Comment

European leadership and the war in Ukraine

Pawel Zerka / Mar 2023

Photo: Shutterstock

The war in Ukraine has had a profound impact on the international order. The West, united for the first time in years, has rediscovered its purpose, while emerging powers are increasingly competing for geopolitical leadership.

The conflict has raised concerns about Europe's ability to defend itself and the scale of its support for the Ukrainian war effort, with spring offensives looming. It has also laid bare the complexity of pulling out over the longer term from the bloc's long-standing dependency on Russian energy. Collectively, these challenges have led to both coded and open disagreement at both national and bloc-wide levels – as evidenced by the protracted debate surrounding the supply of lethal weaponry and tanks to Ukraine, and Hungary’s heel-dragging approach to Russian sanctions.

Yet, despite these hurdles, it would appear that public opinion on the necessity of supporting Ukraine is holding strong. A new survey – of 10 European countries, as well as India, Turkey, China, Russia, and the United States – released last month by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found that despite the difficulties of the past year, Europeans are united in their backing for Kyiv, and in their desire to see Russia held to account for its illegal invasion.

This is exemplified, in one case, by the togetherness of citizens on the subject of Europe’s energy supply. ECFR found that majorities across Europe support a continued embargo on Russian fuel, despite the pain it is inflicting on them personally, as well as their national economy. It is also evidenced by the perceptions of Russia. The survey revealed that upwards of two-thirds of those across the nine EU countries polled (66 per cent) and Great Britain (77 per cent) now see Russia as an “adversary” or “rival” of their country – a position that puts them in line with the US (where 71 per cent noted this view).

But, if the situation in Ukraine has reunited the West, it has also exposed clear differences in the way other powers see Russia – and in how the war should end. Among Europeans, for example, the prevailing view is that Ukraine should be supported for as long as it takes, in order for its forces to regain all their lost territory. While the opposite is the case in China, Turkey and India, where most respondents prefer a rapid end to the war, even if that means Ukraine ceding territory to Russia.

There are also striking differences in how Russia is viewed, internationally, a year into its so-called three-day “special operation” in Ukraine.  ECFR's survey found that three quarters of respondents in China (76 per cent), India (77 per cent) and Turkey (73 per cent) now see Russia as stronger, or as strong as it was a year ago. In some cases, too, the view that Russia is a global “ally” or “partner” of their country is stratospheric – India (80 per cent), China (79 per cent), Turkey (69 per cent) – and in stark contrast to the EU countries, where Russia is not only viewed as fundamentally weaker, but also described as “aggressive” and “untrustworthy” by pluralities.

Perhaps the most interesting difference, however, is evidenced in how citizens see the state of the world and the international order, ten years from now. It shows that, for many in Europe, the legacy of the Cold War lives on, and that there is a strong belief that we are entering a bipolar world, in which US and China will be the two key superpowers. Yet, elsewhere, in countries such as India, and Turkey, opinions differ. In these two cases, respondents see their country as a growing player on the international scene – and, in turn, anticipate a multipolar world order, which would be split between numerous centres of power.

This would place Europe – and the wider Western alliance – in unknown territory. A space where its voice, as a defender of the rules-based order, would carry less clout, and where it is likely to encounter greater competition for international leadership.

In order to navigate this landscape, with success, European leaders will need to recalibrate their worldview. They will need to appreciate the ambitions of competing powers, who may deviate in their position vis-à-vis Ukraine, but who subscribe to the merits of a democratic order. This will require a diplomatic balancing act of persuading emerging powers to support key resolutions, while understanding their national priorities and how public opinion at home shapes diplomacy. The next few months will reveal whether European leaders are ready for this challenge, and whether they can strengthen the EU’s position in an increasingly competitive world.

 

Pawel Zerka

Pawel Zerka

March 2023

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