As inflation rises, could European support for Ukraine wobble?
Europe’s solidarity and commitment towards Kyiv will be tested this winter, and the US midterms might also have an effect, according to analysts.
From the moment Russian troops rolled into Ukraine in late February, European leaders presented a united front against President Vladimir Putin. But more than 250 days later, as winter sets in and inflation rises, their resolve stands to be tested as public anxiety over the effects of a prolonged war brews.
At the same time, analysts warn a potential victory of critical voices in next week’s American midterm elections could fracture the West’s staunch support for Kyiv.
Moscow has weaponised its energy resources, on which Europe heavily relies. As they attempt to wean off Russian gas, European nations are rushing to find alternatives and energy-savings strategies.
Germany postponed the closure of its nuclear power plants, the Czech government swapped old lightbulbs in its offices to less-consuming LED sources. Italians have lowered thermostats to 19 Celsius (66 Fahrenheit) and were advised to cook pasta at a lower heat.
European countries have also reached, and exceeded, a November target to fill at least 80 percent of natural gas storages. Yet, the cold months ahead could offer the right conditions for Putin to indirectly foment unrest and test Europe’s support for Ukraine.
Despite storage levels, Europe still needs the steady, even if fractioned, flow of natural gas from Russia running through pipelines beneath Ukraine, Rafael Loss, an EU security expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.
“If these are disrupted, for example through sabotage, energy rationing with significant consequences for households and industries could become necessary,” Loss said.
Next year’s winter is expected to be even tougher as new supplies from North America, the Gulf and Norway cannot fully compensate Russian imports and are slow to come online.
Putin hopes that Ukrainian refugees will flood neighbouring countries to escape what is going to be an extremely cold winter in the war-torn country, Loss said. Since mid-October, Russia has renewed its war effort, barraging Ukraine with waves of air raids and damaging 30 percent of its energy facilities.
“If Russia succeeds in fomenting social unrest through the energy war, a migration crisis and its disinformation campaign … these could translate in the European support diminishing, which is Russia’s goal,” Loss said, adding though that so far, backing Ukraine remains a priority across the bloc.
Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi sounded the alarm in September.
“The increasing cost of energy threatens the economic recovery, limits families purchasing power, damages our industries’ production capacities and can wear down our countries’ commitment towards Ukraine,” he said at the UN General Assembly.
As European governments pledge more military and financial aid to Ukraine while their citizens’ savings vanish in the face of life’s spiralling costs, anger is growing.
On Monday, inflation in the eurozone peaked to a new record, reaching 10.7 percent. In October last year it was 4.1 percent.
In the past weeks, protests have erupted from France to Romania, with workers demanding better salaries to keep pace with rising costs. In Germany, demonstrators urged their government for a U-turn in fiscal policy as the costs of fuel and food become unaffordable for many.
The worst may be yet to come.
“We expect unrest to grow as inflation is projected to stay high” said Capucine May, a Europe analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. Her risk intelligence company reported in September that civil unrest was growing in 101 countries, due to rising living costs.
But while discontent simmers in countries supporting Ukraine, aid for Kyiv “is not currently a primary driver of unrest”, said May.
Even so, support for further aid for Ukraine is fragile, said Niklas Balbon, a research associate at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).
“Unless European governments effectively tackle war-induced inflation and socioeconomic hardship, public opposition to further assisting Ukraine is likely to increase,” Balbon wrote for the Carnegie Europe think-thank.
In recent weeks, Europe has witnessed the dizzying effects of economic volatility.
Liz Truss’s government in the United Kingdom lasted for 44 days – the shortest cabinet in British history – after her disastrous budget plans roiled financial markets and plunged the British pound to a record low.
And in the EU, cracks among the public are emerging.
An October report from IFOP, an international pollster, shows that French public support for anti-Russia sanctions dropped to 67 percent in October from 71 percent in March, while in Germany, it lowered to 66 percent from 80. In Italy, a recent survey conducted by the IPSOS pollster suggests that support for Ukraine has decreased to 43 percent to 57 percent.
While Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Rome-based think-tank Institute of International Affairs (IAI), believes that a sense of war fatigue is exacerbated by the economic crisis, the trend is inconsequential in policy terms.
“There could be a reduction in military support, but even then the real country making the difference is the US, not the Europeans,” she said.
The US has so far promised 27.6 billion euro ($27bn) in military aid to Ukraine. By comparison, the pledges of UK, Germany and Poland – the three-largest military donors after the US – combined together reach 6.76, four times lower than Washington.
Tocci argued that looking ahead, the results of the midterm elections for the US Congress on November 8, could affect the EU’s approach towards Ukraine.
While the race for the Senate is tight, the Republican Party is heavily favoured to win at the House of Representatives.
If such a scenario materialises, the Republicans would have enough power to make it harder for President Joe Biden’s administration to pass additional military or financial aid for Ukraine. This is because Congress must approve federal budgets, which support for Ukraine.
“They wouldn’t take so much issue with Ukraine, but rather make everything impossible for the Biden administration, including delaying aid for Ukraine,” Tocci said, noting that Republicans projected to win the House include supporters of former President Donald Trump, whose aim is to undermine the Biden agenda as ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
A Eurasia Group report in October found strong support among Democrat and Republican voters for the current US approach to Ukraine. However, Kevin McCarthy, the highest-ranking Republican poised to lead the House has suggested a policy change could emerge.
“I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank cheque to Ukraine,” he said.
If US support for Kyiv diminishes, Tocci said, Ukraine’s fight against Russia could stall within a few months. US weaponry and financial aid has been vital for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which has allowed Kyiv to recapture large swaths.
In case of a standstill, “a realpolitik mode of thinking among Europeans would prevail with them favouring to stabilise things as they are, because they wouldn’t be able to make the difference,” Tocci said.