Wearing rose-tinted spectacles on Ukraine?

Posted on 13. May 2014

by Christopher Wratil

Christopher Wratil

Yesterday morning pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk announced a clear majority for a separation of Eastern Ukraine from Kiev in Sunday’s referendum. Whereas the Kremlin immediately declared its support of this outcome, EU leaders are calling it unlawful and void. While this is the East-West elite game we have been watching for months now, one wonders what Western European publics think about it.

Let’s take Germany as an example: In an ARD Deutschlandtrend of last week 60% of the population said that Germany should firmly back the Western partners’ interpretation of the conflict and not that of the Kremlin. At first sight, this might sound like a solid majority, but it also means: 40% of Germans – a figure as high as the support for Angela Merkel’s Christian democratic party – are not sure that Germany is standing on the ‘right side’. This is backed by 35% who said Germany should show more understanding for Russia. How solid is public support for the Western course really and what could be the consequences if it erodes?

From a political scientist point of view, 60% support for the Western course is not much if considering the circumstances currently backing it. We have to be aware that public opinion on foreign matters is usually strongly shaped by the government. Having little first-hand information about foreign affairs, people normally trust their government’s interpretation. In recent history, the Iraq invasion is the best example. As much as Americans followed their president into the war, the Germans and others followed their national governments in opposition to the war. However, clearly more people followed the SPD-Green government on Iraq in 2002 (70-90%) than currently people are following the grand coalition on Ukraine.

Moreover, people normally only start to turn against the government line in great numbers once significant parts of the political establishment do so. 60% is rather fragile then, if one considers that all political elites in Europe are currently pulling at the same string. This does not only apply across countries, but also across political camps. In the candidate debate at the State of the Union Conference last week, none of the aspirants for the Commission presidency, from the green Jose Bové to the Christian democrat Jean-Claude Juncker, doubted that EU involvement in the conflict was necessary and nobody dared to blame EU or US behaviour for the emergence of the conflict.

However, domestic publics seem already little impressed by this consensus. When I discuss with friends about Ukraine these days I often hear that the EU had taken a ‘stupidly aggressive step’ by offering the association agreement or had not shown enough ‘respect for Russia’s justified claims in Ukraine’. Such lines of thinking will become much more influential in public opinion should the elite consensus on Ukraine eventually break down, for instance, because some feel they can mobilise the 35% of the public that demands more understanding for Russia.

Putin seems to be well aware of this and he tries to fuel public understanding for Russia further by coupling each escalating step with a seemingly friendly signal. The latest of these signals was last week’s request to the separatists to stop the referendum. Of course, these signals are rarely an expression of real will as the immediate acknowledgement of the very same referendum just yesterday demonstrates.

If Putin is successful and some elites in Europe politically exploit the situation by playing his game, Western public opinion will become a major factor for the course of the crisis. For instance, Europe’s politicians will have a hard time establishing a ‘red line’ for Putin if they cannot be sure about the public backing it. Poland and the Baltic states feel their very existence threatened should the EU be unable to establish this line. While there ‘must be limits to understanding’ as Ulrich Krotz, Professor of International Relations at the EUI, reminded us during the conference, we will have to see where the understanding of Western European publics for Russia will have a limit. Hopefully, it will not become one of these love relationships you can never end – because you see the world through rose-tinted spectacles. The Ukrainian presidential elections in two weeks could become the next test for this.

This reflection is a follow up on the debates started at the fourth edition of the State of the Union Conference at the European University Institute in Florence. Learn more about the participation of FutureLab Europe here.