Cracks are deepening across Europe over how to handle the Russia-Ukraine endgame, according to data released Wednesday, as a growing number of Europeans favor immediate peace over the continuation of a hard-line anti-Russia stance that has defined Western policy since the start of the war nearly four months ago.
Former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Europe has hit a “fork in the road” with respect to the war in Ukraine. He acknowledged that rifts have emerged as the fighting drags on, casualties mount, and food and fuel prices skyrocket around the world. Other former NATO officials warned some European leaders — presumably those in Italy and Hungary, the most vocal proponents of an immediate cease-fire — against pushing Ukraine “into a bad peace” and offering any concessions to the aggressor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Even as NATO defense officials gathered in Brussels on Wednesday to map out the next round of assistance to the Ukrainian military and as President Biden announced another $1 billion U.S. military aid package, it became increasingly clear that the European public is rapidly growing weary of war and wants its leaders to push for peace.
Ukrainian officials, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have said they are fighting to oust Russia from every inch of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Mr. Putin annexed eight years ago. Mr. Zenelskyy’s goal was spurred by early victories by Kyiv. U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly said they would back any peace deal that is acceptable to the Zelenskyy government.
Complicating that message are statements from world leaders. President Biden insisted that Mr. Putin must step down from power, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia must be “weakened” and incapable of such aggression again.
A study by the European Council on Foreign Relations published Wednesday found that a plurality of Europeans, about 35%, favor “peace now even at the cost of Ukrainian concessions to Russia.” The startling figure strongly suggests that Europe’s appetite to hold Moscow accountable for the war may be crumbling.
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The survey was conducted in mid-May and sampled 8,000 Europeans.
About 22% of respondents said “justice” is the most important consideration. They say only Russia’s clear defeat can bring about peace. Another 23% declined to choose between those options, and 20% were classified as swing voters.
The survey showed extreme differences from one country to another. For example, 52% of the Italian public and 49% of the German public favor immediate peace, but just 16% of Polish citizens share that view. Instead, 41% of Poles say defeating Russia is the No. 1 priority and the only path to peace, compared with 19% of Germans and 16% of Italians.
In France, 41% called for peace and just 20% fell into the “justice” category. In Britain, the public was split, with 22% calling for immediate peace and 21% saying Russia must be defeated. The remaining 39% of French citizens and 58% of Britons either declined to choose or were classified as swing voters, according to the report.
“The findings of the poll suggest that European public opinion is shifting, and that the toughest days may lie ahead. The resilience of European democracies will mostly depend on the capacity of governments to sustain public support for policies that will ultimately bring pain to different social groups,” the European Council on Foreign Relations said in a statement accompanying its report. “The survey reveals a growing gap between the stated positions of many European governments and the public mood in their countries. The big looming divide is between those who want to end the war as quickly as possible and those who want to carry on fighting until Russia has been defeated.”
Fueling the divide is the transformation of the conflict into a bloody slog in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Russian forces are waging a war of attrition against an outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian military. The fiercest fighting has been in and around Sievierodonetsk, a key strategic city that remains contested despite weeks of an unrelenting Russian assault. The Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the situation inside the city is growing worse.
“But our military is holding back the enemy from three sides at once,” he said. “The enemy is advancing because of significant advantage in artillery and people, but the Ukrainian army is holding on to its positions in the city.”
Russian troops reportedly hit weapons depots in western Ukraine in a bid to stop badly needed guns, ammunition and equipment from reaching the front lines in the Donbas. Mr. Zelenskyy said in a Tuesday evening video address that his troops will keep fighting.
“The losses, unfortunately, are painful, but we have to hold out,” he said. “The more losses the enemy suffers there, the less strength it will have to continue the aggression. Therefore, the Donbas is key to determining who will dominate in the coming weeks.”
Mr. Zelenskyy spoke by phone with Mr. Biden on Wednesday. Shortly afterward, the U.S. president announced the latest American aid package.
“I informed President Zelenskyy that the United States is providing another $1 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, including additional artillery and coastal defense weapons, as well as ammunition for the artillery and advanced rocket systems that the Ukrainians need to support their defensive operations in the Donbas,” Mr. Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
The latest U.S. shipment includes artillery rocket munitions, 18 additional M-77 howitzers and the tactical vehicles to tow them, and 36,000 rounds of 155 mm howitzer ammunition.
Mr. Austin announced the details during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“Ukraine is facing a pivotal moment on the battlefield,” Mr. Austin said. “We’re seeing what [Mr. Zelenskyy] warned us about: After failing to take Kyiv and after reassessing its combat aims, Russia has shifted its focus to the Donbas.”
European leaders also have vowed to ramp up weapons shipments to Ukraine, but growing public calls for immediate peace will surely complicate those efforts. Former NATO officials say some European governments are making a grave mistake by appearing to weaken their stance toward Russia.
“Politically, NATO allies could also do much more. First of all, we could strengthen deterrence … by keeping all options on the table,” former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday at a virtual forum hosted by the Atlantic Council, a leading Washington think tank.
“To my mind, many NATO leaders have been too eager to exclude this or that action,” he said. “I think we should keep our adversary in uncertainty. That’s the most efficient deterrent. And NATO allies should not push Ukraine into a bad peace. It’s only for the Ukrainians, it’s for President Zelenskyy and his government to decide the terms of a cease-fire or a peace deal.”
Mr. Rasmussen’s comments seem to have been a direct response to the public positions of Italy and Hungary, which late last month pushed the European Union to call for a cease-fire in Ukraine and direct peace talks with Mr. Putin. That position seemed to break from those of other key EU members, which have publicly insisted that helping Ukraine defeat Russia and push Russian forces out of Ukrainian territory must be the overarching goal.
Mr. Scheffer said those opposing viewpoints are coming to a head.
“I think politically, we might be at a fork in the road,” he said at the Atlantic Council event. “And I see from time to time our leaders in NATO and in the European Union making comments which give me the impression that they’re not always singing from the same hymn sheet.”
He acknowledged the wildly different views of the Russian threat across Europe.
“If you’re living in Poland or living in the Baltic states, the threat is perceived differently than when you live in the Hague or in Madrid or in Rome, for that matter,” he said.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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