Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


In the first 100 days of Russia’s war on Ukraine, European public opinion helped to solidify Europe’s political response. But on 15 June 2022 the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) revealed that diverging public preferences could weaken this unity.

A truce stop to the fighting, a "non-war" which is far from peace, but would at least stop the bombing and the continuing loss of lives, would be very much welcomed.

From a strategic point of view the war unleashed by the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army can be considered an indirect and undeclared war between Russians and Americans.

Once the gas provision is cut, the problem is not to find other sources of gas. Europe can find them, but they will be very expensive. What Europe is experiencing is a hybrid war: the fight is no longer just on the battlefields, but economic issues are involved as a way of pressuring.

Two scenarios for how Russia might use a tactical nuclear weapon seem possible:   an assault on a Ukrainian military target or the destruction of a Ukrainian city.

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Research

ECFR’s research shows that, while the majority of Europeans feel solidarity with Ukraine and support sanctions against Russia, they are split about the long-term goals. They divide between a “Peace” camp (35 % of people) that wants the war to end as soon as possible, and a “Justice” camp that believes the goal is to punish Russia (22 % of people).

In all countries, apart from Poland, the “Peace” camp is larger than the “Justice” camp. European citizens worry about the cost of economic sanctions and the threat of nuclear escalation. Unless something dramatically changes, they will oppose a long and protracted war. Only in Poland, Germany, Sweden, and Finland is there substantial public support for boosting military spending.

Will European unity last or will cracks start to emerge between and within EU countries? Now Europeans are more aware of the global economic and social consequences of the war: high inflation, and energy and food crises.

Large divisions are emerging between EU member states whose citizens feel they are participants in the war and those where people still want to try to avoid involvement in the conflict.

Migration could still become a divisive issue. While most Europeans are happy to host Ukrainian refugees, Romania, Poland, and France are among the countries least open to this prospect.

A unifying national effort or a divisive political issue?

War is like a rollercoaster: public opinion can change with every twist and turn, and it is also a hugely powerful driver.  The war in Ukraine is essentially being fought on three fronts and among three protagonists. The first front is the battlefield itself. The second front is economic. The third front is the battle of wills. The three participants are Russia, Ukraine and the western alliance backing Ukraine.

What happens on any of the three fronts affects the other two. Ukraine’s military successes are critical for bolstering the size of the Justice camp. Supporters of the Peace camp are already the biggest group among European citizens and will probably rise in number if feeling grows that the fierce economic sanctions on Russia are failing to bring results.

The survey exposes potential divisions over refugees, Ukraine’s EU accession, the impact on living standards, and the threat of nuclear escalation. These combine into a central schism between the Peace and Justice camps. In many European countries, Ukraine’s cause could change from being a unifying national endeavour and turn into a divisive political issue.

A truce stop to the fighting, a "non-war" situation

Today, there is no ideological difference, but there is an almost total mutual distrust: people don’t trust each other, while at the time of the Cold War, paradoxically, people did.

People can no longer find that common language that somehow guaranteed peace at the time of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Americans and Soviets understood each other much better than Americans and Russians do today.

A "no war" situation could suffice. And today this "non-war", given the lack of mutual trust and the lack of communication, can only be based on some form of deterrence.  The conflict is doomed to last a long time. But the goal of a ceasefire can and must be reached: a truce, not a peace treaty or a decision regarding borders and territorial partitions.

A stop to the fighting, so that shooting and bombing may be ended, in the hope that this truce could then become, for lack of alternatives, if not a permanent datum, at least a very prolonged datum, on the Korean model.

This said, even a ceasefire alone will not be easy to be accepted by both sides. Anyway, at this moment, the truce is a necessity and a possibility: both countries are quite exhausted from a military point of view.

Europe is absent

Europe is absent: there is no European geopolitical subject. Indeed, we have never seen so many different positions and interests dividing the European countries as in this moment.

There is certainly an anti-Russian bloc. But then we have a bloc that it would be a mistake to define pro-Russian, but which appears more inclined to enter negotiations and which includes Italy, France, Germany, and more generally Western Europe. And then there is the Hungarian position which, instead, is openly pro-Russian. Furthermore, there is the British position which is similar to the American one, but a step forward.

So, in short, in the European space and specifically in that of the European Union and in that of NATO, there are many different positions. None of these can really be conclusive, because the United States is the one who can really persuade Russians and Ukrainians to peace talks. 

A proxy war between Russia and USA

The war unleashed by the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army can be considered an indirect and undeclared war between Russians and Americans, with in the middle also China as an opponent of the United States and aligned with Russia.

And therefore, its solution is a question the great superpowers must find and not for the medium powers or in any case the European powers. Only the phone calls between Putin and Biden and between Biden and Zelensky, therefore a triangulation with Washington, could give the green light to a negotiation.

