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The meaning of sovereignty: Ukrainian and European views of Russia’s war on Ukraine

Summary

  • New research conducted in Ukraine and 14 other European countries reveals that Ukraine’s determination to fight and European support for arming Ukraine have not been affected by Russian advances on the battlefield.
  • But lurking beneath the appearance of unity is a major divide between Ukraine and Europe on how this war should end and what the allied support is destined to achieve.
  • While Ukrainians want more weapons and ammunition to help them win the war, most Europeans want to give Ukraine weapons and ammunitions in order to put Kyiv in a better negotiating position to end the war.
  • And, while Ukrainians think they should be given membership of the EU and NATO to mark their victory, most Europeans see this as part of a settlement.

What lies beneath

The first half of 2024 was an uneasy time for Ukraine and its Western allies. In the United States, the support package for Kyiv was dramatically delayed in the Congress, causing a shortage of ammunition on the frontline. This allowed Russia to outshell Ukraine, destroy half of the country’s electricity generation capacity, and reconquer territory. The prospects for the winter look disheartening.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the public responded badly to the dismissal in February of the popular head of the armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, and the mobilisation law adopted in April. And in the European Union, a shift to the right in the European Parliament election strengthened the position of some Putin-friendly parties, such as the National Rally in France. To top it all, China and many leading countries of the global south boycotted the June peace summit in Switzerland – revealing the limits of the West’s efforts to isolate Russia.

But what do citizens across Europe, including in Ukraine, make of the war? Have Moscow’s battlefield advances damaged the Ukrainian public’s morale? Will Europeans be happy to maintain their support for Ukraine in the face of political crises at home, and Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House?

To answer these questions, ECFR conducted an opinion poll of 19,566 people in 15 countries in the first half of May 2024 – the period prior to the European Parliament election.

The findings are superficially reassuring. Although the war has developed in dramatic ways, the same is not true of public opinion, which has barely shifted since the start of the year. Support for the war has stayed steady in the European countries surveyed – and morale is strong in Ukraine, where ECFR has conducted polling for the first time. The research points to common ground in terms of public support for increasing weapons and ammunition supplies to Ukraine. On this basis, European political leaders should feel able to continue sending aid to Ukraine.

Yet just below the surface, the poll identifies a profound chasm between European and Ukrainian opinion about how the war will end – and about the purpose of Europe’s support. In short, Ukrainians want weapons in order to win, while most Europeans send weapons hoping this will help lead to an acceptable eventual settlement. This division is also reflected in public opinion on the idea of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. Ukrainian citizens seem to regard membership of both organisations as a recognition of the bravery of their fight. Meanwhile, in Western capitals the membership question tends to be discussed as part of an eventual compromise deal with Russia. Whether this chasm can be bridged remains unknown.

Ukraine’s resilience and its political disconnection

Vladimir Putin has certainly not quashed Ukraine’s willingness to fight – or its domestic political unity. In spite of the recent loss of territory, massive destruction of infrastructure, and growing frustration, most Ukrainians trust their president and their army.

It is true that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s image has been tarnished by the burdens of office. The poll shows that only 34 per cent of Ukrainians currently say they trust him “a great deal”. But a further 31 per cent trust him “quite a lot” – meaning that, by two to one, those who are keeping the faith with their leader outnumber those who are not.

Ukrainians believe they will win the war. When asked about the most likely outcome of the war, 58 per cent foresee a Ukrainian victory, 30 per cent say it will end in a settlement, and only 1 per cent expect Russia to emerge victorious. Ukrainians are even more optimistic under a scenario whereby Western supplies of weapons and ammunition increase – in such a circumstance, 69 per cent think Ukraine would win, while 22 per cent would expect a settlement.

What is more, around a third of Ukrainians believe the war will end within the next year; two-thirds of these (overall, around a quarter of the Ukrainian public) believe it will end in Ukrainian victory.

When will the war end?

