The Russian invasion of Ukraine has roiled politics in every European country. But each capital has been roiled in its own way. Below, ECFR’s experts describe how some of the key European states are reacting to the invasion and dealing with domestic political obstacles to their response.
Unlike the Biden administration, many politicians and policy experts in Berlin were convinced that there would be no large-scale invasion of Ukraine. They expected that Russia would, at most, engage in “grey zone activities” similar to those leading up to its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Berlin hoped until the very end that it could put a new spin on the Normandy format and thereby achieve a diplomatic solution to the conflict. But the German capital is now in shock. Germany faces the shambles that is its Russia policy. The annexation of Crimea triggered a broad change in the perception of Russia and challenged the old beliefs in Ostpolitik. Yet the idea of bringing about a rapprochement between Germany and Russia through economic cooperation and networking had persisted.
Germany is feeling the consequences of its dependence on Russia. Russia is the source of half of Germany’s imports of natural gas, which the latter needs as a transition fuel following its decision to phase out coal and nuclear power. The German government tried to save the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but put the project on hold immediately after Moscow recognised Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states. Decision-makers in Germany now fear that the Kremlin will continue to use energy as a weapon by, for example, blocking gas deliveries through Ukraine or Nord Stream 1. In that scenario, the domestic debate in Germany could quickly become fraught. The German public was in favour of Nord Stream 2 before the invasion, while rising gas prices continue to place a heavy burden on consumers.
Behind the scenes, Germany has in recent weeks lobbied for tough EU sanctions on Russia. However, Berlin has also joined Rome in speaking out against the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT international payments system. Chancellor Olaf Scholz argues that the European Union should reserve further sanctions “for a situation where it is necessary to do other things as well”. Berlin is also hesitant to act on this issue out of concern that Russia will refuse to supply Germany with gas or raw materials. After its debate on Nord Stream 2 and its rejection of arms deliveries to Ukraine, Germany is once again seen as a weak link in the Western alliance.
The United Kingdom initially trailed behind the United States and the EU in the scope and scale of its response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since announced that the government will impose the “largest and most severe” UK sanctions on Russia ever seen. This will have kept at bay concerns in Washington and Brussels that London – or ‘Londongrad’ as the capital is sometimes known, thanks to its openness to the wealth of Russian oligarchs – will disrupt the Western response. Johnson is reportedly pushing the G7 hard to cut off Russia’s access to SWIFT.
Nonetheless, this stronger response only came after voices from across the political, media, and business spectrum urged Johnson to take a tougher stance – warning that the weakness of the initial sanctions would embolden Russia. The opposition Labour Party linked Johnson’s weak initial sanctions to ties between the ruling Conservatives and donors linked to the Kremlin.
The sanctions will hurt the UK economy. But a refusal to act would have severely damaged Johnson politically. If anything, there is growing domestic support for the UK to introduce stricter measures as soon as possible.
In an official statement, the Spanish government has “condemned Russia’s aggression” as “completely unjustified, of unprecedented gravity” and a “flagrant violation of international law that jeopardises global security and stability”. Madrid has called for “the immediate cessation of hostilities before the number of victims multiplies, as well as the return of troops to the internationally recognised territory of the Russian Federation”.
After an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, President Pedro Sánchez said that Spain stands behind Ukraine, the international legal order, and the EU and its allies. Madrid supports sanctions that will punish the Kremlin for its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. The junior partner in the ruling coalition, Podemos, has condemned Russia’s actions as “imperialist aggression” that violates international law and the Minsk agreement.
Pablo Casado – leader of the People’s Party, the main opposition grouping – has joined the government in condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine. The leader of the far-right Vox also referred to “Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine” but called “for the failure and irresponsibility of the European Commission not to be overlooked”.
As a recent poll by the Elcano Royal Institute shows, most Spaniards now regard Russia as the main threat to their country – a huge shift from just three months ago, when only 5 per cent of them saw the country as a threat. The Russian Embassy in Madrid has reacted angrily, saying that this is the result of an anti-Russia campaign in the media. Spain will host the next NATO Summit, scheduled to take place in Madrid in June.
France’s most recent condemnations of Russian aggression against Ukraine took the form of a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a declaration by President Emmanuel Macron. He reiterated his willingness to preserve European and international unity, with the aim of protecting the European security order and the liberal international order.
