Winter in Europe
Editor’s note: War on the Rocks recently published an 8-part Warcast series for members about the impact the war in Ukraine has had on European politics and Europe’s economy. The series, “Winter in Europe”, is available for members. To listen to the entire series, please consider joining our membership program. We have new members-only content coming soon, beginning in November with “The Russia Contingency with Michael Kofman,” a bi-weekly podcast about the Russian military.
Europe is facing a hard winter, but support for Ukraine remains strong. Russia’s war has highlighted many of the challenges the continent already confronted, from internal divisions within the European Union to a deep dependence on Russian energy. It has added newfound urgency to the search for solutions, even as these new solutions create trade-offs of their own. To date, European leaders have moved quickly to blunt the worst of the energy crisis, but have yet to fully allay their citizens’ concerns. They have also been forced to rapidly rethink their military posture, creating new opportunities for America to help strengthen the continent’s defense.
This, at least, was the consensus of the experts who joined our members-only Winter in Europe Warcast series. With many in Washington wondering how European solidarity will fare over the coming months, we brought together a number of observers on the continent to evaluate the recent political and economic developments, and tell us what they mean for the future of the war in Ukraine. In these conversations, they conveyed their belief that Europe’s political solidarity would survive the winter even if individual governments struggled to master rising energy prices. Moreover, they described a growing convergence in security thinking between Eastern and Western Europe, as well as between Europe and America. The result, they suggested, is that enhanced E.U. defense and stronger trans-Atlantic cooperation are now more compatible than ever.
High energy prices, according to Ian Lesser, are “issue number one, right across Europe,” but of course “not all countries are in the same boat.” They differ not only in how directly dependent they are on Russian gas and oil, but also on how their governments have responded and, crucially, how their voters approach the issue politically. With consumers paying “extraordinary prices” “ten or twelve times” what they were a year ago, “the verdict is still out on whether Europe can get its act together to have a more coherent policy.”
In the United Kingdom, for example, David Lawrence warned of “a winter of discontent, where there were energy outages, where pensioners freeze to death in their homes.” But he argued that if this happened, the public would blame their politicians, not the war. Britain’s polices toward Ukraine “don’t have any bearing on the energy issue.” The link, he explained “doesn’t make sense” and “that’s not where public sentiment is at.” Both major political parties remain supportive of Ukraine, and across the country there is “a lot of pride” in Britain’s stance on the war.
In Germany, by contrast, fears over winter energy shortages were coupled with greater concerns that this could create “solidarity fatigue” when it came to Ukraine. Ulrike Franke explained that the current government, a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats, is trying to help people pay their bills while creating incentives to reduce energy consumption. It has made a conscious choice to prioritize households over industry, even if that leads to long-term debt and decreases industrial production. One result of the crisis has been a “return of the state.” Government is “much more involved in the economy” and one energy producer has already been “more or less nationalized.”
The French government, aided by the country’s nuclear power plants, has sought to preserve a “fiscal shield” that will protect citizens from higher energy prices while also “communicating in a relatively transparent manner” to prepare voters for the coming winter. This, according to Tara Varma, has helped ensure that solidarity for Ukraine “is not fading.” It remains front and center in the media, reflecting a strong sense of support among the public.
Italy, in turn, as “one of the biggest importers of Russian gas” was among “the most exposed countries” on the energy side. But according to Federico Santi, the government “moved relatively quickly to diversify” and has successfully reduced Russian gas imports to roughly a third of what they were before the war. While a majority of Italian voters support Ukraine, “that proportion is lower than you see elsewhere,” with a substantial chunk of the electorate convinced “Italy shouldn’t be involved and is paying the price for someone else war.” Despite this, Santi argued, Italy’s new government “has been careful to toe the E.U. and NATO line very closely” and is unlikely to change course.
Paradoxically, the current crisis has created a “more visceral” awareness about the dangerous dependency created by energy deals with authoritarian states while also pressuring European governments to seek out new deals at all costs. In the current “scramble for energy,” explained Erika Solomon, European leaders are “flying all around the world trying to secure contracts” even if it means visiting repressive leaders like Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev. Policymakers “are now seeing the true price of Russian gas” but this is offset by their current panic. The result is a willingness to do whatever is necessary to get through the winter and then deal with the political and climate repercussions down the road.
Energy has also been one issue driving tensions between former Soviet or Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe and the rest of the continent. The current crisis, in Solomon’s words, has led to “a little bit of an ‘I told you so’” particularly from Poland but also from the Baltic states. As a result, they now feel empowered to push traditional European leaders like France and Germany to do more, essentially telling them: “we saw this coming and you didn’t and now we want you to send weapons and you need to step up and do more of that.”
From a Ukrainian perspective, European military assistance “is felt and appreciated.” But, according to former diplomat Yevgeniya Gaber “we started getting this assistance quite late” and “the pace of the supplies” has sometimes been slower than it could be. Thus gratitude for Europe’s support is offset by the fact that “had we got the same assistance before, we would have less casualties and less victims.”
As for concerns about solidarity fatigue, Gaber noted that “Russia is even weaponizing winter” in its propaganda by telling people they will not have electricity in the coming months. Will it work? “In former Warsaw Pact countries there is an understanding that there is a price to be paid” for defending the continent “and there is no problem with that.” In the rest of Europe, she hoped, policymakers would realize that the true choice was between “paying pennies now or paying more later after more Russian aggression.”
Indeed, across Europe, leaders and voters alike are rethinking their approach to military defense more broadly. As Franke described, Germany’s Zeitenwende, or “turning of time,” has meant that there is a perception that “we are entering new territory, things have changed, we can’t go back to before and we need to react to this.” Where once there was a sense that “we shouldn’t even be talking about” defense policy, now “people are realizing not everything related to the military is bad.”
As a result, after decades of debate over European sovereignty, the invasion of Ukraine has simultaneously strengthened trans-Atlantic and European unity. There is a newfound awareness both that U.S. support and leadership is crucial for European defense but also that Europeans should enhance their capacity for collective action. In this regard, the European Union and NATO have worked well together in coordinating their response, while further measures like increased military spending and expanding Europe’s defense industrial base could simultaneously strengthen both institutions. Varma noted that Finland and Sweden joining NATO while Denmark joined the European Union’s common defense further demonstrated the compatibility of these two approaches. On China as well, Franke argued that the war has “pushed Germany and Europe a little more toward the U.S. position” by demonstrating that “authoritarian states are really bad bedfellows.” With France in particular continuing to push for European sovereignty, there was now a unique opportunity for Washington to engage constructively without “belittling” these efforts or being “vexed” by them.
Looking toward the next few months, observers are confident that Europe will muddle through. The hardships are real, but so are the political convictions with which people will face them. This means that, with wise leadership, the continent can still emerge stronger and more unified from this crisis.
Nicholas Danforth is an editor at War on the Rocks. He is also a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He is the author of The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire.