in October, Konfederacja, a far-right party, was warning against the threat of “Ukrainization of Poland,” and it got over 1.5 million (or over seven percent) of votes. But Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is vowing to win “the full mobilization of the free world, the Western world, to help Ukraine in this war.”
In Slovakia, the party led by Robert Fico, a populist former prime minister, won parliamentary elections in September, allowing Fico to return to power. Just one day after taking office, he pledged to halt military support for Ukraine, one of the main promises he made during his campaign. According to Eurobarometer, Slovakia was, in August, among a handful of EU countries (along with Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and Greece), where more than 40 percent of the population disagreed that the EU should continue to show solidarity with Ukraine.
In Germany, the far-right AfD party—which opposes support for Ukraine—is currently polling second, with the support of 22 percent of German voters. This is a historic high, up from ten percent at the beginning of 2022. Several factors may be contributing to the party’s sudden ascent—but these could include rising energy prices and the growth of the migrant population. Although Germany does not share a border with Ukraine, it currently hosts over a million Ukrainian refugees (the largest number in the EU, alongside Poland).
In France, the national debate is now absorbed by the war in Gaza.
The farther away from the war zone, the more interest appears to be flagging. In France, the national debate is now absorbed by the war in Gaza, which has domestic implications, given the country’s large Muslim community which supports the Palestinian people. According to Google Trends, people in France have been searching more for “Israel” than “Ukraine” over the past two months.
Or take the Netherlands, where the far-right Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, unexpectedly won the parliamentary election in November. This has thrown the previous government’s promise of providing Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets into question, given Wilders’s long opposition to military support for Kyiv. Other issues (such as the economy and migration) appear to explain Wilders’s strong result, whereas people’s opposition to supporting Ukraine remains low, according to most polls. If Wilders enters the government and chooses to change the country’s approach to Ukraine, however, the strength of the public’s support for Ukraine will be challenged.
After almost two years of fighting, the war in Ukraine is no longer viewed as an emergency by a large part of the European public, especially by those who are not close to the conflict zone. Immediately after the invasion, many Europeans were afraid that their countries could be next, or that Russia might use nuclear weapons, or that the war could escalate in other ways. But none of these outcomes have materialized, and so many Europeans currently see Ukraine as one of the various wars happening far from home, for some perhaps as distant and as abstract as conflicts in Armenia or Gaza.
Our data also show weak confidence among Europeans that Ukraine can win this war. In September, only in a handful of countries surveyed—Denmark (46 percent), Estonia (67 percent), Poland (49 percent), and Portugal (48 percent)—was there a prevailing view that Ukraine was likely, rather than unlikely, to win the war within the next five years. Considerably fewer people shared that belief in France (28 percent), Germany (32 percent), Romania (35 percent), Spain (26 percent), Switzerland (35 percent), and even the United Kingdom (34 percent). In Italy, only 20 percent saw Ukraine’s victory as likely—whereas almost twice as many (38 percent) considered Russia as the likely winner.
Weak confidence in Ukraine’s chance for victory does not necessarily mean people expecting Russia to win. In fact, 38 percent, on average (going from 23 percent in Estonia to 46 percent in France and 47 percent in the United Kingdom), do not consider either Ukraine or Russia as likely to win this war within the next five years. Therefore, it appears that many Europeans are bracing for a forever war—expecting instability in Ukraine to become the new normal.
And from this, there is a short path to disengagement. To keep publics on board, some European leaders present Ukraine as fighting not just for its own independence but also for Europe’s future. During a visit to Kyiv in November, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the Ukrainian parliament, “You are fighting not only for your freedom, your democracy and your future, but for ours too. You are fighting for Europe.” Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron said that Ukraine today is “protecting Europe.”
But for the most part, European citizens do not perceive their own countries to be implicated in this war. People rarely see their own country as being at war with Russia: only 11 percent in Romania and Switzerland believe so, and the highest result is Estonia, with 31 percent. Meanwhile, at least a quarter of the respondents in every European country polled think that the United States is at war with Russia—with the highest result in Italy, where this belief is held by 51 percent.
Thus, Europeans appear to be seeing less at stake in this war for their own countries than what they perceived at the beginning of 2022—when, according to our polling from just before the war started, majorities in Germany, Poland, and Romania, and at least 45 percent in Finland, France, Italy, and Sweden, thought that Russia’s stance on Ukraine posed a large military threat to their countries. Currently, European governments could begin to see less urgency and less domestic political gain from supporting Ukraine.
THEORY OF VICTORY
Arguably the most significant support Europe can offer Ukraine is membership in the EU, as the only way to lock in its future as a European, prosperous, and democratic country—with all the guarantees of financial and security support that EU membership entails. The EU Council decision last week to open negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova was important in this respect, but only the first step in a long road to entry to the club, given the heavy lifting needed on reform requirements for Ukraine and for the EU itself.
Here, it becomes clear why European public opinion on the war matters so much. Internal EU Council estimates forecast that around $200 billion in EU funds would flow to Ukraine over seven years after accession. Ukraine joining the EU would also significantly shift the dynamics around European funds (which are the EU’s main tool of reducing developing gaps within the bloc), turning current large recipient states, such as Poland, into net contributors. Many Europeans might also fear the effects that Ukraine’s membership in the EU’s single market could have on their businesses and jobs—as Poland’s ban on Ukraine’s grain exports last summer and the latest blockage of border crossings with Ukraine by Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak truck drivers have demonstrated.
Paying more to Ukraine is not a development that existing EU citizens would accept lightly, especially amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. It is very possible that leaders’ positions on Ukraine’s potential membership in the EU, and on continued financial and military support for Kyiv, could feature prominently in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, which will be organized simultaneously in all 27 EU member states in June 2024. For these reasons, Europe’s growing war fatigue should be taken seriously now. Otherwise, it could begin to constrain the policy choices in front of EU leaders in the coming months and years.
To guard against this, Europe’s leaders need to show deeper understanding for the cost-of-living crisis and why some Europeans link their economic difficulties to the war in Ukraine. Subsidies to households and businesses to help them bear these costs can help, but they will not be enough. European leaders also need to urgently preempt what looks like a gathering sea change in attitudes toward Ukraine. They should frame the conflict as a Russian war against Europe, not just against Ukraine. They should remind voters that a war-mired Ukraine and a victorious Russia would be even more costly for the EU, perpetuating the threat in its direct neighborhood. European leaders need to develop a stronger case for EU enlargement, making clear that Ukraine joining the union will also benefit ordinary Europeans, by broadening the area of stability, prosperity, and freedom.
For any of this to be credible, however, European leaders need to develop a more convincing case for how Ukraine can win. A Ukrainian victory requires Europe to invest in its defense industrial capacity, so that it can sustain Ukraine, even if Washington stops. Russia is banking on its ability to outlast Western support for Ukraine, and that bet needs to be proved wrong.
Source: Foreign Affairs