February 27, 2023 - 4:00pm

Prague was a sea of blue-and-yellow this weekend to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Light displays, public demonstrations and concerts combined an atmosphere of solemnity with bittersweet celebrations of Ukraine’s continued survival. 

Yet there was another element hidden in the mix, alongside: unease. The war hasn’t been lost, but it hasn’t been won either, despite a level of Western support that looks increasingly hard to sustain. 

Over in Brussels, a tenth package of Russia sanctions was announced to coincide with the symbolic date. Claims from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that EU sanctions are “depleting Russia’s war arsenal and biting deep into its economy” belied the fact that the EU simply can’t touch significant remaining areas of economic cooperation with Russia.  

Calls for sanctions on Russia’s nuclear industry and state nuclear energy company Rosatom were ignored. This is no surprise, because there’s no easy substitute for Russian nuclear fuel in the EU’s many Russian-designed nuclear power plants. Even if replacement fuels could be found, Hungary would veto any sanctions on the Russian nuclear sector, because Rosatom is responsible for building two new nuclear power blocks which are vital to the future of Hungarian electricity supply.  

Other important Russian industries such as the diamond trade escaped sanctions, too, and in the end EU countries were left haggling into the late hours over the minutiae of quotas for Russian rubber imports. Poland’s EU ambassador said Warsaw is “very unhappy” with the outcome — but, for want of a better expression, it looks like Russia sanctions may have run out of gas.  

Perhaps as a result, the West’s focus has shifted this year onto stronger military support for Ukraine. Here too, there is cause for concern, because ramped-up weapons supplies are not all they’re cracked up to be. After spending weeks pressuring Germany to approve Leopard tank deliveries, Poland has started off by providing just four Leopard 2A4 tanks to Ukraine. These Leopards could be the most modern tanks on the planet (they aren’t), but in such small quantities they still wouldn’t make a significant difference across a 600-mile front line.

Support which escalates Western involvement without effectively spurring the Ukrainians on to greater success will be an increasingly hard sell as economic woes make a tangible impact on the lives of EU citizens. In the Czech Republic, the pro-Ukraine government made the unfortunate move of using the war’s anniversary week to announce that it can no longer afford to increase pension payments in line with inflation and that popular tax breaks will also be cut. Significant tax hikes have already been introduced this year in Romania and Poland, while inflation is still running at around 20% throughout much of the region – in Hungary, it is as high as 26.2%.

It matters little that such measures are necessary, and that they are as much the result of pandemic-era profligacy as the Ukraine war. In the current political climate, they will be blamed by most Czechs on the clash with Russia. 

A creeping ‘Orbánisation’ of public opinion therefore seems likely — especially if the war remains locked in a stalemate in the Donbas. As more Europeans start feeling the pinch, their feelings for this war may well change.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz