At the Nato summit in July, while member states displayed continued resolve to provide Ukraine with the material and political support needed to counter Russia, they would not agree to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's demand for an expedited Ukrainian entry into the alliance. Ukraine has been pressing Nato for admission, but most members demurred. One of the main reasons was that according to Nato’s charter, Ukrainian membership would, in effect, directly put other Nato members at war with Russia in the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty. That was seen as a step too far.
The decision reached by Nato's members was that weapons and aid will continue to flow and sanctions on Russia will remain in place, but Ukraine’s admission would be delayed until the end of hostilities. What the Nato members are saying to Mr Zelenskyy is that it’s one thing for us to give you everything you need to repel the invasion of your territory and quite another for us to declare a full-scale European continental war with Russia.
This hesitation is smart because it is doubtful that public opinion in many Nato countries would accept such a move. And it is even more questionable, even if there were support in some countries for such a war with Russia, that the support would be sustainable over time.
It’s useful to recall former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s doctrinal guidelines to be followed by any democracy before declaring war. Of the items included in the “Powell Doctrine”, two are particularly relevant in this instance. First, Mr Powell insisted, there must be a clear understanding of the costs, consequences and terms of engagement involved in the war.
Following this, the doctrine maintains that there must be sufficient and sustainable public support for the effort to be successful, especially if the war is expected to be long. According to the doctrine, if these conditions cannot be met, public support will wane and the resultant discontent will ensure that objectives cannot be met. (Of course, it should be recalled that in his support for the Iraq war, Mr Powell violated these and other terms of his own “doctrine,” and the disaster that followed only proved the wisdom of his earlier observations.)
Having noted this, it is useful to examine the results of the Zogby Research Services poll in seven European countries (UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland and Turkey) completed in May 2023. This was the fourth in a series of ZRS polls of European attitudes towards the war. This poll was conducted against a backdrop that included: an intensified push by the US and Nato allies to supply Ukraine with more advanced weaponry in anticipation of Ukraine’s awaited “spring offensive”; Russian bombing of Ukrainian civilian targets; and the destruction of a major dam in Ukraine threatening several communities and causing tens of thousands of people to flee.
What we found was that Nato opposition to Russia’s aggression and support for Ukraine coupled with caution regarding their quick admission were clearly in line with current European public opinion. Our summary findings were:
Most Europeans continue to blame Russia for the war and support breaking ties with and continued sanctions directed against Russia.
At the same time, a substantial majority of respondents in all countries polled make clear that they are “concerned about the cost of this war and believe that a compromise should be found to save lives and resources”. Only one-third or fewer believe that “it is worth the cost of continuing to fight to stop Russian aggression”.
About two-thirds in most countries say their governments should be more independent in global affairs and less aligned with the US. And while Russia has burnt its bridges with most Western Europeans, a sizable majority of respondents see the importance of their countries now developing closer ties with China.
There is support for admitting Ukraine into Nato in just four of the seven countries, and only respondents in the UK and Poland give tepid support for sending Nato troops. In no country were respondents in support of sending their own forces into the war zone.
These attitudes may shift in coming months depending on the success or failure of Ukraine’s offensive and how the internal situation in Russia unfolds in the wake of the failed rebellion by the Wagner Group.
But what’s clear, at this point, is that there is growing unease with the fact that this war, which most respondents told us they believed would be over quickly, is continuing with no end in sight. Their major concerns are with increases in the cost of living, the flood of refugees which only serves to aggravate the xenophobic mindset of political parties on the right, and the potential for the war to morph into other destabilising threats that will impact peace on the continent. And, as noted, there is additional unease with their governments appearing to be allowing the US to determine the direction of their foreign policy.
In this context, Nato’s caution was right.