Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst
Putin’s war in Ukraine turned the Western world against Russia, and even those European powers which previously preferred hybrid relations had to support Ukraine militarily and impose sanctions on Russia. After months of attack on Ukraine and its failure to take Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russia now seems to be concentrated on a military victory in Donbas. As Russia’s plan in Ukraine did not go as successfully as he expected, Putin must now concentrate on “saving face” in the internal arena. If he does not want to be seen as defeated in war, then he must somehow claim success. And as Ukraine’s “denazification” did not happen, Putin might be planning to cast military success in Donbas as his victory. Putting effort into taking Donbas and declaring it a victory in territorial terms might be seen as a “face-saving” move by Putin.
It is difficult to predict what will happen in Donbas. Even if Russia makes territorial gains now, it is questionable as to whether it will keep them when it faces problems even sustaining its campaign. Military experts say that even though Russia saw relative success in Luhansk, and the Ukrainians have withdrawn from Lysychansk, Russia has not made great tactical wins, and even taking Lysychansk turned out costly for Russia. The Ukrainians made it clear that they are ready to fight for every centimeter of their land, and that surrendering territories cannot be an option for the peace talks. But still, in parallel with these developments, the question arises: How do other European countries feel about “Putin’s face-saving”?
Despite there being different groups of countries in Europe with different visions and foreign policy directions, overall, European support to Ukraine has been significant so far. However, visions about how to put an end to the war might not be homogenous across Europe. This became clear once again when President Zelensky noted in one of his interviews that the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, had suggested Ukraine compromise to help Putin not feel trapped in a corner and to “save face”. Zelensky rejected any possibility of it, saying “We won’t help Putin save face by paying with our territory”. France denied that they ever discussed this issue with Putin and emphasized that it is Ukraine which should decide on the terms of negotiations with Russia. Additionally, while addressing the Ukrainian parliament, President Duda of Poland also mentioned “worrying voices” in Europe suggesting that Ukraine should compromise; he noted that it is Ukraine which should decide its future. These remarks make it possible to assume that there might still be powers in Europe who believe that compromises and “saving Putin’s face” could help to find an outcome to the situation.
Recently, Italy presented a 4-point peace plan. As reported, it includes a ceasefire and demilitarization of the front lines; the neutral status of Ukraine, whose security will be guaranteed by countries as yet unidentified; a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine about the future of Crimea and Donbas, which will give them autonomy, including in defense issues, but they will be parts of Ukraine; a multilateral agreement between the EU and Russia, which will include Russian troops withdrawing from Ukraine and Western sanctions being lifted. However, worries remain that Russia will not respect the agreements, as it has failed to do in the past. There are also no guarantees that Russia will not continue its aggressive policy if the West stops pressure on it, and that the agreement will eventually turn into another Minsk Agreement. Russia has already called the plan a “fantasy”.
It is noteworthy that in some European countries, including Italy, there is no consensus about supplying more weapons to Ukraine, and some call for “diplomatic solutions”. Public opinion is also divided in Germany. Despite the fact that the German government has been supplying military support to Ukraine and has been repeating that “Putin must not win this war,” polls show that opinion about supplying heavy weapons is still divided and many think that this could lead to Russia turning its aggression against other European states too.
In Eastern and Northern Europe, attitudes towards Russia are more straightforward. Despite Russian warnings and threats, amidst growing public support, Finland and Sweden made the decision to join NATO, and in parallel secured security agreements with the UK. The Baltics and Czech Republic recognize Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide, declaring Russia a “terrorist state,” and are aware of the importance of military assistance, largely due to the fact that the threat from Russia is felt more sharply there, strengthened by historical experience. In Georgia and Moldova, which are both outside of NATO and extremely vulnerable, the “if Ukraine loses, we’ll be the next” feeling is clearly circulating, as it is in Russia’s other neighbors, even among those who are NATO members. Poland, which has been a key supporter of Ukraine during the war, has expressed its position that the international community should demand Russia’s complete withdrawal from Ukraine, and no territorial concessions should be allowed, as it will be a “blow to the entire Western world”. These countries’ motivation to weaken Russia in the long term is high, and concessions to help Putin “save face” are not seen as acceptable.
What can these different attitudes bring?
Unity within Europe towards the idea to continue to support Ukraine is important not only for Ukraine at this critical moment, but also for the future of European relations. It is important for European powers to understand that the Russian issue is existential for a number of European countries. Russia losing this war and getting weaker so that it is not able to continue pursuing its aggressive foreign policy against neighbors is critical for them. If the division over this security vision happens, it might lead to distrust among different groups of European countries, which may result in a certain scale of distancing in terms of security cooperation. Big European powers like France, Germany and Italy have been important decision-makers in the EU. However, if they appear unable to fully understand and estimate the threats Eastern and Northern European countries might face, then it is possible for alternative balancing cooperation in this part of Europe to start forming and, as developments show, they are going to have important supporters like the UK (and most likely the US too). Thus, how Europe continues answering the Ukrainian issue may become determinant of future flows of relations within Europe.