By Janusz Bugajski
February 9, 2023
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears set to escalate with an imminent new offensive, Europe remains divided in its strategy toward Russia.
Without U.S. leadership, a weakened NATO would already have succumbed to Russia’s pressure by failing to supply Ukraine with critical weapons and pushing Kyiv toward surrender. During a year of war, three contrasting approaches have emerged among European states – offensive, defensive, and submissive. All three positions affect the military assistance given to Ukraine, the posture toward negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow, and perceptions about future relations with Russia.
States that have directly experienced Russian imperialism and war crimes in their recent history have urged a more offensive policy from the outset of the war. Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Romania have supplied large stocks of military equipment to Ukraine, pushed for more effective weapons from their Western allies, and urged tough economic sanctions on Moscow. They are often supported by the United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries.
The position of these front-line states is based on hard realism about Kremlin ambitions and the conviction that only a complete defeat of Russia’s military and its expulsion from all Ukrainian territory can ensure security for the country. They also seek to maintain sanctions on Moscow until war crimes reparations are paid and a war crimes tribunal is established. They believe that any compromise with Russia would shred the principles of state sovereignty.
A second group of European states are largely defensive and seek to restore the pre-war arrangements with Russia. They are led by Germany, France, Italy, and several smaller Western and Southern European countries who have only grudgingly supplied military equipment to Ukraine after vigorous appeals from the front-line capitals. They argue that a complete victory over Putin’s Russia is impossible and that a negotiated settlement is the only solution, even if it means that Ukraine has to surrender some of its territory or defer its return pending talks with Moscow. These status quo defenders also seek to restore business and trade relations with Russia and begin the process of easing sanctions to encourage Moscow to back a peace agreement.
A third group of states can be defined as submissive and often act as advocates of the Kremlin’s position. They are led by Hungary and Serbia but sometimes include Austria and Bulgaria. For Serbia, Russia is viewed as its main advocate in opposing the independence of Kosovo and supporting the expansion of Serbian dominance in the Western Balkans. For Hungary, Moscow is perceived as an ally in its struggle with Brussels, while Austria and Bulgaria have key politicians tied to Moscow through financial and political networks. The remainder of the European states is either neutral, defer to their larger neighbors, or remain flexible in their responses to the war.
Once again, as during critical occasions in the 20th century, Washington has taken the lead role in forging sufficient consensus to ensure Ukraine’s defense and protect Europe’s security. Without America’s political leadership, military provisions, and economic capabilities, the fractures in Europe’s responses to Russia’s aggression would have deepened, and calls for peace deals and Ukrainian concessions would have escalated. And the front-line states would have found themselves increasingly isolated and exposed to Russia’s pressures. The war in Ukraine has underscored three certainties: that the U.S. remains the anchor of trans-Atlantic security, that NATO unity is essential in defending the continent, and that the EU’s much-vaunted “strategic autonomy” is a Franco-German pipe dream that would simply embolden Russia to expand its empire and influence.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His new book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture