Opinion & Analysis

The meaning of sovereignty: Ukrainian and European views of Russia’s war on Ukraine


  • New research conducted in Ukraine and 14 other European countries reveals that Ukraine’s determination to fight and European support for arming Ukraine have not been affected by Russian advances on the battlefield.
  • But lurking beneath the appearance of unity is a major divide between Ukraine and Europe on how this war should end and what the allied support is destined to achieve.
  • While Ukrainians want more weapons and ammunition to help them win the war, most Europeans want to give Ukraine weapons and ammunitions in order to put Kyiv in a better negotiating position to end the war.
  • And, while Ukrainians think they should be given membership of the EU and NATO to mark their victory, most Europeans see this as part of a settlement.

What lies beneath

The first half of 2024 was an uneasy time for Ukraine and its Western allies. In the United States, the support package for Kyiv was dramatically delayed in the Congress, causing a shortage of ammunition on the frontline. This allowed Russia to outshell Ukraine, destroy half of the country’s electricity generation capacity, and reconquer territory. The prospects for the winter look disheartening.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the public responded badly to the dismissal in February of the popular head of the armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, and the mobilisation law adopted in April. And in the European Union, a shift to the right in the European Parliament election strengthened the position of some Putin-friendly parties, such as the National Rally in France. To top it all, China and many leading countries of the global south boycotted the June peace summit in Switzerland – revealing the limits of the West’s efforts to isolate Russia.

But what do citizens across Europe, including in Ukraine, make of the war? Have Moscow’s battlefield advances damaged the Ukrainian public’s morale? Will Europeans be happy to maintain their support for Ukraine in the face of political crises at home, and Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House?

To answer these questions, ECFR conducted an opinion poll of 19,566 people in 15 countries in the first half of May 2024 – the period prior to the European Parliament election.

The findings are superficially reassuring. Although the war has developed in dramatic ways, the same is not true of public opinion, which has barely shifted since the start of the year. Support for the war has stayed steady in the European countries surveyed – and morale is strong in Ukraine, where ECFR has conducted polling for the first time. The research points to common ground in terms of public support for increasing weapons and ammunition supplies to Ukraine. On this basis, European political leaders should feel able to continue sending aid to Ukraine.

Yet just below the surface, the poll identifies a profound chasm between European and Ukrainian opinion about how the war will end – and about the purpose of Europe’s support. In short, Ukrainians want weapons in order to win, while most Europeans send weapons hoping this will help lead to an acceptable eventual settlement. This division is also reflected in public opinion on the idea of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. Ukrainian citizens seem to regard membership of both organisations as a recognition of the bravery of their fight. Meanwhile, in Western capitals the membership question tends to be discussed as part of an eventual compromise deal with Russia. Whether this chasm can be bridged remains unknown.

Ukraine’s resilience and its political disconnection

Vladimir Putin has certainly not quashed Ukraine’s willingness to fight – or its domestic political unity. In spite of the recent loss of territory, massive destruction of infrastructure, and growing frustration, most Ukrainians trust their president and their army.

It is true that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s image has been tarnished by the burdens of office. The poll shows that only 34 per cent of Ukrainians currently say they trust him “a great deal”. But a further 31 per cent trust him “quite a lot” – meaning that, by two to one, those who are keeping the faith with their leader outnumber those who are not.

Ukrainians believe they will win the war. When asked about the most likely outcome of the war, 58 per cent foresee a Ukrainian victory, 30 per cent say it will end in a settlement, and only 1 per cent expect Russia to emerge victorious. Ukrainians are even more optimistic under a scenario whereby Western supplies of weapons and ammunition increase – in such a circumstance, 69 per cent think Ukraine would win, while 22 per cent would expect a settlement.

About the author:

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. He is the author of “Is It Tomorrow Yet?: Paradoxes of the Pandemic”, among many other publications.

Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict”. He also presents ECFR’s weekly “World in 30 Minutes” podcast.

Read the full publication here