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This year’s election campaigns have shaken up the status quo, and European voters will be eager to see what happens during the 2024 election season. The stakes couldn’t be higher, writes Mark Temnycky.
When Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, many were skeptical about Ukraine’s success. “Ukraine probably can’t keep Russia at bay forever,” read one headline. “If Kharkiv falls, Ukraine falls,” read another headline. “Kiev could fall to Russia in a matter of days,” said a third.
Given these assumptions, Western countries have hesitated to provide defense assistance to Ukraine.
They feared that if Ukraine failed, Western weapons would fall into Russian hands, similar to what happened during Afghanistan’s 2021 withdrawal.
Meanwhile, leaked documents from the Russian Federation showed that the Kremlin believed it could capture the Ukrainian capital Kiev within days and the entire country within a month. In short, the situation seemed worrying.
Nearly two years later, the Ukrainians have proven their skeptics wrong. To date, Ukrainians have successfully defended their capital and forced Russian soldiers to leave the center of the country.
Ukraine has also reclaimed more than half of the territory occupied by Russia, making “steady gains in a piecemeal battle against a strongly entrenched force” of Russian soldiers fortified in the south and east. Although Russian troops still occupy a fifth of Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s success on the battlefield should not be downplayed.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not an action movie
Observers of Russia’s war in Ukraine should also be reminded that Ukrainian progress is not a movie or a video game.
Despite the desire for immediate success, the war will not be won quickly. Guaranteeing victory requires time and precision, and it is worth remembering that thousands of men and women have already died protecting their country.
Despite these successes, the same critics who initially argued that Ukraine would fall in a matter of days now argue that the war is lasting too long.
They argue that Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed because the Ukrainians did not liberate the entire country over the past two years, including Crimea and Donbass.
Some critics still believe that Ukraine “has no chance” of defeating Russian forces in the south and east.
In these circles, the consensus is that Ukraine should be forced into peace talks with Russia and that it should no longer be assisted in its defense efforts.
The most alarming thing is that this topic seems to be spreading like wildfire.
Delayed care and blaming the war on others
Some warning signs are already present in Europe. For example, over the past two years, Hungary has continuously blocked military aid and humanitarian packages from the European Union to Ukraine.
Budapest has pushed the EU to reduce aid spending on Ukraine. More recently, Hungarian officials said they will continue to block aid to the Eastern European state as Hungary needs ‘further reassurance’ [from Ukraine] before changing its approach towards Ukraine in any international context.”
These attempts to stop future EU assistance packages to Kiev include attempting to halt Ukraine’s potential membership discussions with the EU and NATO.
These continuous roadblocks have delayed the arrival of EU aid to Ukraine. Without the tools needed to succeed on the battlefield, forcing the Russians to retreat as quickly as possible had a negative impact on Ukraine’s timeline.
Hungary is not alone in these antics. Earlier this year, Slovakia held parliamentary elections, where the populist Smer party won.
Smer, led by pro-Russian politician Robert Fico, has now said it will stop sending defense aid to Ukraine. The party “also rejects NATO military support for Ukraine.” The party has already blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 on American manufacturing companies, saying they support warmongering.
Like Hungarian officials from Victor Orbán’s Fidesz party, Fico and his Slovak group believe too much aid has been sent to Ukraine.
Populists and the far right are gaining ground
Finally, like Slovakia, the Dutch also had elections that ended with alarming results. General elections were held in the Netherlands in November. In a surprising turn of events, Geert Wilders and his far-right group, the Freedom Party, won.
The party harbors anti-EU and anti-Ukraine sentiments. It has also pledged to suspend sending aid to Kiev, although it remains to be seen whether they will follow through on this plan.
The developments in Hungary, Slovakia and now the Netherlands are not coincidental.
At the same time, similar movements are also spreading to countries with larger economies, such as France, Italy and Spain, suggesting that a pattern is spreading across Europe.
According to a Pew Research Center study, populist groups and far-right movements are actually gaining ground, capturing “larger shares of votes in recent legislative elections” across the continent. Because that’s how it is?
Heads will turn
Nationalist and anti-establishment rhetoric, as well as opposition to the war in Ukraine, are growing across Europe. Millions of citizens across the continent are worried about the economy.
Others are unhappy with their current government leaders, and these voters are calling for new, stronger leadership. Some even decided to improve their relations with Moscow, believing that sanctions on Russia would only bring difficulties.
It is important to note, however, that there are some outliers in this trend. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron successfully defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen during last year’s presidential election.
Meanwhile, the opposition movement in Poland successfully defeated populist groups during October’s general elections. This suggests that even though the far right is gaining ground, it can still be defeated.
Eyes now turn to various elections across Europe in 2024. Later in the year, Finland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Iceland and Moldova will hold presidential elections.
Additionally, Portugal, Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Georgia, Romania and the United Kingdom will have parliamentary elections.
Finally, European Parliament elections will be held in June. Based on current political trends, some experts predict that far-right groups are set to do well in most of these, while polls suggest that right-wing and Eurosceptic parties may rise.
A different European landscape ahead of us?
If these far-right movements were to win in their respective elections, it would result in a very different European landscape.
The leaders and politicians of these parties would seek to turn inward, hoping to adopt isolationist policies in opposition to the EU.
Furthermore, like Slovakia and the Netherlands, they would seek to reduce or suspend aid to Ukraine.
Furthermore, a number of far-right European actors have called for warming relations with Russia, meaning they would ignore the fact that Moscow started the war as they favor peace on the European continent instead of justice.
Such policies would be dangerous for the European continent. Pursuing options to strengthen relations with the Kremlin would signal that Europeans are ready to forgive Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, forgetting the atrocities committed by Russian troops.
It would also set a dangerous precedent, signaling to Russia that it could voluntarily invade and annex the territory of neighboring states without serious consequences.
This would only encourage other autocratic rulers around the world to act in similar ways and lead to further conflict and further bloodshed around the world.
It seems all or nothing
Luckily, it’s not all bad. According to a recent survey conducted by the European Parliament, 72% of participants believe that their homeland has “benefited from EU membership”. Furthermore, 70% of EU citizens believe that “the EU’s actions have an impact on their daily lives”.
These figures do not suggest that most Europeans have anti-European feelings. Instead, it indicates that they support the European collective.
Meanwhile, a recent Chatham House study also suggests that a majority of Europeans favor “policies that support the Ukrainian cause, while not supporting policies that would hinder the Ukrainian war effort,” and remain committed to taking a tough stance on of Russia.
Overall, times may be changing. European citizens are increasingly frustrated with their leaders and the economy and are hoping for changes in the new year.
This is allowing far-right groups to succeed. And as they gain ground across the continent, anti-European and anti-Ukrainian sentiments are growing.
This year’s election campaigns have shaken up the status quo, and European voters will be eager to see what happens during the 2024 election season. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Mark Temnycky is a freelance journalist covering Eurasian affairs and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
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