Niklas BalbonResearch associate at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)
Europe’s support to Ukraine is not entirely dependent on the United States—but enough for a potential rift between the continents to change the trajectory of the war.
So far, policymakers on both sides emphasize that Ukraine must have the final say on its own future. However, what happens if the next U.S. administration decides to follow its own vision for conflict transformation—for example, by advocating to “freeze” the war and thus ending assistance? While Europe has considerable humanitarian and economic capabilities, compensating for the loss of U.S. military and intelligence support seems unrealistic. More importantly, however, a transatlantic divide would massively weaken Ukraine’s negotiating position with regard to Russia.
At the same time, while an Afghanistan-like exit scenario for Ukraine may be frightening, Donald Trump’s potential comeback is arguably not the greatest threat to Europe’s ability to support Ukraine. Given the energy crisis and the rise of Putin-friendly, right-wing parties, public support for further aid to Ukraine is fragile. Unless European governments effectively tackle war-induced inflation and socioeconomic hardship, public opposition to further assisting Ukraine is likely to increase. In the end, Europe’s support for Kyiv depends more on its citizens maintaining solidarity with the Ukrainian people than on its ties with Washington.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
There are three ways to look at U.S. aid to Ukraine in comparison with aid from Europe. The first is in terms of military support. Unquestionably, the United States can supply more and better weapons systems than its allies—reflecting America’s disproportionate share of investment in Europe’s defense. European countries that still have ex-Soviet equipment have made important contributions, however, and others, including the UK, France, and Germany have provided capable modern weapons.
The second aspect is financial assistance: Ukraine’s economy is in desperate straits and getting worse as the war continues. Though the United States and Europe have offered similar amounts of funding, and the EU has done more to support Ukrainian refugees, the United States has disbursed assistance funds more quickly. Europeans need to accelerate, and to start to plan for a massive long-term reconstruction effort.
The last aspect is political leadership: with some Republicans threatening to block further aid for Ukraine if they control Congress after the U.S. midterm elections in November, the United States may no longer act as the convening power for Western support to Ukraine. If that happens, Europe must be ready to act independently. Ukraine’s success, in war and peace, is more vital to Europe’s interests than it is to America’s.
John E. HerbstSenior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine
Since World War II, European security has depended on American leadership and power. The successful organization of NATO and containment of an aggressive Soviet Union was an American achievement, but importantly in consultation with allies and partners. One example of that leadership was the controversial decision at U.S. insistence to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s in response to the Soviet threat—which led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
After the Cold War, the indispensability of the American role was evident in the Balkans crisis, which Europe was unable to address alone. The same is true now: Washington has taken the lead in responding to Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
Of course, our vast military stores—sadly, not vast enough—are the mainstay of the military aid reaching Ukraine. Our nuclear deterrent is essential to curbing Putin’s more extreme options. And the United States has been the center of NATO and global efforts to provide the necessary supplies to Ukraine, first military but also, to the shame of the EU, economic assistance.
Even while playing this leadership role, the Biden administration has been timid in sending Ukraine the more advanced weapons it needs to defeat Russia faster and with less loss.
Some NATO allies—the Baltic states, Poland, the UK—have prompted the United States in words and deeds to be more resolute on this question. At times, this has worked. But even more timid governments—like Berlin’s—have hidden behind Washington’s caution to avoid sending promised weapons and fulfilling promises to aid Ukraine.
Yet as long as U.S. leadership and Western support does not weaken, Ukraine will be able to successfully conduct this war.
Alexandra de Hoop SchefferDirector of the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Europeans must be prepared to face increasing pressure from Washington to step up their military and financial support to Ukraine. The transatlantic burden-sharing debate is well and alive. If there is one thing Europeans have learned from Donald Trump’s election, it is that U.S. domestic politics matters and directly impacts alliance cohesion and foreign policy decisions.