Ukrainians are optimistic about the future without being unrealistic about Russia’s military strength and the stability of Putin’s regime. Like most Europeans, Ukrainians view Russia as a formidable military power. Out of all countries surveyed, its population is the most likely to believe that Russian military strength constitutes a major barrier to Ukrainian efforts to regain lost territory.

Extent to which Russia’s military strength is a barrier to Ukraine regaining its territory.

Furthermore, Ukrainians are not banking on the Putin regime collapsing: 57 per cent think a major political change is unlikely to take place in Russia within the next two years; only 32 per cent believe this could transpire.

Unlike some other European publics, most Ukrainians do not see Russia’s invasion of their country as a prelude to further aggression. Just 39 per cent of Ukrainians believe Russia might attack another European country in the next two years, while 48 per cent consider this unlikely.

Likelihood of Russia attacking another European country.

This could also be why fewer people in Ukraine than pretty much everywhere else (just 19 per cent) believe NATO could enter into a war with Russia – compared to 44 per cent in the Netherlands, 37 per cent in Portugal, and 34 per cent in Switzerland. Ukrainians’ view thus seems to be that Putin’s war is strictly targeted on their country. There appears to be more division on this point in a number of European countries, where some members of the public suspect the conflict could be about something broader.

Likelihood of NATO going to war with Russia.

In terms of how they can win the war, Ukrainians believe that receiving more weapons and ammunition is the only meaningful way to improve their chances of victory.

Ukrainians’ views on what their country needs to defend itself.

In another display of Ukrainian resilience, the delays to Western military supplies have not triggered a much-feared blame game against allies. It is notable that Ukrainians have much more favourable views of the EU’s role in the war than EU citizens themselves have.  

Has the EU played a positive or a negative role in the war in Ukraine?

Ukrainians are very positive about the EU and the US in connection with the war – especially in contrast to their views of the role played by China and major countries of the global south such as Brazil, India, and South Africa.

Ukraine: Would you say that each of the following has played a positive, or a negative, role in the war in Ukraine?

Germany and France similarly enjoy the trust of the Ukrainian public, despite Berlin’s and Paris’s wobbly support in the early months of the war.

Ukrainian’ views on how reliable their country’s allies are.

On their future relationship with European allies, it is striking to note that two-thirds of Ukrainians regard EU membership as just as important as NATO membership. This shows that they seek an anchoring not only in the transatlantic security alliance, but also in the European political bloc.

Which is more important for the future of Ukraine?

This strength of trust is clear. However, it is not mirrored in trust in the US to involve Ukraine in resolving the war: almost half of Ukrainians fear the outcome of the conflict could be decided behind their backs in negotiations between Washington and Moscow.

Concern that the US will negotiate for a peace deal with Russia without involving the Ukrainian government.

Ukrainians’ resilience underpins their belief that their country can win. The flipside of this may be that they are not yet ready to consider major compromises to bring the war to a conclusion. When asked to choose between obtaining NATO membership and relinquishing occupied territory, seven in ten Ukrainians say they would not support an offer to enter NATO tomorrow in exchange for agreeing to give up on occupied territory. Only two in ten support this proposal.

Should Ukraine accept NATO membership in exchange for giving up on occupied territory?

However, Ukrainians appear to view the right to choose their geopolitical orientation as even more important than territorial integrity. Forty-five per cent say they would prefer Ukraine to lose parts of its currently occupied territory but remain sovereign, with its own army and freedom to choose its alliances, such as the EU and NATO. Only 26 per cent say they would prefer to see Ukraine regain its occupied territory but accept demilitarisation and neutrality, which would mean not joining the EU and NATO.

Ukrainians’ preference between retaining sovereignty and regaining territory.

This hints at two radically different (and potentially conflicting) ideas about sovereignty in Ukraine: sovereignty as territorial integrity, and sovereignty as the freedom to choose alliances. If Ukrainians were forced to make such a choice as part of a future Trump ‘peace plan’, the poll shows that almost twice as many favour geopolitical freedom over territorial integrity.

