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Europe has stood firmly with Ukraine since the war began – but that could change quickly

The ripples of war spread fast. Over the course of the past six months, those ripples have travelled from Ukraine and affected politics around the world – but no more so than in Europe.

Some of those impacts are obvious. War, inevitably, led to a flood of people fleeing Ukraine and seeking refuge in other countries.

Poland immediately threw its doors open to refugees and now plays home to one and a quarter million Ukrainians. Just under a million are now living in Germany.

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Six months on from the start of the war, there have been nearly nine million border crossings out of Ukraine. But, notably, there have been more than 4.75 million crossings going the other way.

Some of these are workers, journalists, or fighters. But most are Ukrainians, who have decided to return home.

And that reinforces one of the abiding lessons from this conflict – that Ukrainians have an extraordinary level of resilience. I remember being in the west of the country after the war had started, and watching the huge queues forming at recruitment centres. Around the corner, we met young men who were driving through the night to take supplies to soldiers.

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I remember, too, meeting a young mother who had fled with her children and chatted to us about her pride in her country and her husband, who had stayed at home in Kharkiv to fight. She was exhausted, but bristled when we offered to buy her a drink. She could buy her own food, she said, and would be going home just as soon as she could.

The war delivered a sense of unity to the European Union. It rushed through new rules, giving Ukrainian refugees the right to take residency in the EU for three years. It sent weapons and money, flexed diplomatic muscles and seemed to discover a sense of concerted purpose that has long proved elusive.

And, mostly, that sense of united purpose has endured. Europe, by standing with Ukraine, exuded a pride that it hasn’t shown for years.

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Sky’s Adam Parsons in with refugees in Lviv during the war’s early days

There have been problems – Germany was slow to supply useful military supplies and has had to accept criticism for its previous reliance on Russian energy. Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to negotiate personally with Vladimir Putin looked naive, at times. But the Franco-German axis, around which the EU now spins, has been resolute in its determination to back Ukraine.

But there are cracks and, over the past six months, they may expand. Take Hungary, for example, a member state of the EU, but also a country led by a nationalist prime minister who has long cultivated a close relationship with Russia.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a business conference in Budapest, Hungary, June 9, 2021. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has lobbied for softer sanctions

Hungary lobbied for sanctions to be watered down, arguing that curbs on Russian energy imports harm the buyer more than the seller. It’s a call that’s being taken up by other populist politicians, from Marine Le Pen in France, who described sanctions as “useless”, to Matteo Salvini in Italy – a politician who once entered the European Parliament wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Mr Putin’s face.

Next month, Italy holds a general election and it’s very likely that Mr Salvini will end up as part of the winning coalition. The Kremlin has been linked with a campaign of misinformation in the country, and it may be working. Polling suggests that, of all Europeans, Italians are the most likely to blame someone other than Russia for the war.

The odds are that the biggest party in the Italian election will turn out to be the Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni. So far, she has said she will maintain her nation’s support for action in Ukraine and opposition to Mr Putin.

FILE PHOTO: Leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party Giorgia Meloni waves to the people as she closes her electoral campaign ahead of local elections that will take place at the weekend, in Florence, Italy, September 18, 2020. REUTERS/Alberto Lingria/File Photo
Leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party Giorgia Meloni

Read more: Rape video shared by Italy PM hopeful Giorgia Meloni removed by Twitter

But if that stance changes, even slightly, in favour of Russia, then alarm bells will ring. There are those advocating, for instance, a ceasefire deal that surrenders Ukrainian land to Russia. Unpalatable to many, not least in Ukraine, but balm to those in Hungary, Italy and beyond who want to be on decent terms with Mr Putin when the dust settles.

The truth is that nobody is advocating some kind of cosy friendship with Russia. But there are those – Viktor Orban, Ms Le Pen, Mr Salvini – who insist that the pain isn’t worth it. And these are politicians with hefty support.

Beyond the boundaries of the EU, the war seems to be setting off other problems – Serbia, a close ally of Russia, is inflaming tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Countries in the Western Balkans grumble that they have been patiently pursuing EU membership for more than a decade, but now worry that Ukraine has jumped ahead of them in the queue.

A police officer stands beside a floral arch of sunflowers at the door to 10 Downing Street, London, to show the UK's support for Ukraine, who celebrate their independence day on Wednesday. Picture date: Tuesday August 23, 2022.
A police officer stands beside a floral arch of sunflowers at the door to 10 Downing Street.

Read more: Gas price spike threatens big trouble for Europe

And, of course, the soaring cost of energy affects economies everywhere. The harder life gets, the more traction there is in the idea that sanctions do more harm than good.

“Every time someone mentions fatigue or weariness over sanctions, Putin does something atrocious and the questions go away,” one senior source told me this week. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the question of fatigue is allowed to linger.

Europe has been resolute for six months, but so has Mr Putin. As the weather gets colder, the bills go up and the war goes on, Europe’s sense of resolution and camaraderie will come under threat. The question is whether it will hold.


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