As for the possibility of a Putin replacement, when a government implodes in Russia, the state implodes too. It happened in the October Revolution and in the Gorbachevian end of the Soviet Union. It is never just a simple change of regime: the state changes in the strict sense of the term, the borders change, the institutions change, the structures change.

What if Putin loses power?

If, hypothetically, Putin were to lose power due to a war and not simply because he was defeated in elections (which seems very unlikely at the moment) it would be likely that the collapse of the Russian Federation would follow. The Russian Federation was not created by someone for some purpose: it is simply the result of the decomposition of the Soviet Union.

Because there is not only war on the ground, there is also an economic war that risks having devastating effects for humanity as a whole, and for the weaker parts of humanity, even more devastating than the ones caused by the war in the Donbass region.

NATO was enlarged knowing what the Russians think. Regardless of the regime that governs it - whether Tsarist, Democratic, Fascist or Communist - Russia has felt and feels somehow encircled by the West and without natural borders.

The Russians believe that a rather large space between Moscow, or St. Petersburg, and the possible invaders is indispensable. The West knew this and did not consider it.

Ukraine's future

The chances of Kyiv ever retaking the occupied Donbass are zero, no matter what weaponry the West supplies.

Russia is fortifying the territories it has seized. Putin still has at his disposal an inventory of unused weapons, some of them terrific. Only direct Western military intervention could offer a prospect of tilting the odds decisively against Russia.

The domestic politics of another unsuccessful American war look terrible. Putin, thinking long as usual, is surely calculating that the 2024 presidential election will return to the White House either former President Donald Trump or a Trump clone, opposed to deeper entanglements in a European showdown with Russia.

A US retreat from Europe would leave Ukraine dependent on European military, political and economic support, a grim prospect indeed, because the US supplies more than 80% of its aid. Meanwhile most of Europe is embarrassingly desperate for a settlement that will defuse its energy crisis before winter comes.

Whatever expedients are adopted to preserve a facade of continental unity against Putin, there is no sense of real steel behind the rhetoric of most European governments.

Scenarios for a Russian tactical nuclear weapon

At this stage, it can be doubted whether deterrence still actually exists, because a new idea of using so-called tactical nuclear bombs is emerging: since they are a little less powerful, their eventual use might be justified.

Two scenarios for how Russia might soon use a nuclear weapon seem possible: (1) a nuclear assault on a Ukrainian military target, perhaps an air base or a supply depot, that is not intended to harm civilians, and (2) the destruction of a Ukrainian city, causing mass civilian casualties and creating terror to precipitate a swift surrender: the same aims that motivated the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The destruction of a Ukrainian city, with large civilian casualties, would be a tremendous mistake. But Russia could destroy a military target without much radioactive fallout, without civilian casualties, and without prompting a strong response from the United States. 

The use of a low-yield nuclear weapon against a purely military target could not be too controversial. The reprisal should be focused and conventional, not nuclear. It should be confined to Ukraine, ideally with targets linked to the nuclear attack.

The European energy issue

The problem is not to find other sources of gas. There is a paradox: you can find them, but they will be very expensive. Can’t counter the price hike.

What we have been experiencing for a long time is a hybrid war: the fight is no longer just on the battlefields, but economic issues are involved as a way of pressuring.

Everything has risen in price, from the basic basket to goods and services. That, with a skyrocketing inflation, affects public opinion.

In some countries there are already parts of the population that ask for peace at any cost and do not care about Russia or Ukraine.  Namely, hitting the economy has caused the positions that used to be pro-Ukrainian to begin to change.

Obviously, it would mean tens or even hundreds of thousands of Europeans facing serious health consequences and possible death due to the cold. But it would also mean the complete collapse of the European economy. Factories would have to shut down, as would shops and other services. If the present inflation is bad, hyperinflation is a real possibility. It is rare that non-authoritarian governments last long in a hyperinflationary scenario.                   


Perhaps the most worrying sign is that most Europeans see the EU as a major loser in the war. The danger remains that the Peace and Justice camps could yet become more polarised thus immobilising EU by its own divisions: then the war could signal the permanent marginalisation of Europe on the world stage.

It was hoped the sanctions would turn Putin’s oligarch enablers against him and result in some kind of coup that would kill several birds with one stone. By sending Ukraine weapons and prolonging the war, the sanctions to damage Moscow are arguably doing just as much damage to Europe. Western leaders have misplayed their hand quite badly, both as a result of their mistaken assumption that Ukraine could successfully oppose Russia, and their failure to account for the double edged nature of economic warfare in general.

The political class with their brinkmanship is leading to higher energy prices, scared financial markets, and worsening inflation. Do they really think the public care more about Ukraine than they care about domestic issues like cost of living and inflation? If they do, they are delusional. When moral imperatives clash with actual human needs, the latter is going to win.