As the Ukraine crisis worsens, for the first time in their lives the next generation of European political leaders face the prospect of a major land war in their neighborhood.
These young politicians formed their world view at a time when the need for transatlantic solidarity in the face of Russian aggression seemed outdated. Their views of America were shaped by the Iraq War, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and Donald Trump’s disparagement of European allies.
To assess their perspective on the crisis, what they think must be done, and their level of trust of the United States, I interviewed 10 members of Europe’s national parliaments from eight parties in seven nations, all under the age of 40.
The views they shared suggest that Biden administration efforts to mount a united front as the Ukraine crisis plays out will not be as easy as some in Washington may hope.
These next generation leaders harbor no illusions about the seriousness of the Ukraine crisis and Russian culpability. “We have to be clear,” said a Green Party member of the German Bundestag: “the integrity of Ukraine is threatened by the acts of Russia.”
“This is the West against the bad guys, the illiberal regimes, and we should be on the right side of history,” contended a member of the People’s Party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies.
And there is widespread appreciation of the Biden administration’s decision to send additional troops to Europe’s eastern flank. “Polish citizens are glad they are coming,” declared a member of the Law and Justice Party of the Polish Sejm.
Nevertheless, these young parliamentarians voice sentiments that question Washington’s Ukraine narrative.
The Spanish Congress of Deputies member hears from some voters who say “maybe Putin is right, he is trying to defend his position. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the EU, so what are we doing there? This is not our war and Americans need something to say after Afghanistan to show that they are still strong.”
Such views are echoed in the Balkans.
“To unilaterally attack Ukraine would not be in Russia’s self-interest,” observed a Social Democratic Party member of the Serbian parliament. “Maybe it would be necessary if Kyiv has a conflict with Donbas and Russia is forced to defend this area. The only possible conflict between Russia and Ukraine is if there is some kind of provocation in the east of Ukraine and Russia would have a reason to defend Donbas. Maybe the Russian border presence is due to threats in Donbas and the constant instability in the region and to put pressure on Ukrainian politics to implement the Minsk agreement.”
And, observed a Democratic Party member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, “There is distrust of the Americans, that they are trigger-happy Yankees. I hear from the right wing close to Russia that you are escalating and that there are reasons for what Russia is doing.”
Such skepticism of the United States is hardly new.
Poles have long distrusted U.S, steadfastness in the face of the Russian bear. “You Americans have been so naive in the case of Russia,” complained the Law and Justice member of the Sejm. “All of your administrations, left or right, at least since [Ronald Reagan], always think there can be a fresh start with Russia. [Joe Biden] made the same mistake as [Donald Trump] and took longer to understand that dialogue with Putin will not give the outcome we want.”
Both the European Union and the United States have threatened “massive sanctions” if Russia invades or otherwise attacks Ukraine.
Next-generation political leaders generally support such action. “The Polish government will favor massive sanctions,” said a member of Poland’s Modern Party, “even if it costs the Polish economy. And the opposition will support them.”
However, some young European parliamentarians question the utility of sanctions and their durability. “I don’t think sanctions are ineffective per se,” argued a French En Marche parliamentarian. “On day one they are effective, but on day two you are beginning to think of how to lift them.”
Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline through the Baltic Sea that would bring natural gas to Germany, has become the poster child for U.S. sanction demands. Even before the Ukraine crisis, Germany’s Green Party opposed Nord Stream 2. But, admitted a second Bundestag Green Party member, “Green voters also have to heat their houses.”
And it is not only German consumers who will bear the burden. “In Spain,” said a member of the People’s Party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, “our gas mainly comes from Algeria. If we have a problem with gas in Europe, Germans will ask for gas from Algeria. Our prices for energy will go up.”
At the very least, young European parliamentarians would like to see Americans share some of the burden of any future sanctions. “We don’t hear the United States say they will stop importing Russian uranium or oil,” complained a third Green Party Bundestag member. “Let’s balance the burden a bit more.”
And some Europeans expect something in return for standing with Washington if sanctions are imposed.
The Spanish People’s Party parliamentarian contends that in Spain’s government, there are those who believe: “We have nothing to do with Russia and Ukraine, but we need this relationship with the U.S. Our agenda is our problem with Morocco and if we are very active on Ukraine, the United States will support us with Morocco.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has held direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Ukraine. “After the Macron-Putin meeting,” said the Spanish People’s Party member, “I think the playing field is changing. Macron is looking for his own space in this crisis.”
“We have to take into account that the world has evolved after Trump,” said the Italian parliamentarian. “I am a bit worried that the United States has not learned a lot after Afghanistan. If there was a focus to work together as partners, you would have more consultation with allies.”
The immediate challenge will be to ensure that the current, separate European and U.S. dialogues with Russia are closely coordinated, with comparable — not disparate — messages to ensure that Putin does not lead such discussions down different pathways, splitting the West.
“It could be a danger if we let Putin play us against each other,” observed the third Green Party member of the Bundestag.
In the event of Russian action against Ukraine, the West’s reaction is likely to be swift, united, and taken by older political leaders, not these next-generation leaders. Most young national parliamentarians are likely to support such efforts.
But they hold a world view shaped in a different era when great power confrontations were inconceivable. Now they are wrestling with adapting their outlook to a reality that is new to them. And, since these parliamentarians are the European leaders of tomorrow, the lessons they learn or don’t learn from the Ukraine crisis will shape transatlantic foreign and security policy for years to come.
Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.