The gulf between Ukraine and Europe

The good news from Europe is that, in most countries, a majority (or, at least, a significant plurality) of citizens supports the idea of increasing the supply of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. In only three countries – Greece, Bulgaria, and Italy – is there a majority of people opposed to this initiative. It may therefore be possible for European and Ukrainian leaders to agree to send more military aid. Such a development appears to command broad support in both Ukraine and most European countries.

Is it a good idea to increase ammunition and weapons supplies to Ukraine from its allies?

However, opinion in all European countries surveyed is strongly sceptical of Kyiv’s ability to win the war. In contrast to public opinion in Ukraine, only a small number elsewhere think a Ukrainian victory is the most likely outcome. The prevailing view in most countries (except for Estonia) is that the conflict will conclude with a compromise settlement. So, when it comes to the war’s end, European publics express the pessimism of the intellect while Ukrainians represent the optimism of political will.

What is the most likely outcome of the war?

This scepticism does not dramatically decrease even when respondents are asked to imagine what would happen if Ukraine receives increased weapons supplies. In such a scenario, Europeans’ expectations of Ukraine winning rise by, on average, 12 percentage points. However, even in such circumstances a settlement is still seen as the most likely outcome in 11 out of 15 countries polled.

European opinion remains strongly divided between and within countries. At the beginning of the conflict, polling for ECFR suggested the existence of two main opinion groups across Europe – those who wanted the war to end as soon as possible (the “Peace camp”) and those who wanted Ukraine to defeat Russia (the “Justice camp”). In some “Swing states”, neither group prevailed.

ECFR’s latest poll suggests these groupings still exist: three countries are firmly in the Peace camp (Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy), five are in the Justice camp (Estonia, Great Britain, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden), and six are in the middle (the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland). What is more, comparing data from January and May 2024 reveals very little change in the nine countries surveyed on both occasions, despite Ukraine’s increasingly difficult position on the battlefield. Hawks are still hawks, doves are still doves, and in-betweens remain divided.

What should Europe do about the war in Ukraine?

Two years into the war, the polling shows that most people in Estonia, Poland, and Sweden want to help Ukraine fight to regain the territories occupied by Russia. The hawks in this Justice camp may view the struggle as something akin to the threat posed in second world war, and thus define their national consensus as an anti-appeasement stance.

On the other hand, people in countries making up the Peace camp – Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy – are among the most sceptical that Ukraine can prevail, even if Kyiv were to receive increased military deliveries. Absolute majorities in these countries also believe that Europe should push Ukraine towards negotiating a peace deal. Their views may reflect worries more akin to those generated by the first world war – that the EU and NATO could sleepwalk into another devastating all-out conflict.

In the middle are countries such as the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland, which are still struggling to consolidate a national consensus on the war and the EU’s role therein. The divide between the two camps is strong in these countries, and members of the public may thus be split between those who fear appeasement and those who fear sleepwalking. In many ways, the debate on the war is most critical in such countries: firstly, because the national consensus could yet settle one way or the other; secondly, because some of these countries – France and Germany, in particular – are able to exert strong influence on the overall European approach to the war.

But there are differences within this Swing group. For example, the divide in the Czech Republic mostly mirrors the split between the major political parties. Yet in Germany the divide runs through the two main parties of the centre-left and the centre-right.

What should Europe do about the war in Ukraine?

Meanwhile, in France, a divided public may constrain the president’s hawkishness and place a very large question mark over the sustainability of Paris’s support for Kyiv.

Over the past two years, France’s government has moved from heading the Peace camp to heading the Justice camp, at least in terms of political messaging. But the French public has remained equally divided on the war in Ukraine. One-third is in favour of supporting Ukraine to regain its lost territory, another third would rather push Ukraine towards negotiating a peace deal with Russia, while the final third remains on the fence. The French public have not followed their government’s lead. Indeed, the share of the French who believe their country is at war with Russia has increased from 24 to 32 per cent since October 2023, indicating that Macron’s efforts to raise the stakes may have mobilised those who fear sleepwalking into war rather than those who fear appeasement.

