How to maintain public support for Ukraine – European Council on Foreign Relations

European citizens have been instrumental in helping their governments to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian military aggression.

Germany’s leaders often appear more anxious than the public. However, under pressure from the citizens, they have slowly and belatedly begun to turn against Russia. There are some exceptions to this trend. For example, the Italians were generally more moderate than their leaders. But even in Italy, pressure to help Ukraine seems to have shaped the government’s actions from at least some voters – while most other citizens appear to have caved in.

In early March, just after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this author warned that European solidarity with Ukraine could falter as citizens begin to feel the economic fallout from the war. After all, as Albert Hirschman observed, voters are customers too—and they must always balance their “changing interests” between public action and private interest.

In Germany, according to a recent poll, support for an embargo on Russian gas has already evaporated. And the coalition government in Italy could soon collapse as the Five Star Movement – whose leader has criticized arms sales to Ukraine and called for negotiations with Russia – has threatened to boycott a confidence vote.

According to a recent ECFR opinion poll, rising energy and food prices could lead more Europeans to mistakenly believe that concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin could mean a quicker end to the war. Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, who authored the poll’s analysis, point to the importance of effective political messages in order to maintain a broad front of solidarity with Ukraine.

Without continued public engagement, political support for Ukraine could soon wane

However, there is another looming risk to maintaining European solidarity with Ukraine. During the holiday season, Europeans will simply have less time, patience and attention to watch the war – and keep their leaders in check.

Most Europeans who can afford a summer of relaxation want to escape the twin stresses of Covid-19 and war. And they are perfectly entitled to do so. Of course, higher fuel and airline ticket prices will not make them forget about the conflict raging on the continent’s fringes. But many Europeans will spend time on the beach, playing with their children or having drinks with friends – and consequently less time watching the news or attending rallies in support of Ukraine.

The easing of public pressure on European governments could lead to a slowdown in their military and political support for Kyiv. A similar effect could occur with statements of solidarity and support for Ukraine, given that political leaders themselves are also likely to take furloughs – and that there are relatively few international meetings in July and August where such statements can be made.

The worst-case scenario is that Putin uses the summer to launch a decisive offensive against Ukraine. If he succeeds, Europeans returning from vacation — recharged by the sun and often with the best of intentions to support Ukraine’s fight — might find it too late to react.

Decision-makers should therefore not allow themselves too much relaxation this summer. Instead, they should keep up the pressure on Russia and immediately support Ukraine. Citizens could prove crucial to ensure this happens. You could try several “life hacks” to maintain support for Ukraine in the long term. They face the challenge of continuing to help the Ukrainians while using the summer to rest and recover.

Those who have both goals at heart should try to limit the extent to which Ukraine is at the center of their everyday thoughts and actions. Otherwise, they risk either spending their vacation doing Doom Scrolling or feeling guilty about cutting themselves off the topic too much. For example, they could check the news once in the morning and once in the evening without sacrificing much of their time for family and friends. From the comfort of their lounge chairs, they could also participate in crowdfunding campaigns to ship Bayraktar drones to Ukraine — or coordinate remotely with family and friends to help Ukrainian refugees find homes and jobs in their communities . In the place where they spend their holidays, they could attend local political meetings to discuss how their country should help Ukraine.

Additionally, summer gatherings provide an opportunity to steer discussions with family and friends away from comments about the sheer horrors of war and complaints about the rising cost of living to more creative ideas about what people like them and their countries could do to help Ukraine. Citizens could also cut their energy use in preparation for a winter without Russian gas — an area where governments can provide leadership and advice.

These gestures should not become all-consuming. However, it is important to find ways to continue supporting Ukraine despite the holidays – and not just for the country at war. It could also ease Europeans’ sense of impotence and boost their morale, despite the bleak outlook for most European economies. Without continued public engagement, political support for Ukraine could soon wane. Europeans must recognize that their attitude towards, and interest in, the Ukrainian tragedy has consequences.

Too many people cannot recover from this war. Many Ukrainians fight; Millions seek refuge. But Europeans don’t have to follow the news of the war incessantly to be able to help. In fact, they probably shouldn’t. If Europeans are to maintain their solidarity and support for Ukraine during a protracted conflict, they must be careful not to burn out. Otherwise, genuine interest in the disaster can give way to fatigue and then indifference – much like Covid-19.

At the same time, Europeans cannot afford to forget Ukraine. They need to stay alert and active—even when they’re basking in the sun.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not represent common positions. ECFR publications reflect the views of their respective authors only.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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