EU support for Ukraine, the next six months

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Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about to enter its seventh month, with the conflict looking like it’s heading toward a messy, unstable stalemate. And one key question that remains is how the European Union will respond as the war prolongs.

Senior EU officials concede there will likely be a “crunch point” in the fall or early winter, when EU countries start to feel acute domestic economic pain from the crisis, while also being asked to dig even deeper into their pockets and offer more military resources to sustain the Ukrainian economy and war effort.

To prepare public opinion for the challenges ahead, many leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have begun warning their populations that the Ukraine conflict will last for many months, and that the domestic consequences being experienced now are just the start. Macron, for example, has said that France will continue to support Ukraine with military, financial and humanitarian aid until “victory” has been achieved on terms acceptable to Kyiv.

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Yet, behind these public statements of support for Ukraine lies a quiet tug-of-war between Germany, France and — before Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s downfall — Italy on the one hand, and Poland, the Baltics and Nordics on the other.

France and Germany continue to have serious misgivings about what a Ukrainian win could entail, and whether the war can be won without an escalation that possibly involves NATO more directly, or Russia’s use of non-conventional weapons. A distinction, therefore, needs to be drawn between what is being said in public, and the private views of Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and the most senior people around them.

But as long as the United States’ support for the Ukraine war effort remains intact, and in the interest of intra-EU unity, Berlin and Paris are unlikely to publicly contradict the position of the bloc’s more hawkish Central and Eastern European member countries. 

This means, they’ll be unlikely and unable to push for a diplomatic solution this year, or possibly even next. But the differences of opinion will affect how far and how fast they, and by extension the EU, will go.

This will be felt most explicitly in the debate over Russian sanctions, which will become more incremental in the next phase of war, despite Poland, the Baltics, and the Nordic EU states pushing the big-three for faster and tougher energy sanctions against Moscow.

The EU will certainly continue to discuss harder-hitting measures, but it’s unlikely to take as quick action as it did on SWIFT, the coal ban and the partial oil embargo that will begin in December.

This doesn’t mean more sanctions are unlikely — the EU is still likely to climb to the top of its sanctions ladder by the end of next year, which will involve expanding the oil embargo, as well as targeting Russian nuclear-energy and gas exports. However, additional measures will now take longer and be harder to agree on.

Given this political reality, Brussels and EU capitals will instead emphasize other forms of assistance to Ukraine for the remainder of this year and next, including financial aid that will deliver on the EU’s pledge to make €9 billion available to Ukraine this year.

This is important, as the Ukrainian state is teetering on the brink of default and is struggling with a €5 billion per month financing gap, which Kyiv believes could undermine the government’s ability to sustain the war. No new EU common borrowing is expected to either support Ukraine or deal with the consequences of war in the EU, but more support in the form of grants and loans for Kyiv is on the cards.

Military assistance will also continue. As will discussions on Ukraine’s integration into EU structures, following the European Council’s decision in June to grant Kyiv “candidate” status — something that could help unlock more financing for Ukraine, anchor the country in the EU and help build momentum for reforms in Kyiv.

Even though membership negotiations are likely to take a long time, keeping Ukraine’s EU prospects alive will send a clear signal to Russia on the bloc’s commitment to Ukraine, and help sponsor intra-EU cohesion and unity.

Macron’s aspirations for a broader “European Political Community” are also likely to filter into these discussions, as well as those regarding other countries in the EU’s neighborhood, although that debate is in its early stages.

The great unknown, of course, is the trajectory of public opinion on the war.

But despite concerns, Macron — more than Scholz — is determined to face down domestic fatigue, especially from the far right and hard left, which have both been traditionally pro-Russian President Vladimir Putin and anti-NATO. 

This task will be complicated by his loss of absolute parliamentary majority last month — although the French constitution gives primacy, and substantial independent powers, to the presidency on matters of foreign and defense affairs.

Yet, it is important. Solidarity with Ukraine and solidarity within Europe is likely to be one of the great tests of Macron’s legacy. His European strategy and worldview — the need for the EU to grow a strategic brain and military muscle to match its global importance — will either receive a boost or fail on Europe’s response to the Ukraine war.

And Paris’ position is even more important given early elections in Italy, which will likely produce a far-right government comprised of parties historically more sympathetic to Russia, and the lack of desire to lead from Berlin.

But even if there’s a risk of some tapering in the second half of the year – for example, on sanctions and arms — and the approach becomes more understated, it’s hard to see the EU stepping back from its commitment to Ukraine.