Dozens of countries have come to Ukraine’s defense—financially, politically and militarily—in the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, sparking Europe’s biggest conflict in eight decades.
Yet only Denmark has gone so far as to cancel a traditional religious holiday celebrated since 1686. The objective: to save the equivalent of $430 million a year for assistance to Ukraine.
On Feb. 28, the country’s Parliament voted 95-68 in favor of eliminating Great Prayer Day, which falls on the fourth Friday after Easter, and which is known in Danish as Store Bededag. Backers of the proposal, including Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, argued that the three billion Danish kroner saved will allow Denmark to boost its current annual military spending of $3.9 billion to NATO’s common goal of 2% of GDP.
“It’s a complicated story, but the fact is that the war in Ukraine has completely changed everything for us,” said Christina Markus Lassen, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States. “For my government, this has been our major challenge. In all of our individual societies throughout the European Union, people have really mobilized. There have been so many private initiatives to support Ukraine, and on a government level, Denmark is per-capita one of the top donors.”
In per-capita terms, Denmark ranks fifth worldwide in military and humanitarian support, with nearly $1 billion in donations so far. With 5.9 million inhabitants and an annual per-capita income of $68,000, Denmark is among the world’s most prosperous countries. It’s also one of the happiest, according to the World Happiness Index 2023, ranking behind only Finland and just ahead of Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. Norway and Sweden follow closely behind.
“For all countries in Europe, this is our neighborhood,” Lassen recently told the Washington Diplomat. “We just feel the war is very close, and we all need to do something extra.”
Denmark joins common EU defense pact
Lassen became Copenhagen’s ambassador in Washington last August—replacing Lone Dencker Wisborg—though she first served here as a young staffer at the Danish Embassy from 2000 to 2004, covering US foreign policy. Born in 1970, she holds a master’s degree in international relations and business from Copenhagen Business School.
Among other things, the multilingual diplomat has served as head of her Foreign Ministry’s Executive Secretariat (2005-09), Danish ambassador to Syria and Jordan (2009-12), and the EU ambassador to Lebanon (2015-19). In addition, she did a fellowship at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (2012-13) and was a diplomat-in-residence at the American University in Beirut.
Lassen said that two weeks after Russia’s invasion, all of Denmark’s political parties agreed to an immediate injection of cash into the country’s defense budget; they also took the decision to become independent of Russian oil and gas imports.
In addition, said the ambassador, “we were not part of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) framework and had a special opt-opt that we got rid of.”
Last June, 67% of Danes voted in a referendum to support joining the CSDP, ending Denmark’s 30-year-long opt-out it had secured upon signing the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.
“Everybody felt that now is the time to stand together with our allies. For our leaders, it was so clear,” she said. “Normally, the parties that formed the new government in December would be in opposition to each other, but because there are such big challenges, this is exactly what we need to do, if we want to continue supporting Ukraine the way we do now.”
Danes shiver as country slashes Russian gas imports
But dropping Great Prayer Day to increase the defense budget did not sit well with a large chunk of Danish society, including trade unions, clergy members and opposition politicians. According to the New York Times, nearly 500,000 people signed a petition to keep the holiday, while 70% of respondents in a survey commissioned by the Danish Broadcasting Corp. opposed doing away with the extra day off.
In a separate collective effort, the Danish government has asked offices to set their thermostats no warmer than 19 degrees C, in a bid to slash the country’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.
“When I visited Copenhagen last November, people in many places were wearing winter jackets inside, because everybody was trying to keep their office temperatures down,” she said. “We actually managed to cut our natural gas consumption by 30% in the first half of last year, and we see similar numbers in other countries. We’ve used that to accelerate our transformation into renewables.”
“It was cold in these offices, but this is the right thing to do,” she said. “People are really feeling the urgency.”
Denmark now relies on wind and solar for 60% of its electricity needs. In addition, one-third of its gas consumption comes from biogas; by 2030, biogas will likely generate 100% of the country’s gas needs. Meanwhile, the EU as a whole has sharply cut its dependence on Russian gas, from 42% of total consumption to around 7% by the end of 2022.
“Energy policy has become security policy, and we feel it very directly,” she said, noting that Denmark has strived to become energy self-sufficient ever since the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s.
Welcoming Ukrainian immigrants while backing NATO’s expansion
Meanwhile, from the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Denmark committed to host 100,000 Ukrainian refugees; at this point, 30,000 to 35,000 of them have settled there. Unlike the earlier waves of Syrian and Iraqi refugees that dominated European headlines in 2015, said Lassen, “Ukrainians didn’t need visas to Denmark or other EU members, so they could freely enter our countries. We immediately gave them the possibility of extending their stay and working in Denmark.”
She added: “Some special rules kicked in for the Ukrainians. The common feeling is that there’s a war right in our neighborhood. It’s only a two-hour flight from Copenhagen. I visited Ukraine right before it started. And this war has been very visible and brutal from day one.”
But Denmark does not treat all refugees equally. an April 6 article in the Washington Post noted that “30 years ago, the country was relatively open and welcoming, with strong protections for asylum seekers and refugees. But that started to change in the 1990s, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right Danish People’s Party proved politically potent.”
The highly critical story—titled “How progressive Denmark became the face of the anti-migration left”—notes that “even as the country touts its human rights record abroad, Danish authorities are threatening already settled refugees with deportation to Syria, claiming against considerable evidence that the Damascus area and two other regions are safe.”
On April 4, Finland officially joined NATO, becoming its 31st member. That followed ratification of its entry by holdouts Turkey and Hungary, which are still holding up a similar bid by Sweden. Ankara cites Swedish support of Kurdish separatist groups, which it considers “terrorists.”
Differences aside, said Lassen, one of the biggest surprises of this war has been NATO’s renewed relevance.
“Putin expected a division of NATO but basically managed to do the opposite: he strengthened our unity,” she said. “For Denmark—given our geographic location and historic closeness to our Nordic neighbors—this unity is extremely important. We were the first to ratify the NATO accession treaty for Sweden and Finland, and we are hoping to have both countries accepted very soon.”