France: Which of the following best reflects your view on what Europe should do about the war in Ukraine more broadly?

France: Is your country at war with Russia?

Ukraine’s EU membership conundrum   

Going beyond the war, one critical issue splits European countries in a way that does not simply replicate the division between the hawks and doves. This is the question of Ukraine’s accession to the EU.

The data confirm the existence of a mostly pro-membership camp that includes ‘hawkish’ countries such as Estonia, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden, but also Swing states such as the Netherlands and Spain. At the same time, those unconvinced by Ukraine’s membership bid include ‘dovish’ Bulgaria as well as the Swing states of the Czech Republic and Germany.

Do you think Ukraine joining the EU is a good idea?

The poll finds that one of the most popular arguments in favour of Ukrainian accession, among those respondents who support the idea, is that it “would help bring an end to the war in Ukraine”. This view contends for popularity only with the proposition that “Ukraine is culturally part of Europe, and belongs in the EU”.

Why do you think allowing Ukraine to join the EU is a good idea?

Taking together those who agree that Ukraine’s EU accession would help bring an end to the war in Ukraine, and those who say membership would make the EU more secure, such security-minded respondents account, on average, for 17 per cent of the total national populations surveyed – ranging from 7 per cent in Bulgaria to 26 per cent in Portugal.

Meanwhile, among those who are against Ukraine joining the EU, many point to the suggestion that this would make the EU less secure. This belief rivals only with the argument that Ukraine is too corrupt.

Why do you think allowing Ukraine to join the EU is a bad idea?

Those who are opposed to Ukraine’s EU accession chiefly because of security concerns account for between 5 and 14 per cent of the total national populations surveyed. Notably, the largest single such group is in Germany.

Overall, the polling presents a picture in which many Europeans believe Ukrainian EU membership could help bring an end to the war or make Europe more secure, among a number of other considerations.

Firm but finite support

The poll also reveals the likely limits of what Europeans are willing to do.

Firstly, Europeans are strongly inclined against sending troops to Ukraine. This is true even in the countries that are most hawkish about the war. In every single location polled, a majority of the population opposes committing troops in this way.

Support for national troops fighting in Ukraine.

At the same time, many European citizens support the involvement of national troops in other ways, such as by providing technical assistance to the Ukrainian military or patrolling the Ukraine-Belarus border.

What would you be happy for your national troops to do in Ukraine?

Secondly, most Europeans are unprepared to spend more on defence. This view differs from the consensus among European political leaders, who are preparing to make enhanced defence cooperation and spending a key element of the next European Commission’s agenda.

It may be unsurprising that a large number of Poles, Estonians, and Swedes – the Justice camp members – support greater defence spending. But it is striking to see that Germany – whose national identity was defined by pacificism for eight decades – is one of the few other countries where a plurality of the public backs more defence spending. This suggests there has been a real psychological Zeitenwende. What is more, this support has remained steady since May 2022. But in most other countries, the prevailing view (and the majority in Italy, Greece, Spain, and Switzerland) is that their country should not be spending more on defence, despite the war. If Russia’s invasion was a wake-up call for Europe, it appears that waking up is not the same as getting out of bed.

Support for increased defence spending because of the war in Ukraine.

Thirdly,many European citizens do not agree that the war in Ukraine involves Europe directly. In every country polled, a prevailing view (and usually a majority) believes that Europe is not at war with Russia. In some of the countries where the public are keenest on ending the war – such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and Bulgaria – more people think the US or NATO are at war with Russia than Europe.

And fourthly, Europeans do not anticipate that Ukraine’s EU accession will be fast-tracked. This may reflect the fact that they expect membership to form part of an eventual peace settlement. Scepticism about a rapid Ukrainian pathway is greatest in countries such as Germany, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic: in all three countries, around half of respondents believe Ukraine may enter the EU in more than five years, or never. Meanwhile, around half of the Ukrainian public thinks it will take place within the next five years – and only 29 per cent say it will take longer or never happen.

