How Europe changed in the past one year of Ukraine war

Earlier this month, a photograph taken during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Paris sparked a furore in Italy.

This was Zelenskyy’s first visit to France and to a country in the European Union since the beginning of the war triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Prior to an official dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the three leaders had posed for a photo outside the Elysses Palace in the French capital. Onlookers were quick to point out similarities to a photo taken outside Mariinsky Palace in June 2022, with a notable exception — the Italian Prime Minister.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian PM Mario Draghi have met President Zelenskiy in Kyiv

It’s the highest-profile visit to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began

Latest updates:

— Bloomberg (@business) June 16, 2022

In 2022, France, Italy and Germany had presented a united front against the Ukraine war, with then-Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Macron and Scholz taking an 11-hour train ride to meet with President Zelenskyy in Kyiv. However, when Macron hosted Zelenskyy in Paris on February 8, the new Italian PM Giorgia Meloni had not been invited. A furious Meloni had gone on to publicly criticised Macron and termed the meeting “inappropriate”, before embarking on a solo trip to Kyiv a few days later.

Clearly, much has changed in Europe in the past year, both within the member nations of the European Union and within the EU itself. In September 2022, Italy had elected a far-right coalition government into power comprising leaders who had blamed Zelenskyy for instigating the war. Though the continent had presented a largely united front against the war, there has been no consensus on granting Ukraine candidacy in the EU. And, in an indication of shifting power in Brussels, the Czech Republic had warned in December 2022 that it is ready to outvote EU giant Germany on a move to cap wholesale gas prices to tackle rising energy costs.

Italy’s headache

The Macron-Meloni discord primarily stems from tensions between France and Italy, who have been at odds over migration policy which has been a polarising issue within Europe for years. The latest escalation took place in November 2022, when Meloni’s right-wing government refused to allow a rescue ship carrying 230 migrants to dock, and instead redirected it to France. Macron’s Interior Minister had condemned the move, and warned Italy of “extremely severe consequences for our bilateral relations.”

Meanwhile, the public perception of Italy’s support for Ukraine has been affected by conflicting remarks from members of the ruling party. Though PM Meloni has said time and again that Italy stands with Ukraine and pledged arms and aid to Kyiv, the comments of her allies in the government, especially former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, have stirred controversy.

Berlusconi, who is friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been critical of Zelenskyy and flaunted his relationship with Putin at a time when the EU has largely severed ties with Kremlin. In October 2022, in a leaked audio clip revealed by Italian news agency LaPresse, Berlusconi was heard telling his party members that Putin sent him “20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter” for his 86th birthday in the previous month. Last week, he criticised Zelenskyy, saying that the Russia-Ukraine war would not have taken place if the Ukrainian president had “stopped attacking the two autonomous republics of the Donbas”.

Changing power scopes

Post-war Europe is also witnessing a change in the traditional power structure with the nations in the eastern flank starting to play a formidable role. Key among these is Poland, whose warnings about Russian aggression have been ignored in the past. In the past year, Warsaw has emerged as a crucial ally to Ukraine, providing economic, humanitarian, military and diplomatic assistance to its eastern neighbour. It has welcomed millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war, providing, as Joe Biden said in his speech, “safety and light in that darkest moment of their lives.” The Rzeszów airport in southeastern Poland has turned out to be a logistical hub for the delivery and transfer of Western weapons to Ukraine. Poland has also been flexing its political muscle, lobbying the EU and NATO for aid and policies in favour of Kyiv.

The people of Poland offered Ukrainian refugees safety and light in that darkest moment of their lives.

It was an honor to speak with you all last night.

— President Biden (@POTUS) February 22, 2023

Germany and France, long-established heavyweights in Europe, continue to drive the EU agenda, but their measured response to Ukraine’s calls for military aid and sanctions has often invited criticism, especially from the Eastern European nations. Germany in particular has faced flak for its three-decade-long foreign policies which fostered dependence on Russian gas for its energy needs. According to the World Economic Forum, Germany had been importing at least 55% of its gas from Russia in 2021 and was seriously affected by the sanctions on Russia.

Putin’s invasion has also prompted several European nations to rethink their military policies. Poland, which spends less than 2.5% of its GDP on defence needs, has said that it will almost double the amount this year. France, Sweden and Finland have all increased their military budgets and proposed changes to their conscription policies. Germany too announced plans to prioritise military spending and broke its long-held policy of not exporting weapons to conflict zones. It even agreed to send the coveted Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine after weeks of back-and-forth with the United States and other NATO members.

NATO, meanwhile, is set to expand with the impending admission of Sweden and Finland into its fold. The two nations had, for a long time, been reluctant to join the 30-member-strong North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but they changed their mind after public opinion swung in favour of the move following the war.

Hungary, Belarus remain outliers

Ukraine’s western neighbour Hungary, however, remains an outlier. While the rest of Europe has rallied behind Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister  Viktor Orban, like President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, has sworn to maintain ties with Russia. “The Hungarian government does not consider the suggestion that Russia is a threat to the security of Hungary or Europe to be realistic,” Orban said, as per a report in the German news agency Deutsche Welle.  Orban’s right-wing government depends on Russia for its energy needs and has signed major oil, gas and nuclear fuel agreements with Moscow.

#UPDATE Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after his party won a fourth term in office and said he hoped to further build ties

📸 Viktor Orban (right) and Vladimir Putin during a 2019 press conference in Budapest

— AFP News Agency (@AFP) April 4, 2022

The merit of Orban’s belief remains to be seen. Earlier this week, it was reported that leaked documents from Russia’s presidential administration showed that the country is planning to absorb Belarus by 2030. The 17-page document titled ‘Strategic Goals of the Russian Federation in Belarus’ reportedly charts out plans to infiltrate Belarus politically, economically and militarily, as a part of what critics say is a larger plan to expand its borders.

The West too has cited Russia’s expansionist ambitions as a crucial reason for the continued support of Ukraine. When asked how the Russia-Ukraine war will end, Pulitzer-winning historian Anna Applebaum told Deutsche Welle: “The war will end when Russia changes. Like France in Algeria or like Britain in Ireland, when Russia understands that it is no longer an imperial power and that the age of empire is over.”

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Navmi Krishna