Have we passed the high-water mark of European unity on Ukraine?

Opinion piece (LSE blog)
15 June 2022

EU leaders presented a united response in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet as the war continues, this unity is coming under strain. Luigi Scazzieri argues there is now a real risk that rifts sparked by the conflict could become entrenched, undermining European cohesion on issues far beyond the war in Ukraine.

When Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February this year, EU leaders quickly agreed to impose sweeping sanctions on Russia’s economy and to provide Kyiv with military and financial assistance. But as the conflict enters a new phase, European unity is coming under strain.

At the start of the war, a Russian victory seemed likely. But Ukraine managed to halt the Russian assault on Kyiv, forcing Moscow to focus on the Donbas and Ukraine’s south. Even here, Russia’s offensive appears to have limited momentum. Russia has suffered extensive losses and will struggle to carry out large-scale offensive operations. At the same time, Ukrainian forces will find it harder to retake territory than they did to defend it. Both sides will struggle to achieve a breakthrough.

As the conflict continues, splits between European countries will deepen. Divisions over increasing sanctions on Russia are already highly visible. It was difficult for the EU to agree on the sixth package of sanctions at the end of May, especially on Russian oil imports. To overcome Hungary’s opposition, EU leaders had to agree not to sanction imports via pipeline. It will be even more challenging for the EU to sanction Russian gas, as member states like Germany, Austria, and Hungary, which are highly dependent on Russian gas, fear they could not cope with a complete cut-off. This will increase tensions with those member states who argue that gas revenues are essential in fueling Russia’s war effort.

Rifts over strategy are also becoming highly apparent. Eastern EU member states, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, fear they may be invaded next if Ukraine loses and are convinced of the need to provide Kyiv with extensive support to help it prevail. They also think that negotiations with Russia are pointless, as Putin cannot be trusted to implement any agreement. Conversely, while western EU states like France, Germany and Italy have provided ample support to Ukraine, they think the conflict should end through a negotiation between Russia and Ukraine, potentially involving some compromises by Kyiv. Western EU countries don’t believe there is a risk that Russia could attack NATO countries, but instead worry about the risk of the conflict escalating into a NATO-Russia one.

This western European attitude sparks fears in the hawkish eastern states that western Europeans are willing to appease Putin and that they underestimate the threat from Russia. These fears have been compounded by Germany’s delays in delivering weapons to Ukraine. Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron’s references to the need to avoid humiliating Russia are seen as signals that he is willing to push Ukraine to make concessions to Russia, even though he denies this. France, Germany and Italy have all called for a ceasefire, causing tensions with eastern member states, who think this would entrench Russian control over parts of Ukraine.

The battle of attrition in the Donbas may eventually persuade Russia and Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire. But this could deepen European differences further. If Russia’s advance forced Ukraine to accept territorial losses as part of an agreement, most EU countries would favour maintaining the bulk of sanctions to avoid legitimising Putin’s gains. But over time, calls could grow for sanctions to be eased, deepening divisions.

Conversely, if Ukrainian advances persuaded Putin that it was in his interest to withdraw from the territories occupied since February, this could be even more divisive. The hawkish EU states would want to maintain the sanctions and would reject any attempt to normalise relations with Russia for as long as Putin was in power. Meanwhile, the dovish countries would likely favour lifting some sanctions and would try to rebuild a more stable relationship with Moscow, for example focusing on arms control talks.

The biggest European divisions would occur if Ukraine was extremely successful in retaking territory. Putin may accept losing the territories that Russia has occupied since February, and perhaps even those parts of the Donbas that Russia has controlled since 2014. But neither Putin, nor any potential successor, could easily accept losing Crimea. If faced with such a possibility, Russia would double down on the war, and the risk of Putin being willing to use nuclear weapons to force Kyiv to back down would also rise. As CIA Director Bill Burns recently highlighted in an interview, Putin “doesn’t believe he can afford to lose”. Most EU countries would not be comfortable with such a risky escalation, but some might insist that Putin is bluffing.

Three months after Russia’s invasion, Kyiv’s resistance has ensured that Russia has not achieved its original aim of subjugating Ukraine, but the war’s outcome remains unclear. What is certain is that the conflict is breeding mistrust amongst EU states and that divisions are likely to deepen further. The risk is that the rifts sparked by the conflict could become entrenched, undermining European cohesion on issues well beyond the war in Ukraine and policy towards Russia.

Luigi Scazzieri is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, focusing on European security.