Notwithstanding the euphoric rhetoric about Europe’s extraordinarily strong response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the conflict has not brought the continent closer together in any unique or revolutionary way. In fact, the war has turned Europe into the battlefield of great powers as Europeans are stuck between US-led security or economic stability via Russian energy. This predicament has led to economic and security repercussions that seriously jeopardize regional autonomy and unity.
As the crisis in Ukraine rages on, support for Ukraine among Eastern Europeans is being hampered by inflation and the recession. Hanging blue and yellow flags on city streets is one thing. Bearing long-term financial burdens for Ukraine is another thing. Inflation in the Baltic countries, which have so far led the European effort in providing Ukraine with financial and military support, is close to 20%. Inflation in the Czech Republic reached 16 percent in May, and according to experts, only swift interest rate increases facilitated by the state’s independent currency prevented it from rising much further.
Inefficient supply chains and rising energy costs have reduced industrial output. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, annual production decreased by 9.4% and 3.8%, respectively, in April. This is while data for May is anticipated to indicate even more significant contractions. Another indication of the economic downturn is the stagnation of development projects of all sizes due to rising building costs.
The slump is increasingly apparent in everyday life. Food costs are rising sharply, and gas and electricity prices are at record highs. Rapid interest rate increases in non-eurozone states like the Czech Republic and Poland are abruptly pricing many people out of the mortgage market. Not just Eastern Europe is plagued by inflation worries. According to a recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “cost of living and energy prices” were recognized as the “biggest concerns in regards to the war in Ukraine” by 61 percent of respondents from across the continent.
The possible public reaction brought on by the economic downturn directly jeopardizes the cause of Ukraine. In the midst of Ukraine’s early victories, sacrifices for Kyiv were favorably received, but as the conflict continues, standing up for victory in Ukraine on moral grounds is beginning to become a political burden in some European capitals.
As the effects of the difficult economic climate set in, a Czech opinion survey published earlier this month indicated a beginning of a shift away from the pro-European Union government coalition. Attempts have been made by Prime Minister Petr Fiala to lay the blame for rising prices on his predecessor’s wastefulness during the pandemic.
Czechs were significantly less hawkish than their government even at the height of public support for Ukraine in March, with 78 percent of them saying that Ukraine had already received enough assistance by that point. In a reflection to these currents, Andrej Babi, the head of the opposition, has started to advocate a hands-off attitude to the situation, saying that the Czech Republic has already done what it can for Ukraine.
The political atmosphere in Slovakia, where a shaky coalition government is on the verge of collapsing over Russian sanctions and an anti-inflation assistance package, is even more unstable as calls to limit support for Ukraine become louder. Ministers are now accusing each other of lying and cheating as a result of bitter disagreements over taxing Russian oil, in addition to other economic measures.
If the government dissolves, an opposition appeal to the third of Slovaks who hold the West responsible for inciting Russia to go to war with Ukraine would gain more voice. After the government “capitulated to the interests of the USA,” according to former prime minister Robert Fico, sanctions on Russian energy will “practically destroy” Slovakia’s main oil refinery.
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, harbingers of the decline of pro-Western alliances are also beginning to surface. Estonia’s coalition fell apart after Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that her allies were “working against Estonia’s essential principles,” whereas Bulgaria’s pro-EU government is collapsing after a coalition member withdrew over a financial issue.
Economic strains, however, are not Eastern Europe’s only concern. The Ukraine conflict has further distanced Western European interests from most Eastern ones. Germany and France’s lackluster performance in providing military support to Ukraine, their vain proposals to Putin, and their protracted hedging on whether they even want Ukraine to win this war all point to their preference appear to resume normal relations with Russia. As a result, there is now a strategic divide that widens with each statement that comes out of Germany and France. The war has convincingly demonstrated that soft power fall short of hard power strategies. This is a lesson that many Western European politicians have long disregarded.
However, security and defense policy merely serve as a starting point for a new political balance inside the European Union. Eastern Europeans’ profound distrust in Germany, France, and Italy due to their overt desire to resume regular commercial ties with Russia cannot be overstated. The eastern neighbors are already becoming more assertive as a result of this. Latvia’s deputy prime minister Artis Pabriks criticized Macron’s numerous proposals to the Kremlin as an illustration of “the so-called Western explicit demand for self-humiliation along with utter dissociation from political reality.” "It is incredible how the leaders of France and Germany are inadvertently paving the way for new acts of violence by Russia" said Marko Mihkelson, chair of the Estonian parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Central and Eastern European countries are aware that NATO, not the EU, is their primary source of security and, maybe, their ability to remain sovereign nations. Nonetheless, their impotence in countering Russia in any meaningful way has shredded the EU’s and, to some extent, NATO’s credibility in security and defense. The key players in Europe’s defense for the subsequent decades won’t be Germany and France, the EU’s historically friendly Russia powerbrokers, but rather the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic and Nordic states. This is because Russia is no longer just a source of worry but a real threat. As a result, a new power balance is taking shape, with its features gradually becoming more apparent.
As security and economic pressures are building up, a region that quickly became a stronghold of a pro-Ukrainian alliance is now turning into a hub of political unrest. Either Europeans preserve their unity and develop their autonomy, or they will burn between the two fires of Great powers.
Peter Rodgers is an international relations graduate of Penn State University. His area of interest is the United States’ relations with Eurasia. His writings have appeared on news analysis websites like responsiblestatecraft.org and fairobserver.com.