Will Western leaders cut and run as the costs of war in Ukraine rise? | Simon Tisdall
HHow long will Western democracies maintain current levels of support for Ukraine? The economic impact of the war, which is already manifesting itself in soaring inflation and the cost of living, could have very negative political consequences for elected leaders in the United States, Germany, France and UK. If the public’s willingness to make difficult sacrifices wanes in the months to come and the conflict fades from the front pages, will they stay the course?
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is well aware, Western love for his country is already very conditional. Military assistance is limited by NATO’s fear of provoking Vladimir Putin. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is pushing “too eagerly” for a negotiated deal at the risk, according to British officials, of overriding kyiv’s best interests. Accused by his far-right rival Marine Le Pen of ignoring domestic issues, Macron’s lead in the polls has narrowed ahead of this month’s two-round election.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is currently obsessed with the security of national energy supplies, not the future security of Europe. He knows that Putin’s threat to cut the gas, if implemented, would trigger a national emergency. Scholz’s ruling coalition is squealing after a row with the Greens, who say he and his former boss, Angela Merkel, were “blind” to the risks of energy dependence on Russia.
This argument will only intensify the longer the war drags on – and not just in Germany. “Europe should stop spending up to 800 million euros a day to buy Russian gas,” says a new document from the Center for European Reform. “In 2021…Russia exported more than 49% of its oil and 74% of its gas to Europe.” Voluntarily stopping all such purchases, he said, could be the most effective sanction Europe could impose. “The political will to take such a drastic step is still lacking.” And, unfortunately, likely to remain so.
Joe Biden’s NATO-EU summit last weekend did not produce a much-needed long-term plan to defeat Russia or better weapons for Ukraine’s defenders. But it raised questions about his leadership. Biden’s crisis management provided a modest boost to the polls. A new survey has shown that 61% of Americans think rising gas prices, up 20% in a month, are worth beating Russia. Most support additional US troop deployments.
But this spirit of solidarity is over. Biden looks tired and vulnerable, with a low overall approval rating of 41%. Only 39% approve of his management of the economy. It’s the battleground that matters most in the United States as a neo-Trumpist Republican Party eyes a takeover of Congress in November. This is why the White House has drawn on its strategic oil reserves. Will the stumbling Biden stay the course or seek a quick way out?
In the United States and the EU, the anti-Putin momentum seems to have run out of steam and may even be reversing. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Brussels last week to quickly introduce a fifth sanctions package. But foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU would “maintain” rather than “increase” pressure on Moscow – the overcautious approach favored by Paris and Berlin that infuriates Poland and the Baltic republics.
Russia is actively exploiting these divisions. “Irresponsible sanctions from Brussels are already negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary Europeans,” a foreign ministry official said. Western leaders risked worsening the situation for their peoples, the official added, amid fresh Russian threats to block food and agricultural exports. Meanwhile, China and India come to Putin’s aid by buying Russian oil at a discount.
Ukraine-related pressures on Western leaders are undoubtedly intensifying in all areas. The IMF warned last month that the war would cause “devastating” damage to the global economy as well as deep recessions in Russia and Ukraine. A forecast released last month predicted a £90bn hit to the UK alone as consumers and businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic.
In Spain, the far-right populist party, Vox, has used rising prices to fuel anti-government protests. Similarly, politicized protests have been observed in France, Italy and Greece. Meanwhile, worries about a wider war could help Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s pro-Putin prime minister, win re-election this weekend.
Western politicians may keep their word and honor their commitments to Ukraine. Or maybe not. Zelenskiy, for his part, has his doubts. Addressing the Economisthe had reservations about the loyalty and reliability of some leaders, including Boris Johnson.
“Britain wants Ukraine to win and Russia to lose… They’re not doing a balancing act,” Zelenskiy said. But he added that he was not sure that Johnson secretly hoped the war would drag on, thus weakening Putin (and strengthening Johnson). Zelenskiy said the German “pragmatist” Scholz was mistakenly “on the fence” and urged Orbán to pick a side. His harshest words were reserved for the Macron government. “They’re scared,” he says bluntly.
If the war continues into the fall, as many predict, economic hardship, especially energy costs, resulting political tensions, “sanctions fatigue”, heightened public apathy and the cost A daunting financial backer of unlimited military assistance, humanitarian aid and millions of refugees could combine to critically undermine governments’ support for Ukraine’s struggle.
A Western failure of this magnitude would be a disaster for the Ukrainian people, Europe’s security and common decency. But it is possible to see how this could happen. Putin, of course, is watching, waiting for fatal cracks to appear. Yet he, too, faces deeply threatening internal tensions and challenges, as Western intelligence chiefs noted last week. They suggest he’s at odds with his generals, is out of touch, and might lose control.
Maybe that’s how the war ends. Not with a hit or a crummy chord, but with a slow collapse. Who will last longer: Putin, the deceived and paranoid war criminal, or the ragtag crew of unreliable Western politicians who oppose him?