Europeans are wary that the upcoming U.S. midterm elections will result in a Republican takeover and subsequent decline of Washington’s support for Ukraine. The House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy signaled that “it’s not a free blank check” for Ukraine if Republicans win a House majority. This in turn could carry over to Europe and undermine the continent’s ability to support Kyiv.
Indeed, European support for Ukraine is (too) dependent on the United States. That’s why the French push for greater complementarity between the United States, NATO, and the EU is the only way forward. The German Marshall Fund’s annual study Transatlantic Trends confirms public opinions’ shared desire for a more geopolitical EU. To counter Republican arguments regarding a lack of involvement from the EU and its members states, the latter need to communicate more clearly on the critical assistance they deliver and proactively co-lead in shaping a modern Marshall Plan for Ukraine.
Ulrike FrankeSenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
In theory no, but in practice, I worry, quite a bit.
Europe has many reasons to support Ukraine. It is morally the right thing to do. It is in Europe’s geopolitical interest to punish a country that so blatantly violates international law. It is in Europe’s security interest to limit Russia’s abilities to further attack Europe.
These reasons should be enough for European countries to throw their weight behind Ukraine. And for many, they are. Nevertheless, once again, it is the United States that has played the crucial role of a leader in the West’s response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Had the United States responded less decisively, for example under another president, I worry that Europe’s support for Ukraine might have been more limited and less united. Such is the reality of the “geopolitical Europe” of 2022.
Kate Hansen BundtSecretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee
Definitely! The United States has both decided the strategy and made it hard for Europe not to provide political support, money, and weapons to Ukraine. Subsequently, we—the West—are deeply invested in the Russian war in Ukraine.
The UK and Poland, together with the United States, have over the past ten years been training Ukrainian forces and supplying them with weapons. That support increased following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Last autumn, U.S. intelligence disclosed that Russia planned an invasion of Ukraine. While few allies believed them, Washington nonetheless deployed 25,000 extra troops to Eastern Europe and delivered more weapons to Kyiv. The Baltic states, Poland, and the UK recognized and supported the United States, but most allies seem to have been unprepared to provide the weapons support that has become so crucial for Ukraine in its existential fight against Putin’s Russia.
The point is that the strategy decided by the United States—to provide the weapons needed for Ukraine to have a chance to defeat Russia—was supported by most European allies. The United States also took the lead in shaping NATO’s role—although not providing weapons as such—to deliver intelligence and stand collectively firm on Ukraine’s side. I have no doubt that without U.S. strategy and leadership, the Europeans would have reverted to their preferred strategy: diplomacy and negotiations to end the war—most likely on Russian terms.
John C. KornblumFormer U.S. ambassador to Germany
Yes. There is no prospect of Europeans being able to handle military or economic security challenges alone. And the dream of Europe becoming a global power is just that—a dream.
The question is why should the Europeans want to loosen ties to the greatest military power in world history, who essentially defends them for free?
French hubris and German guilt are probably the main reasons. France always wants to engage and Germany nearly always pulls back. Merging EU security cooperation with NATO is the only obvious answer. In fact, the United States offered the Europeans just that in 1996. NATO even created a new deputy supreme allied commander job which remains, to this day, filled by a European. But France killed the deal, with German help, at the last minute.
Since then, Europe’s military and security readiness has declined drastically. No improvement is in sight.
Agnieszka LeguckaSenior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs
Poland and the Baltic states welcome U.S. involvement in Ukraine to counter Russian aggression, but the matter is broader and concerns Europe’s security architecture and the international order based on law.
U.S. President Joe Biden, whom Russian propaganda depicts as an infirm, old man who can’t go down stairs, has been successfully implementing his “America is back” concept, not only in Europe but also in Asia. It is gratifying for the Central European countries to see that, in the face of Putin’s aggressive actions, the Americans are supporting the strengthening of NATO’s Eastern Flank. Much more, the Baltic states and Poland would welcome Euro-Atlantic unity and solidarity with Ukraine of all NATO members, including the Germans and the French.
