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As prices rise, Europeans divided over how Ukraine war should end

Protesters form a chain around the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels on June 12 to support Ukraine's application for E.U. candidacy status. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)
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As the war in Ukraine drags on through its fourth month, Europeans remain largely united in backing Kyiv, but they are divided over how long they’re willing to endure the conflict’s economic fallout, a poll published Wednesday shows.

The survey across 10 European countries suggests public attention may turn from the war to fears about its wider impact, particularly the rising cost of living on the continent. European governments will have to contend with those concerns as they seek to maintain pressure against Moscow, analysts say.

Slightly more than a third of those surveyed want the war to be over as soon as possible, even at the expense of Ukrainian territorial concessions, while 22 percent say it should last as long as it takes to punish Russia and restore all of Ukraine’s land.

Still, the participants were not divided over support for Ukraine — or about who’s responsible for the war. A large majority, 73 percent, mainly blame Moscow, and 64 percent believe that Russia, not the United States, the European Union or Ukraine, is the biggest obstacle to peace.

The poll, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank and conducted online by YouGov and the research firm Datapraxis, surveyed 8,172 adults in 10 European countries, including Germany, Romania and Sweden, between late April and mid-May.

Respondents were split into those who said they favor “peace,” even if that involves concessions from Ukraine, and those who view “justice” as the priority, even if it means a protracted conflict. A fifth of the voters “swing” between the two and still want a strong European response, while the rest said they didn’t know.

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The sentiments will affect European policy on Ukraine, according to the report’s authors, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard of the ECFR.

“The findings of the poll suggest that European public opinion is shifting, and that the toughest days may lie ahead,” they wrote. Europeans are also worried about the threat of nuclear escalation, and if the feeling grows that sanctions on Russia “are failing to bring results,” the divide between those who want to end the war quickly and those who want to see Russia defeated will grow, the report says.

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In all 10 countries in the survey apart from Ukraine’s neighbor Poland, the first camp — for “peace” — is larger than the second, labeled “justice.” Many of those in the first category worry their governments are prioritizing “action against Russia ahead of other important issues, such as rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis,” the ECFR said.

As economies are still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine propelled already rising inflation in countries that use the euro to a record high in May, with energy projected to have the steepest annual rate. And that was before an E.U. deal this month to phase out most imports of Russian oil, spurred by mounting evidence of Russian war crimes in Kyiv’s suburbs.

The prospect of a drawn-out conflict, with the battle for eastern Ukraine raging, has raised questions about whether war fatigue, coupled with skyrocketing food prices and energy bills, could test countries’ political will to keep pressuring Moscow over time.

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On Sunday, President Biden blamed the Russian invasion of Ukraine for rising U.S. gas prices, saying it was “outrageous what the war in Ukraine is causing.”

As E.U. countries negotiated an oil embargo last month, a Belgian member of the European Parliament hailed the response to Russian aggression, while warning of rising unemployment and energy poverty.

The Western sanctions that hit the Russian economy “will also affect the lives of European citizens, with a direct impact on their homes, their jobs, their wallets,” lawmaker Sara Matthieu told her colleagues. She urged the 27-nation bloc to help mitigate the rise in prices and “protect our citizens, specifically those at risk of falling into poverty, people that are afraid of not being able to heat their homes next winter.”

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The impact on European households has prompted a range of policy moves. Germany, for example, is offering temporary energy tax reductions and issuing a monthly 9 euro ticket for public transportation.

Governments are “walking a fine line,” said Tyler Kustra, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham in England, whose research focuses on economic sanctions.

“I think there is tremendous disquiet across Europe over the cost of living. These things are things you can’t not buy. You need food; you need heat,” he said.

“I think we have to remember how much we don’t want a war in Europe and how much we have to hold the line against Vladimir Putin,” Kustra added. “There isn’t one option that is win-win; it’s a series of unfortunate trade-offs. This is why we need this war to end.”

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