The meaning of victory: How Russia’s war on Ukraine could divide Europeans

Support for Ukraine is both morally correct and in the best interests of the EU. Europeans should use this moment of unity to address several long-term challenges linked to the conflict

The Ukraine flag flies above the European Peace Clock in Minden, Germany, 18 March 2022

Since Russia began its all-out invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, media outlets and social networks have been vibrating with polemics about EU leaders’ declared goals in the war. But neither the European Union nor its member states are actually fighting this war – which means that they will have little say in its outcome. While most EU leaders recognise that only Ukraine should decide how and when it conducts a negotiation with Russia, they may be dissatisfied with or disagree with one another over its eventual outcome. The following four issues could prove to be especially divisive.

A complete Ukrainian victory

This issue is at the centre of EU leaders’ current discussions. Some of them advocate unconditional support for Ukraine until it achieves a complete victory over Russia, albeit without necessarily defining what such a victory would look like. Others worry that a vindictive Russia will escalate the conflict using unconventional means, including nuclear arms, if it is unable to achieve its goals with conventional weapons. A Ukrainian victory would be the best outcome for European leaders, but many of them are aware that Russia is unlikely to accept defeat. Striking a balance between this morally correct best-case scenario and an existential threat is one of the key challenges European leaders now face.

An unstable stalemate

With the Russian military focusing its efforts on Donbas, the conflict has entered a new phase that is likely to involve a long war of attrition. At some point, exhausted by the war effort, both sides may agree to a ceasefire without truly ending the conflict. This arrangement could be accompanied by a negotiation that resulted in an arrangement similar to the Minsk agreement – albeit with a much longer line of contact and far more challenging political issues to discuss – or a mere pause in fighting that could resume at any time. For the EU, the two outcomes would be largely the same: Europe would be unstable, while member states would be divided over their potential security commitments to Ukraine and whether to engage with Russia.

Territorial concessions for peace

This idea has consistently outraged many Europeans in recent months. Their reactions to Henry Kissinger’s recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos – in which he suggested that Ukraine allow Russia to annex some of its territory – illustrate the sensitivity of the issue. A recent poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that more than 80 per cent of Ukrainians reject the idea of territorial concessions for peace. Yet there may come a time when, to avoid further casualties and destruction, Ukrainians will be forced to accept a deal that includes such concessions. Equally, it seems unlikely that Russia will return the territories it has conquered unless it is forced to do so by a more powerful Ukrainian military. In this scenario, the debate between Europeans would become even more pressing and divisive: if the Ukrainian government signed a deal in which it ceded territory to Russia, surely the EU should accept it and move on? Various member states, including those currently suspected of seeking to appease Russia, would reject a deal that rewarded the use of force with territorial gains. This type of deal would set a dangerous precedent for the international rules-based order. And it would end all hope of restoring a functioning nuclear non-proliferation regime, as it would be clear that nuclear weapons were the best guarantee of territorial integrity.

 A Ukrainian victory would be the best outcome for European leaders, but many of them are aware that Russia is unlikely to accept defeat

The post-war European security order

This issue will continue to divide Europeans regardless of the outcome of the war. Most member states want to display unity in condemning Russia’s aggression and supporting Ukraine, but they may have a more nuanced position in thinking about the European security order in the long term. Some would like to design the order exclusively around deterrence against Russia, while others believe that strategic stability in Europe will demand that it include Russia through some form of binding commitments. The current debate does not centre on the possibility of negotiating with Moscow on the issue at this juncture, as all member states agree that would be impossible. Instead, the debate concerns whether to maintain space for such a discussion when the time comes or to build military capabilities strong enough to negate the threat of Russian military action.

Of course, all these issues involve policies that feel morally correct and those that do not. But one should not dismiss the latter based on emotions alone, as they may provide solutions to long-term problems.

Today, support for Ukraine is both morally correct and in the best interests of the EU and its member states, as this should help create a favourable balance of forces, lead to a settlement that preserves the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and protect European security. But Europeans should also give some thought to their long-term goals and their definition of victory, given that it is far from certain whether they will be so unified at a later stage or will be in a position to shape a future settlement. Because this will be a difficult discussion, Europeans need to begin it now if they are to avoid disappointment.

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


Director, Wider Europe programme

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