Putin would be at a greater loss if the anti-war rhetoric of Macron and Scholtz were followed by arms supplies and financial support to Ukraine. This fight is not about American interests in Europe, but about our security, which seems to be understood by Central Europe but not fully seen by Western Europe.
Not everyone in the West understands that this war is not only about Ukraine. Putinism is the greatest threat to Europe since 1945. If there was a consensus about this, everyone would immediately arm Ukraine to the teeth—not only the Americans but also the Germans, French, Spanish, Italians, and others.
Mary C. MurphySenior lecturer in politics at University College Cork
The United States has played a leading role in supporting Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion. Support has come in both military and political forms, with security assistance alone amounting to an estimated $40 billion.
In contrast, Europe’s commitment of defense equipment to Ukraine—at €3.1 billion ($3.1 billion)—is dwarfed by that of the United States. Europe is, however, also financing other forms of non-military support and humanitarian aid, and EU member states are providing refuge for large numbers of Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Now in its ninth month, the war may well become a protracted conflict. In this context, the need for ongoing military and financial support to Ukraine will persist. The tepid nature of the EU’s foreign, security and defence capacity is simply not equipped to provide the kind of long-term multi-faceted support which the United States can deliver.
There is also the problem of reticence among some European states—most notably Germany—which highlights an absence of strong European leadership, solidarity, and political will in aggressively confronting the Russian assault on the EU’s borders.
The invasion of Ukraine has exposed a number of geopolitical truths: Europe’s international clout has limits and Europe is reliant on U.S. leadership in confronting Putin’s military aggression.
John O’BrennanJean Monnet Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University
Yes, European support for Ukraine rests largely on the unstinting support offered by Washington for Kyiv since February 24. One key early aspect of support was the willingness of Ukraine’s European neighbors to take in large numbers of refugees. This did not depend on the United States.
The second arm of support has been financial. Here, there have been marked differences between the member states and the EU itself that has been to slow to release much-needed funds. Again, the United States has led the way.
As for military support, the United States has been far and away the largest donor to Ukraine. France and Germany have lagged behind, even if some of the French aid has been delivered somewhat under the radar. Without the United States’ firm commitment to Ukraine, it is questionable whether EU unity would have held together to the degree that it has.
Arguably, if Ukraine were in a weaker military position than it is in now, some European states might suggest that Kyiv make significant concessions to Russia to end the war. Such calls have been largely limited to the far right and far left in European countries but may gain traction if the energy crisis gets worse.
The war has again exposed the limits to EU security advances and the continuing asymmetric military dependency on the United States. Unless Putin does something extraordinary in Ukraine, like using a tactical nuclear weapon, EU countries—with the obvious exception of Central and Eastern European member states—will likely continue to skirt around the edges of military support and leave all the heavy lifting to the Americans.
Kateryna PishchikovaAssociate research fellow at the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI)
In times of war, military might matters above everything else. It should come as no surprise that the United States is central to the European response to this war.
Europe’s support for Ukraine, however, is not simply a matter of following American leadership. The EU’s future success hinges on the strength of the liberal world order based on rules and norms. It is also about the resilience of its domestic democratic systems.
Russian aggression against Ukraine is an attack on both fronts. Moreover, it has unleashed a series of truly global crises—energy, food, and climate. It is these threats that unite Europeans in their response and in their support for Ukraine.
Indeed, the EU has shown unexpected resolve and unity from very beginning of the war: from the implementation of several ambitious sanction packages against Russia to the most recent decision by the European Council on the temporary dynamic price structure on natural gas transactions and other measures to avert an energy crisis through solidarity and collective action. None of these have come easily and we should not overlook important centrifugal forces at play, but they are of truly European ownership.
This blog is part of the Transatlantic Relations in Review series. Carnegie Europe is grateful to the U.S. Mission to the EU for its support.