Imagine you are a western European policymaker in Paris, Berlin or Rome. You’re horrified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Contrary to what many eastern Europeans suspect, you aren’t naive about Vladimir Putin: after all these years, you know what he’s about and you hope he doesn’t win. You inwardly cheer every Ukrainian flag hanging from an apartment window. You’re proud your country is helping take in the few Ukrainian refugees who get beyond eastern Europe. You deplore the war.
But you don’t think it’s Western Europe’s problem. You just want fighting to end, probably with some messy ceasefire that de facto hands Russia conquered territory. Then the cost-of-living crisis might dissipate, along with the risk of sleepwalking into nuclear war and the need for you and other western European governments to spend your precious window in power fighting another neighbourhood’s bully. You will never say it out loud, but you don’t care that much about Ukraine.
For the record, I oppose this cynical view. I want these governments to back Ukraine. I’m simply trying to explain their thinking, as I’ve gathered it from conversations with policymakers and from reading well-connected continental media.
Happy talk of “Europe united” ignores the fact that there are always multiple Europes. For centuries now, some sort of curtain has separated the continent’s richer west and poorer east. Putin’s threat is existential for eastern Europeans, a category that suddenly includes Finland and Sweden.
But in western European history, Russia isn’t the chief villain, just a massively flawed minor character who saved our hide at a crucial moment. We have almost always let Moscow have free sway in the east, notably from 1944 to 1989, while we partied on. When France and Britain did get unnecessarily sucked into an eastern conflict in 1914, the ensuing world war knocked the century off course.
And so, after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and the Donbas in 2014, France in particular hastened to broker ceasefires that rewarded Putin. Emmanuel Macron then spent years crafting a new European security order that would include Moscow. Many eastern Europeans call this “naive” appeasement that fed Putin’s appetite. Western realists might retort that it only fed his appetite for more bits of eastern Europe. Like Putin, they regretted Nato’s morphing into an eastern-European protection scheme.
Western Europeans have done well out of Putin’s Russia. For many western policymakers, cheap Russian energy and the export of most of the country’s household wealth, most notably to London, made up for the murders of Russian exiles and meddling in elections.
For the moment, the western Europeans, under pressure from a gung-ho US and eastern Europe, are backing Ukraine. On Thursday Macron, Olaf Scholz and Mario Draghi belatedly visited Kyiv together. They are sending Ukraine weapons — albeit slowly, and not enough, and not many heavy ones, because they fear prolonging the war or encouraging Ukraine’s army to venture into Russia. Berlin is just far enough east to worry about Putin getting funny ideas, so it’s pouring fortunes into its own semi-defunct military.
But western Europeans know that Americans get excited about wars and then lose interest (see Iraq and Afghanistan). Anyway, if Donald Trump returns in 2024, he might pull the plug on the western alliance.
So they would rather focus on their own problems. Leading figures in Italy’s biggest parties, Five Star and Lega, want Ukraine to compromise. France’s defense ministry worries about west African jihadis. Madrid is 3,440km from Moscow but only 714km from Algiers, capital of its chief headache. Just before Putin invaded, Spanish policymakers preparing this month’s Nato summit in Madrid were hoping to concentrate on cyber security, Sahel jihadis and climate change, rather than Russia.
Ukraine’s best friend in western Europe is probably the UK, but then Britain has a military tradition, a ruling party whose voters historically like all wars, and a prime minister with no other serious policies whose chief justification for clinging to office is that Ukraine needs him .
Other western European capitals are waiting patiently for Kyiv itself to decide it wants a ceasefire. Any deal would give Russia effective but not formal control of conquered territory. Western Europeans would make sure Ukraine kept some Black Sea ports so that Putin couldn’t strangle global grain supply. Yes, this would mean rewarding a bloodthirsty dictator, but that’s international relations — see also Joe Biden’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia.
“Nobody is safe till everyone is safe” is a cliché of our time. It hasn’t been true in either the pandemic or Ukraine. Western Europe has learned it can live just fine without eastern Europe.
Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at email@example.com
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