Macron lambasted President Vladimir Putin’s “deliberate choice” to go to war as a violation of every commitment he made until and the “worst attack on peace in decades”. In the past three years, Macron has risked his reputation to try to build a new relationship between Europe and Russia. At times, his diplomatic approach put European cohesion at risk. He has continued to prioritise the diplomatic path in the past week; in a conversation with Macron on 20 February, Putin reportedly agreed to a meeting with US President Joe Biden. However, Russia’s recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states the next day shattered those efforts.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine calls for a strong French response – which Macron said would come “without weakness and in cold blood”. But he finds himself in a complicated situation, as he has been the most active European diplomatic actor on the conflict and will have to yield this position to other Europeans as he focuses on the presidential election at home. Earlier this month, Macron said that he would announce his candidacy only after there was a decline in tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Now, he will have to deal with high-stakes campaigns on both the domestic and international fronts.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has firmly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, declaring that dialogue with the Kremlin is impossible and that he strongly supports European and NATO measures in response. In recent weeks, Draghi has been careful to distance himself from the pro-Russian positions of previous Italian governments. Italy’s major political parties all condemn the Russian invasion, albeit in different tones. For example, Matteo Salvini – leader of the League – only discussed the crisis in general terms and never referred Putin personally, probably out of embarrassment at his links to the Russian president’s party.
Italy could be among the European countries hit hardest by EU sanctions on Russia and eventual Russian retaliation. This is especially true in the energy sector: Italy relies on Russian gas to meet a significant proportion of its energy needs. Nonetheless, Russia only accounts for a small share of Italian exports. And while Italian banking groups are particularly exposed to Russia, Italy’s broader economic and financial architecture can withstand the sanctions.
In the short term, Italy will struggle to find substitutes for Russian gas. The country does not have many gas terminals. And its supplies via pipelines from the south are limited due to instability in Libya and limited production in Algeria. The only alternative source is the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which provides a link to Azerbaijan. Therefore, if EU sanctions on Russia extend to gas imports, Italy may ask for support from EU member states that are less dependent on Russian energy. In Rome, concern about Russian military aggression mingles with anxiety about the collateral damage to Italy’s economic recovery from the pandemic, which has already been hit by high energy prices.
Sofia’s immediate reaction to the invasion was to harden its criticism of Moscow. Many Bulgarians feel a sense of solidarity with Ukraine, a country home to a Bulgarian minority of around 200,000 people. However, there is still a strong pro-Russian sentiment in parts of Bulgarian society. For example, in November 2021, President Rumen Radev referred to Crimea as “Russian”, sparking widespread international concern about Bulgaria’s geopolitical stance. Radev will now be forced to tone down such statements in the face of clear violation of the territorial integrity of a sovereign state.
Bulgaria is heavily dependent on Russian gas to meet its energy needs, making it vulnerable to Russian retaliation in this area. In the short term, it will be in the EU’s interest to maintain European unity by compensating Bulgaria for the disproportionate economic pain the country would suffer in such a scenario. In the longer term, Bulgaria will need to make a bold effort to diversify its energy supplies through projects such as that to construct an interconnector with Greece and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline.
Historical experience and cultural closeness with Russia will complicate the sanctions debate in Bulgaria. Two pro-Russian groupings – Revival and the Bulgarian Socialist Party – did not support the statement on Russia sanctions that the Bulgarian Parliament passed on 24 February, after five hours of negotiations. Prime Minister Kiril Petkov will need to simultaneously address the economic repercussions of severe sanctions, any resulting discord within the ruling coalition, and controversies over the scale of the NATO presence in the country. Yet Bulgaria now has a historic chance to change its asymmetric – and often toxic – relationship with Russia by accelerating its transition to green energy and by earning greater trust from its EU and NATO allies.
On 24 February, Russian bombs struck targets in Luck and Ivano-Frankivsk, just 70km and 130km from the Polish border respectively. Seen from Warsaw, Russia’s war against Ukraine is not some distant conflict but a frightening symbol of a new world order that has an impact on people’s everyday lives. One million Ukrainians live and work in Poland; they are friends, neighbours, and colleagues. And many more are already fleeing to Poland as they try to escape the worst of the fighting.
In an unusual act of unity, the Polish Parliament issued on 24 February a declaration of support for Ukraine and a condemnation of Putin. The government increased the level of readiness of the Polish army, while several thousand more US troops are expected to deploy to Poland, bringing the total number stationed there to around 10,000. The US ambassador to Poland declared in a TV interview that “Poland is safe”, in an effort to dispel speculation about Russian provocations against, or even attacks on, the country and the Baltic states. Warsaw demands the harshest possible sanctions on Russia – including its removal from SWIFT.
Poland faces the war in Ukraine while politically divided at home and weakened internationally. The day before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made the absurd accusation that opposition leader Donald Tusk presided over a ‘Nord Stream 2 party’. The opposition fired back by criticising the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party for siding with Putin’s friends in the EU – Marine Le Pen and Salvini.
Meanwhile, Warsaw is preparing for the influx of refugees by opening eight reception centres at the Ukrainian border. But the PiS government has for years denied financial support to NGOs that assist refugees. And it has a poor record of cooperation with the local governments that are now key to manage the coming challenges.
Politically, the key question concerns the extent to which the war will boost waning support for the PiS government and help it bury its dispute with the EU over the rule of law. The government expects the European Commission to back down in this dispute in the name of European unity. While Putin’s aggression is an outright assault on the liberal-democratic values of the West, the government is doing far too little to protect these values at home.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.