Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Can Europe Hold the Line on Ukraine?
Can Europe Hold the Line on Ukraine?

Can Europe Hold the Line on Ukraine?

Bottom Line

  • Few in Moscow or Washington believe that Europe can hold the line and help Ukraine resist the Russian onslaught without US assistance. Yet this view may be mistaken. 

  • European countries demonstrated impressive resilience in withstanding Russia’s energy blackmail last winter. Building on this success, an emboldened, determined Europe could enable Ukraine to resist, even as the US government remains paralyzed.

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered Europe’s sense of security in a way that it has not for the United States. So, just as America’s resolve has diminished steadily over the last two years, Europe’s has only increased.

When it comes to supporting Ukraine, the European Union has taken a decisive lead over the United States. On February 1, Brussels passed a massive, four-year, 50 billion euro (roughly $53.7 billion) package of aid to Ukraine. At the same time, a proposed $60 billion aid package to Kyiv remains blocked in Congress due to opposition from House Republicans. Absent a political deal on Capitol Hill, Europe may be on its own in backing Ukraine for the foreseeable future.

Which begs the question: Can Europe hold the line and help Ukraine resist the Russian onslaught?

Few in Moscow and Washington believe that Europe can do so without US assistance. Russian leaders and Western realists dismiss European defense capabilities and view the war as a great-power conflict between the United States and Russia. Yet European countries demonstrated impressive resilience in withstanding Russia’s energy blackmail last winter. Building on this success, an emboldened, determined Europe could help Ukraine to resist, while the US government remains paralyzed.

Europe Accelerates While America Stalls

While America’s impressive commitment to Ukraine has diminished steadily over the last two years, Europe’s has increased. The percentage of Americans stating that the United States is providing “too much” support for Ukraine has grown. Now House Speaker Mike Johnson and a substantial part of the Republican caucus opposes legislation to further aid to Ukraine. Yet, Washington and Moscow have both been slow to recognize that Europe has marched in a different direction. Since February 2022, EU support for Ukraine has grown dramatically.

Countries like Germany—which initially refused to send any military support to Ukraine or even let such aid cross their airspace—now rank among Ukraine’s largest suppliers of military equipment. Public opinion polls show that Europeans continue to strongly support Ukraine. Moreover, EU countries went from politely refusing to consider Ukraine for EU membership before Russia’s invasion in February 2022, to offering Ukraine candidate status in June 2022, to opening membership negotiations in December 2023. France and Germany even supported NATO membership for Ukraine at the NATO Vilnius summer in 2023. Meanwhile, EU financial support for Ukraine accelerated. With a new 50 billion euro commitment, the European Union surpassed the United States to become the largest source of pledged funds for Ukraine, despite Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s obstruction.

What explains this divergence between the growing level of commitment in Europe and the declining commitment of the United States? The answer is simple: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered Europe’s sense of security in a way that it has not for the United States. European states consider the attempted destruction of Ukraine an existential danger. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius warned that Russia could invade a NATO state within five to eight years, plunging all of Europe into war. Separated by an ocean from the battlefields in Europe, Russia’s challenges to US security still seem abstract to many voters.

Track Record of European Unity on Russia

While many in Moscow and Washington have ignored evidence of strengthening European resolve, European countries demonstrated impressive unity in fighting off Russia’s energy blackmail last winter. In 2021, Russia reduced gas supplies to Europe. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it became evident that Russia planned to squeeze supplies to pressure Europe into abandoning Ukraine. Russian leaders thought that if gas supplies ran low and European countries were forced to choose between spiking energy prices and support for Ukraine, Brussels would force Ukraine to sue for peace, as they did in 2014 and in Georgia in 2008. Pro-Russian parties in Europe sought to shape public sentiment by organizing mass protests against high energy prices in a replay of the yellow vests protests in France. Yet that did not work either.

Instead, European countries came together quickly within the context of the European Union to develop a comprehensive plan to fight Russia’s energy blackmail. EU leaders agreed to emergency energy conservation measures, including turning down temperatures in public buildings and shutting the lights off at the Eiffel tower after midnight. These measures helped to exceed energy reduction targets of 15 percent. The European Union extended them for this year.

In addition, European countries rapidly diversified energy supplies, quickly building liquefied natural gas terminals, finishing pipeline projects, and slashing reliance on Russian oil and gas to less than a third of its previous levels. European countries also slapped a price cap on Russian oil that forced Russia to find customers elsewhere. Revenues of Russia’s top oil and gas companies fell by 41 percent in the first nine months of 2023. While some energy-intensive industries in Europe suffered, Europe kept the heat and the lights on all winter. Europe will do so again this winter with the help of Ukraine’s massive gas storage facilities.

Europe’s victory in the energy wars with Russia bolstered Europe’s confidence that it can stand up to Russia and win. But will the same be true in the military arena? Does Europe have the capabilities to stop Russia in Ukraine without massive US assistance? It will be much more difficult, but the possibility is there.

As Europe proved last winter, its population may accept the sacrifices necessary to defeat Russia. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen frequently reminds Europeans that Ukraine “is fighting for us.” Yet currently, Europe’s commitment to this war remains relatively low when compared to Russia’s. Analysts estimate that in 2023 Russia spent at least 6.4 percent of gross domestic product on defense, compared to the average of 2.1 percent in NATO countries. To replace US military assistance, European countries would have to spend a higher proportion of their budgets on their militaries, trading off other priorities. While Europe has continued to ramp up support for arming Ukraine, creating new EU wide facilities, training Ukraine’s soldiers, and boosting European arms production, European countries have been reluctant to commit to large arms contracts. Europe would have to substantially increase its commitment to win without the United States.

Yet, doing so is not impossible. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has already called for talks at the EU February summit, stating that, “the arms deliveries for Ukraine planned so far by the majority of EU member states are by all means too small … We need higher contributions.” European leaders rose to the challenge of energy blackmail last winter and could do so again. Some European countries may embrace the opportunity to strengthen Europe’s role as a strategic actor without the United States, following French President Emanuel Macron’s call for “strategic autonomy” during an April 2023 trip to China. On January 30, 2024, Macron emphasized that Europe, “must be ready to act to defend and support Ukraine whatever it takes and whatever America decides.”

Looking Ahead

The uncertainty surrounding America’s aid package to Ukraine comes at a time when both Russian and Ukrainian militaries are exhausted following two years of intense combat. Neither side is likely to succeed in major offensive operations. Some Western analysts recommend that Ukraine temporarily adopt a more defensive posture, while learning from the 2023 offensive and preparing new strike capabilities. Holding the line under such conditions may be more feasible for Europe, which has been slow to ramp up its defense industry to meet the challenge.

But don’t count Europe out. Even if Congress remains paralyzed, a determined and mobilized Europe—including the European Union states and the United Kingdom—could hold off Russia and prolong a war that Vladimir Putin is desperate to win quickly, as he has been since February 2022.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: President of Ukraine