When do you think Ukraine will join the EU?

Resilience in action

It appears likely that European leaders can continue to rely on public support for providing weapons to Ukraine, at least for the time being. However, the polling results show that European governments are unlikely to receive public support for direct military involvement. What is more, as Macron’s shift in approach suggests, muscular rhetoric focused on stoking a fear of Russian attacks on NATO countries could misfire. Even if some citizens believe Russia could attack another European country, few worry that their own country or NATO itself will go to war with Russia.

The polling indicates that the biggest challenges may be yet to come, in particular around finding agreement between European capitals and Kyiv on how the war ends. Europeans believe that the war will conclude in some sort of settlement, while Ukrainians are holding out for victory. And the two sides are also divided about the purpose of EU enlargement. For Ukrainians, this appears to be something that should come to them as a recognition of their struggle, while Europeans seem to see it as part of an eventual settlement.

The poll reveals that Ukrainians are neither ready to support trading de jure control of their land for NATO membership nor to see their country reunited on the model of ‘Finlandisation’ – in other words, on whether to agree to keep all their territory but sacrifice the ambition to join the EU or NATO. But the poll suggests that the most important goal for many Ukrainians is to maintain the freedom to choose their geopolitical orientation. They may be able to persuade Europeans sceptical of membership that letting Ukraine in is the price for peace. 

As the war progresses through its third year, public opinion has changed strikingly little, even as the fighting has entered a new phase. The question is whether this stasis comes from a fear of a changing reality or a deeper resilience in the face of aggression. If it is the former – where Ukrainians profess their faith in victory and Europeans say they will back them – with neither side really believing it, then this position may collapse in the face of Russian success or a Trump ‘peace plan’. Such statements will be exposed as a ‘Maginot line of the mind’.

If, on the other hand, the stability of public opinion is a sign of genuine resilience and support, future events may cause it to evolve, rather than remain frozen in the face of a changing reality. And if that happens, Europeans and Ukrainians might see their differences narrow as all sides are forced to consider the trade-offs. 

Methodology

This report is based on a public opinion poll of adult populations (aged 18 and over) conducted in May 2024 in 15 countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine). The total number of respondents was 19,566.

The poll was conducted online by Datapraxis and YouGov in the Czech Republic (9-16 May, 1,071 respondents), France (9-20 May, 1,502), Germany (9-17 May, 2,026), Great Britain (9-13 May, 2,082), Greece (1-16 May, 1,093), Italy (9-17 May, 1,036), Poland (9-23 May, 1,550), Portugal (9-20 May, 1,070), the Netherlands (9-15 May, 1,014), Spain (9-17 May, 1,508), Sweden (9-23 May, 1,026), and Switzerland (2-15 May, 1,079). It was conducted online by Datapraxis and Alpha Research in Bulgaria (9-23 May, 1,000), and online by Datapraxis and Norstat in Estonia (6-21 May, 1,009). In all these countries the sample was nationally representative of basic demographics and past votes.

In Ukraine, the poll was conducted by Datapraxis and Rating Group (7-12 May, 1,500) via telephone interviews (CATI) with respondents selected using randomly generated telephone numbers. The data was then weighted to basic demographics. Fully accounting for the population changes due to the war is difficult, but adjustments have been made to account for the territory under Russian occupation. This, combined with the probability-based sampling approach, strengthens the level of representativeness of the survey and generally reflects the attitudes of Ukrainian public opinion in wartime conditions.

Some of the questions were not asked in Great Britain and Switzerland. The questionnaire in Ukraine included several questions that were not asked elsewhere. Overall, the graphs in this paper display data for all the countries in which the respective question was asked.

About the authors

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. He is the author of “Is It Tomorrow Yet?: Paradoxes of the Pandemic”, among many other publications.

Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict”. He also presents ECFR’s weekly “World in 30 Minutes” podcast.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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