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Europeans divided over how Ukraine war should play out, reveals poll

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By Joshua Askew
A civilian militia man holds a shotgun and a rifle during training at a shooting range in outskirts Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 7, 2022
A civilian militia man holds a shotgun and a rifle during training at a shooting range in outskirts Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 7, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Europeans are sharply divided over how the Ukraine war should play out, with some favouring peace and others wanting "justice", according to a new poll.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) survey of 10 countries showed that 35% of Europeans were in the "peace camp", favouring an end to the war as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, 22% of respondents wanted "justice", punishing Russia for its invasion and restoring Ukraine's territory.

Moscow has steadfastly rejected claims it is a war, insisting on calling it a "special military operation".

Poland, which borders Ukraine and has been very supportive of Kyiv, had the most respondents wanting "justice" against Russia of those surveyed. Italy, Germany and Romania had the most favouring a peaceful end to hostilities.

Populations in nine EU member states were surveyed (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden), alongside the UK.

“Europeans have surprised Putin – and themselves – by their unity so far, but the big stresses are coming now," said ECFR director Mark Leonard. 

"There are potential divisions over the cost of living, refugees and nuclear escalation, but the big divide is between those who want to end the war as quickly as possible and those who want Russia to be punished.

"If badly handled the gap between the peace camp and the justice camp over Ukraine could be as damaging as that between creditors and debtors during the euro crisis," he added. 

Italians split on who is the biggest obstacle to peace

The ECFR survey, conducted between April to May by pollsters Datapraxis and YouGov, found more unity amongst Europeans over what was stopping peace.

Overall, 64% of Europeans said Russia was the largest impediment, while 17% said it was Ukraine, the EU or the US.

Italy had the largest percentage of respondents (35%) who thought Kyiv or the West was the main barrier to a settlement and the smallest chunk (39%) of those who believed it was Russia.

In Finland, Sweden and Great Britain more than three-quarters of survey participants thought Moscow was the key obstacle. 

Despite divides over how the conflict should end, Lenoard and co-author Ivan Krastev, cautioned EU leaders against “maximalist positions'', suggesting they should strike a middle ground and remain tough on Russia but be conscious of the dangers of escalation.

Where does responsibility for the war lie?

The ECFR results showed that Russia is universally blamed for starting the war across Europe. 

More than four-fifths of respondents in Poland (83%), Sweden (83%), Finland (90%), and Great Britain (83%) hold Moscow responsible. 

This view is shared by strong majorities in Italy (56%), France (62%) and Germany (66%).

Italy has the largest proportion of respondents who think Ukraine, the EU or the US are responsible for the conflict. 

Moscow has justified its "special military operation" by saying that a Western-leaning Ukraine would constitute a threat to its security, preventing Russia from feeling safe to "develop and exist".

Opinion polls taken inside the country have shown that a majority of Russians support the war, although there are some concerns about their validity. 

In response to the conflict, a majority of Europeans backed the West’s policy of severing ties with Moscow and expressed strong support for Ukraine's bid to join the EU, according to the poll. 

What concerns Europeans about the war?

The ECFR also asked European populations what worried them about the war. 

It found their preoccupations have shifted away from developments on the battlefield toward the wider-felt impacts, including supply-chain disruption, energy price spikes and rising inflation.

While such anxiety is present in all countries, respondents in Germany, Italy and France were the most concerned over the impact of war on the cost of living and energy prices.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has fuelled a cost of living crisis, with inflation in the Eurozone of 8% recorded in June - the highest figure ever documented by Eurostat. 

Swedes, Brits, Poles, and Romanians were more concerned about the threat of a nuclear war.

Many of those surveyed also believed that the war in Ukraine would ultimately hurt the EU. A majority of Europeans (55%) said the bloc would be “slightly” or “much worse off” as a result of the conflict. 

Are governments Ukraine obsessed?

The poll also revealed a prevailing feeling that governments are too focused on the war, at the expense of other problems facing ordinary people.

Authors Leonard and Krastev said there was an "emerging gap" between the positions of many national governments and the public mood.

The survey revealed that 42% of respondents claimed their leaders spend too much time on the war in Ukraine, while 4% said there was too little focus.

The two places where people felt most strongly that Ukraine was diverting attention away from domestic issues were Poland (51%) and Romania (57%), both of whom who share a border with the war-hit country.

In their analysis, Leonard and Krastev argued that European public opinion is shifting and that the EU’s “toughest days” may lie ahead. 

The “resilience of European democracies”, they said, will “largely depend on governments’ ability to sustain citizens’ support for potentially harmful policies," noting that an embargo on Russian oil would push up already rising energy prices and severely impact European economies. 

Defenders of Russian energy embargos say they are necessary to limit Moscow's ability to finance its war effort in Ukraine.