The Specter of War Divides Europe

For many years Europe has been deeply divided over attitudes to war. Russia's aggression in Ukraine showed that Central European countries were more realistic about the risk of armed conflict.

/
A protester holding a placard with words 'Stop War!
Questions about attitudes towards military conflicts and readiness to protect the borders have become front and center after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with opinions divided across Europe. Photo: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his,” said Gen. George S. Patton in his famous speech to the United States Third Army in 1944. However, no victories are possible without courage and boldness. As Carl von Clausewitz, a German military theorist, noticed: every nation achieves its aims on the battlefield only with force and determination. “Moral factors are the ultimate determinants in war,” he wrote in his book “On War.”

For a long time, it seemed that this type of discussion would remain only the domain of historians. But the war in Ukraine has completely changed this perspective. After February 24, questions about attitudes towards military conflicts and readiness to protect the borders of one’s country returned with full force. Comparisons with the Ukrainian stance against Russians have become part of the public debate in many countries. With what kind of answers?

Imagine all the people…

The latest example can be seen in a poll prepared by Quinnipiac University in July 2022. Researchers asked Americans: “What would you do if you were in the same position as Ukrainians are now? Stay and fight or leave the country?” 55% of respondents answered that they would fight for their country.

But – as always – the devil is in the details. This survey revealed sharp divisions among US citizens along political lines regarding the war. 68% of Republicans have declared readiness to fight for their country, as well as 57% of Independents. At the same time, only 40% of Democrats said that they would be prepared for combat to defend their homeland. 52% of Democrats said they would flee before fighting for their country, and 8% declined to answer.

Sharp divisions can also be seen among European Union members, which the war has further highlighted. A decisive factor is a common attitude towards Russia, as best demonstrated in a survey made for the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Respondents were asked in January 2022 (a month before the war): “How likely is a Russian invasion of Ukraine this year?”. This poll only partially shows the European split because it covered only six European countries. However, the conclusions are quite significant.

War attitudes: a conscious assessment

Countries of Central Europe were far more conscious in their assessment of Russia than Western European countries. 73% of Poles thought that a Russian war against Ukraine was “very likely” or “fairly likely,” as did 64% of Romanians. At the same time, only 52% of Germans and Italians, 51% of French, and 44% of Finns thought this was the likely scenario. In the same survey, only 20% of Romanians and 23% of Poles estimated that war was “unlikely.” The same opinion was held by 42% of Finns, 41% of Italians, 33% of Germans, and 29% of French. This is the most recent confirmation of the old saying that your point of view depends on where you sit.

Respondents were asked in January 2022 (a month before the war): “How likely is a Russian invasion of Ukraine this year?”. The conclusions are quite significant

Another example of this trend is the poll “Freedoms at risk: the challenge of the century” prepared by French think tank Fondapol in January 2022. The date is significant because the survey was carried out just a few weeks before the start of the war. Respondents had to answer the question about the possibility of military conflict in Europe in the coming years. On average, only 38% of European Union residents thought so.

Looking closer at the numbers, one can see a clear distinction between Western and Central Europe. Most nations from the western part of the continent were much closer to the European average than from the central part.

For instance, only 25% of Germans believed that war was possible, as well as 28% of Dutch, 30% of Danes, 34% of Italians, 38% of Belgians, 41% of Spaniards, and 44% of French. In contrast, in Central Europe, 35% of Czech and Slovakians, 44% of Bulgarians, 48% of Poles, 49% of Hungarians, 53% of Romanians and Slovenians, 54% of Croatians (not to mention 55% of Ukrainians who are not inside EU) thought this was a likely scenario.

Location frames attitudes

This is clear confirmation that countries closer to Russia and in the neighborhood of Balkans with fresh memories of ethnic conflict from the 1990s had a much more realistic approach toward the possibility of military conflict. Most people from Western countries believed that John Lennon’s words “Imagine all the people/Living life in peace” could really turn into reality.

This trend was not an exemption in the last months. For years, a large part of Europe has believed that the specter of war no longer hung over Europe. One can find proof in a WIN/Gallup International survey in 2015. The year after Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, respondents in Europe were asked if they were willing to fight for their country.

Their responses confirmed that the current divisions have persisted on the continent for a long time. For example, 47% of Poles declared readiness to fight for the country, as well as 41% of Latvians, 38% of Romanians, 25% of Bulgarians, and 23% of Czechs. In Western Europe, the same attitude was expressed by 37% of Danes, 29% of French, 21% of Spaniards, 20% of Italians, 18% of Germans, and 15% of Dutch. This is another confirmation that Central Europe has not turned a blind eye to the geopolitical realities of the continent. The region remembers the old Roman proverb “si vis Pacem, para Bellum” (Eng: If you want peace, prepare for war).

Changing perceptions of strategic partners

When the war started, the attitudes of many European countries changed. CEE countries have begun to look at their international alliances in a completely different way. According to the survey “GLOBSEC Trends” from March 2022, the military conflict in Ukraine increased the level of the perception of the USA as the strategic partner and, at the same time, dramatically decreased appreciation for Germany and Russia. For instance, 55% of Estonians consider the United States a strategic partner of their country, whereas in 2021, this figure stood at 49%. In the same period of time, their level of trust in Germans decreased from 49% in 2021 to 38% in 2022. The attitude towards Russia went down from 21% to 14%.

In Romania, 75% of residents see America as their main partner, whereas this number was 47% the previous year. The positive attitude towards Germany shrank from 42% to 19%. To Russia – from 13% to 3%. The same evolution of opinions about Russia, Germany, and America was noticed in 8 of the 9 CEE countries that took part in this survey. The only exception was Hungary, though over 30% of Slovakians and Bulgarians also consider Russia a strategic partner.

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual,” once said Henry John Temple, a British prime minister from the 19th century. This wisdom is very present in the minds of most Central European countries. They know from their history that they cannot forget about the risk of military conflict.

The Three Seas Initiative region lives in the shadow of war as an instrument of policy (to quote Clausewitz once again) – and war in Ukraine was for the region only a confirmation of this statement, not a wake-up call. That is the big difference between Central and Western Europe. Let’s hope that Russian aggression against Ukraine will become an element of the cohesion policy in the way the whole of Europe thinks about the threat of war.

Leave a Reply

Latest from Blog