Ukraine United Us
…But it may not last.
By Mathieu Lefevre and Tim Dixon
The outcome of the war in Ukraine—and the larger struggle between democracy and autocracy—doesn’t just come down to the extraordinary bravery of Ukrainians or the success of sanctions. Sustained public support in the West will be just as critical.
The war’s first month has seen a remarkable sense of unity in the West in support of the Ukrainian people, from grassroots efforts to welcome refugees through to the concerted efforts of governments, the EU and NATO. Can our societies sustain this new sense of unity and resolve through a long war?
If COVID-19 has one lesson to teach us, it is that solidarity can surge in the face of external shock but it ebbs over time—a result of fatigue, distrust and powerful forces of polarization.
When More in Common, a non-profit we founded to bridge divides and defend democracy, surveyed 12,000 people across Western Europe and the US in mid-2020, we found between 70 and 80 percent of people saying the pandemic had reminded them of our shared humanity. By the end of 2021, nearly two years into the pandemic, social solidarity had fallen away. Asked if they felt “it’s everyone for themselves” or “we look after each other” in their society, huge majorities said the former: as many as 88%, and in no country did less than three in four feel that way.
Indeed, when asked to describe the state of their societies and given a list of 25 words—both positive and negative—people in the UK, Poland, Germany, France and Spain chose the word “divided” ahead of any other word. Italians were the only exception, only because they see their country as even more corrupt than divided.
We also found alarmingly low levels of social trust. The early season of people clapping on balconies gave way long ago to feelings of isolation and resentment, especially among groups who feel left behind, powerless, and disrespected.
That was the state of western societies when Vladimir Putin chose to invade Ukraine: fatigued, fractured, and distrustful. Perhaps he underestimated his ability to unify western societies as their common enemy, just as he underestimated Volodymyr Zelensky’s heroic potential.
But COVID-19 has left deep inroads of distrust and disinformation, which are likely to wear down our sense of unity. Only two-thirds of Germans thought the last federal elections, held mid-pandemic, were free and fair. And majorities in Poland and France, and sizable blocs elsewhere, feel that truth was often hidden during the COVID-19 pandemic. How long before they start feeling the same about Ukraine?
Already we’re seeing early warning signs. A recent poll showed that a quarter of unvaccinated Canadians believe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is justified. Only 2% of fully vaccinated Canadians agree. And influencers are seeing opportunity too: the popular French rapper Booba, who has 5.6 million Twitter followers, has pivoted from peddling anti-vax messages to Russian propaganda about Ukraine.
Focus groups we held a few days ago suggest that even among people with generally moderate views there is a sense of uncertainty. In them, one young woman from the French Alps remarked that “the French media is clearly pro-Ukraine. That makes it hard to understand the Russian point of view”. And one railway worker from the suburbs of Paris said that “my Ukrainian wife tells me the translations we get in our media are all wrong”.
With trust at such low levels, Russia doesn’t need to persuade: it only needs to plant seeds of doubt. And even if Russia has under-invested in maintaining its physical weaponry, it has certainly been investing in its information arsenal. Russian efforts are aided by tech platforms built to optimize addiction and conflict, sending people down dark rabbit holes of conspiracy and disinformation.
Success in Ukraine and in the larger fight for democracy requires a strategy for cohesion and resilience at home as much as bolstering frontline defense abroad. Two key priorities emerge from our conversations with the people most at risk from disinformation and fatigue.
The first is fairness. Cohesion will crack if people feel the burdens of this war are spread unfairly. This issue cuts through strongly with large numbers of people who otherwise pay little attention to day-to-day politics. As the rising cost of living bites more deeply in the year ahead, governments must be assiduous in putting fairness first and helping those in need.
Few things will undermine our collective resolve more than if the feeling takes hold that some groups are profiting off the war while the rest of us are slugged with eye-watering household bills. Already across Europe, three in four people believe that their country’s system is rigged for the rich and influential. We’ve already heard people in our focus groups voice anger about businesses reaping record profits and oil companies like Total refusing to quit Russia. Sustaining a sense of unity will require shared sacrifice, with rules enforced and cheaters punished.
A second priority is finding ways for people to participate in society-wide efforts. Across western democracies, we have found around one in three people belong to a group that feels disrespected by the rest of society, distrusts government and the media, and is disengaged from most issues. But those feelings can change if given ways to feel a sense of pride in the contribution they can make—so long as it’s on their own terms. The UK’s “Homes for Ukraine” initiative holds promise, matching the welcome of ordinary Brits to tens of thousands of Ukrainians made homeless by the war. A myriad of other initiatives across Europe, formal and informal, are giving ordinary people a key role in helping Ukrainians in need.
The stakes in this conflict go beyond Ukraine to the future of liberal democracy. Every effort must be made to end this war soon, but we should be preparing our societies for a long war not just in Ukraine, but also on our home front.
Mathieu Lefevre and Tim Dixon are co-founders of More in Common, a non-profit that works to make societies more resilient to the threats of polarization and social division.