At the recently concluded NATO summit, while member states displayed continued resolve to provide Ukraine the material and political support needed to counter Russia’s assault, they would not agree to Prime Minister Zelenskyy’s demand to an expedited Ukrainian entry into NATO. Ukraine wants in now, but most members demurred. According to NATO’s charter, Ukraine’s entry would, in effect, directly put member nations at war with Russia in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty. And that was seen as a step too far.
The decision reached was that weapons and aid will continue to flow and sanctions on Russia will remain in place, but Ukraine’s admission would be deferred until after the end of hostilities. NATO members are saying: it’s one thing for us to give you everything you need to repel the invasion of your territory and quite another for us to declare a full-scale European continental war with Russia.
This hesitation is smart, because it’s doubtful that public opinion in many of these countries would accept such a move. And it’s even more questionable that whatever support currently exists for such a war would be sustainable over time.
It’s useful to recall aspects of the ‘Powell Doctrine’, laid out by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell to be followed by any democracy before declaring war. Most relevant in this instance: a clear understanding of the costs, consequences, and terms of engagement involved in the war, and sufficient and sustainable public support for the effort to be successful. If these conditions are not met, public support will wane, and the resultant discontent will ensure that objectives cannot be met. (Of course, Powell violated these and other terms of his own “doctrine” in his support for the Iraq war, and the disaster that followed only proved the wisdom of his earlier observations.)
Having noted this, the results of the Zogby Research Services (ZRS) poll in seven European countries (UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Turkey) completed in May 2023 provide additional context. This was the fourth in a series of ZRS polls of European attitudes toward the war. This May poll was conducted against a backdrop that included an intensified push by the US and NATO allies to supply Ukraine with more advanced weaponry in anticipation of Ukraine’s awaited “Spring offensive”; massive Russian bombing of Ukrainian civilian targets; and the destruction of a major dam in Ukraine threatening several communities and causing tens of thousands to flee.
What we found was that NATO’s caution was in order. Our summary findings were: firstly, most Europeans continue to blame Russia for the war and support breaking ties with and continued sanctions directed against Russia. At the same time, substantial majorities in all countries polled are “concerned about the cost of this war and believe that a compromise should be found to save lives and resources.” Only one-third or fewer believe that “it is worth the cost of continuing to fight to stop Russian aggression.”
Secondly, about two-thirds in most countries say their governments should be more independent in global affairs and less aligned with the US. And while Russia has burned its bridges with most Western Europeans, many see the importance of developing ties with China. And thirdly, there is support for admitting Ukraine into NATO in four of the seven countries, but the UK and Poland only give tepid support for sending NATO troops. In no country were respondents in support of sending their own forces into the war zone. These attitudes may shift in coming months depending on the success or failure of Ukraine’s offensive and how the internal situation in Russia unfolds in the wake of the Wagner Group’s failed rebellion.
But what’s clear, at this point, is a growing unease; most respondents told us they believed the war would be over quickly, but it continues with no end in sight. Their major concerns are with increases in the cost of living, the flood of refugees which only serves to aggravate the xenophobic mindset of parties on the right, and the potential for the war to morph into other destabilising threats that will impact peace on the continent.
In this context, NATO’s caution was right.