Ukraine and Europe: speaking truth to ourselves

The war in Ukraine has two major implications for Europe and Europeans. Unfortunately, they are contradictory.

The flags of the EU and Ukraine alongside each other in Kyiv—but will they really sit together easily? (rospoint/

The world is an inhospitable place for anyone believing there are simple solutions for complex problems. The Russian war against Ukraine is an example of a complex problem which cannot have a simple solution.

And yet, every day there is someone who argues, on the basis of some random development in the field, that one or other side will win, as if it were a rugby match and not a war. In his study On War, which came out in 1832, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz observed: ‘War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.’

Certain, however, are the contradictory implications of the war for Europeans. There are two in particular.


Unprecedented threat

The first is that the European Union will be involved, whether it wants to be or not, in the outcome of the war, even if it does not wage war ‘at first hand’. The military defeat of Ukraine would represent a political defeat for Europe (the EU and the United Kingdom), as well as constituting an unprecedented threat to the security of the continent—not only its eastern part.

If the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, can invade Ukraine with impunity, then Europe’s political map, which emerged from the implosion of the Soviet Union, may be redrawn. Even if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not overshadowed by a further Donald Trump US presidency, the military and civilian defences built to protect our liberal democracies and our integrated market would no longer be secure. Cossacks will not be drinking from the fountains at St Peter’s in Rome, but insecurity will dominate our political relations and economic activities.

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Europe’s security is linked to the outcome of the war, which was not true of any other conflict on the continent—including the wars of the Yugoslav succession—since the second world war. And yet, European national governments are tinkering. They fail to practise what they preach.

Just consider how, last year, a number of countries tried to use the rhetoric around solidarity with Ukraine to modernise their defence systems with European money, transferring to Kyiv old arms and ammunition and asking to be reimbursed at current prices as if it were war matériel which had just been bought. Finland asked for 100 per cent reimbursement of its transfers to Ukraine, Latvia for 99 per cent, Lithuania 93 per cent and France 71 per cent.

Then there was the regal press conference given by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last month, at which he reiterated a commitment to transfer to Kyiv ‘40 new SCALP missiles and hundreds of bombs’. The Kiel Institute, an independent body which monitors aid to Ukraine from western countries, has however shown that, as of October 31st 2023, France had contributed just €0.54 billion in military support—similar to Italy (€0.69bn) and Spain (€0.34bn), but far short of the US (€43.9bn), Germany (€17.1bn) and the UK (€6.6bn). Helping Ukraine is essential for Europe, but it cannot do so with words alone or with the thought that it will make something from it.

Nationalist identity

The second implication is this: while a postwar Ukraine which can claim to have stopped Putin may be a guarantee for European security, it will also be a problem for the EU. It will be a highly militarised country, with a strong nationalist identity. The war is shaping Ukraine as a typical 19th- century European national state.

In Kyiv, resistance to Putin is perceived as a war of national liberation, not unlike that experienced by other countries, to free itself of occupation by an imperial power. Often anti-colonial wars have left as their legacy armies unwilling to scale down and national sentiments tending to radicalise.

The Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy, director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, has just published a book, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History, in which he argues that Ukrainian nationalism is quite far from European supranationalism. When it joins the EU, an ethnonationalist Ukraine will not therefore sit comfortably in the union’s supranational logic.

If the EU was created to tame nationalism, Michael Kimmage wrote in Foreign Affairs last autumn, its enlargement to nation-states built through war represents a strategic challenge. With the various enlargements, it was thought that the countries of western Europe would influence the democratic development of the countries of eastern Europe. That has happened—but so has the opposite.

The EU has supported the construction of modern national states to the east, without which the single market could not work. But this construction has unwittingly strengthened their nationalism, which has polluted the functioning of the single market as well as the rule of law. An enlarged EU is safer but also less democratic overall. It is good to be aware of that.

Out of the conflict

It is unlikely that the war will end with the victory or defeat of one side or the other. The EU must thus support Ukraine to come out of the conflict strengthened. But a strengthened Ukraine is destined to create problems for the EU.

Is Ukrainian nationalism reconcilable with European supranationalism? Simple answers, as Karl Popper said, are only adopted by those who don’t know the questions.

Sergio Fabbrini is professor of political science and international relations, Sanpaolo chair on European governance and head of the Political Science Department at Luiss University in Rome.