Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The threat that Russia might seize territory from another European nation used to be a purely 20th-century nightmare — but not anymore.
The deepening crisis surrounding Ukraine now confronts the next generation of European political leaders with some of the same dark choices that bedeviled their elders, as well as the prospect of a major war in their neighborhood for the first time in their adult lives.
So to better understand the views of these young politicians, what they would choose to do if Russia were to act and how they see the future, I sat down with ten parliamentarians under the age of 40, from eight political parties in seven different nations.
Overall, these future leaders harbor no illusions about the seriousness of the Ukraine crisis, Russian culpability, or what must be done. Having formed their world views after the Cold War, they cut across national lines and party boundaries to see Russia’s actions as unacceptable — yet they also don’t seem so keen on the responses proposed thus far.
“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. And Germany and the EU have to stand on the side of Ukraine.”
“This is the West against the bad guys, the illiberal regimes, and we should be on the right side of history,” agreed a member of the People’s Party in Spain’s Congress of Deputies.
The United States administration’s decision to send additional troops to Europe’s eastern flank is also appreciated by some among them. “Polish citizens are glad they are coming,” said a Law and Justice Party member of the Polish Sejm. “From our perspective, more is better.”
Nevertheless, these next-generation leaders report voter skepticism about the Washington narrative that a Russian invasion may be imminent. “There is distrust of the Americans, that they are trigger-happy Yankees,” observed a Democratic Party member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. “I hear from the right wing close to Russia that [Americans] are escalating and that there are reasons for what Russia is doing.”
The Spanish People’s Party member also heard from some voters that “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.”
Thus far, both the EU and U.S. have threatened “massive sanctions” if Russia invades or otherwise attacks Ukraine, and these politicians generally seem to 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. In Poland, the discussion will be about why the sanctions are too weak.”
But there is also a painful awareness that any sanctions will have a disproportionate blowback on the European economy. “The way the United States has proposed the sanctions, it would hit Europe the most and the U.S. the least,” said the Green Party member of the Bundestag.
Moreover, some of these parliamentarians question the utility of sanctions, as well as their durability. “With Russia, you have certain experience that sanctions don’t work very well,” argued a La République En Marche member in the French National Assembly. “I don’t think sanctions are ineffective per se. On day one they are effective, but on day two, you are beginning to think of how to lift them.”
“Sanctions have never deterred North Korea, China or Belarus,” agreed a Socialist member of the Albanian parliament. “They usually have the opposite effect on the leader and turn the average person toward the leader.”
And ultimately, if sanctions lead to a full shutdown of Russian natural gas, it is the constituents of these young politicians who will pay the price. “Things change when you are confronted with reality,” said the Green Bundestag member. “Green voters also have to heat their houses.”
“In Spain,” said the Spanish People’s Party member, “our economy is not dependent on gas from Russia; 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, these politicians would like to see Americans share more of the burden of any future sanctions when it comes to energy. “We don’t hear the United States say they will stop importing Russian uranium or oil,” complained the Green Bundestag member. “Let’s balance the burden a bit more. If the U.S. is not part of the burden sharing, it will not be credible.”
In terms of continued diplomacy, however, they fall into two different camps: one promoting a Western approach, the other advocating a specifically European response.
In an attempt to head off a confrontation with Russia, French President Emmanuel Macron held direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. And “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. He will play the role of the one who really goes for dialogue.”
But others are more dubious: “I think we should not have a special European way to deal with the Ukraine issue, but a Western way,” observed the German Green Party member. “We need a strong European voice in the Western group.”
“It could be a danger if we let Putin play us against each other, but if we stay in close contact, he cannot do that,” the young leader-to-be warned. But this would require a degree of transatlantic coordination lacking in recent months, with the fallout from the Afghanistan pullout and the AUKUS submarine deal still fresh in European minds.
In the event of Russian action against Ukraine in the next few weeks, the West’s reaction is likely to be a swift one, taken by older political leaders. And though most young national parliamentarians seem poised to support such efforts, having grown up in an era when great power confrontations were inconceivable, they are now wrestling to adapt their outlook to a new reality.
But as these politicians are Europe’s leaders of tomorrow, the lessons they learn from this crisis will undoubtedly shape their commitment to European solidarity and the transatlantic alliance, while shaping future foreign and security policy for years to come.