The war in Ukraine is taking place both on the battlefield and in a larger geopolitical context. And Russia seems to have a chance to win on both fronts.
On the battlefield, the Russian military machine initially proved ineffective and archaic. But that has been Russia’s normal course since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Through a combination of barbarism and numbers – “Quantity has a quality of its own,” Stalin said – Russia has generally succeeded to reverse the trend. And, indeed, in Ukraine today, what has become a brutal attrition war is producing slow but steady Russian advances.
A similar shift in favor of Russia may well play out geopolitically. The West’s resolve to maintain its strong values-based response is fading. Although NATO members projected unity at their recent summit in Madrid, Europe appears to be increasingly divided over Ukraine.
Eastern European countries, along with Finland and Sweden, view Russia as an immediate, even existential threat. But for countries like Italy, Spain and even France, the more immediate security concerns lie in North Africa and the Sahel, as well as the possibility of a new migration crisis. And against a backdrop of soaring inflation and slowing economic growth, the political sustainability of economic sanctions is far from certain.
Political change is already underway in Italy. The two largest parties in parliament – the Five Star Movement and the Lega – oppose the delivery of arms to Ukraine and have expressed their willingness to sacrifice Ukrainian territory in exchange for normal economic relations with Russia.
In Spain, the government led by the socialists supports Ukraine, in particular by sending military equipment. But cracks are forming within the left-wing coalition, with pacifist Podemos opposing the government’s approach.
As for France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s rising left and Marine Le Pen’s increasingly robust right – which together stripped President Emmanuel Macron of his parliamentary majority in last month’s elections – are pushing for a diplomatic solution that would not “humiliate” Russia.
The war in Ukraine poses the most formidable dilemma for Germany. Since West German Chancellor Willy Brandt launched his Ostpolitik with the Soviet bloc in the late 1960s, the quest for “peaceful coexistence” with Russia and Eastern Europe was at the heart of German strategic thinking. This helps explain why Germany’s energy relationship with Russia has withstood so many challenges and crises.
Beyond the severance of ties with Russia, the European Union has decided to welcome greater integration with Ukraine and Moldova. This decision will not only entail heavy financial costs; Russian President Vladimir Putin will most likely feel as threatened by the presence of the democratic EU on his doorstep as by NATO enlargement.
Putin surely knows that if Europe’s strategic direction is to be credible, it will have to increase its military power. But how long will Europeans be prepared to sustain higher military spending? Since the end of World War II, Europeans have enjoyed a culture of consumerism and contentment, which has left them ill-prepared for the disruptions that would come with a shift to a war footing.
The United Kingdom is a special case, not only because of its military vocation and its aspirations for world power, but also because it is in the throes of a domestic political collapse, with Boris Johnson – who seemed to consider the war as a useful distraction from his self-inflicted turmoil – having resigned as Prime Minister. But that doesn’t mean the UK is about to turn its back on Ukraine. Although Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace has announcement that he has no intention of participating in the leadership race, his early-stage status suggests there is strong public support for UK involvement in Ukraine.
Beyond Europe, the West’s campaign against Russia has not always found strong support, even among allies and partners. While India has deepened its strategic cooperation with the United States, as well as Australia and Japan, through the Quad grouping, it has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia, its main supplier of military equipment.
US President Joe Biden’s calls for Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, in order to reduce crude prices, have so far fallen on deaf ears. While energy policy was high on the agenda during Biden’s trip to the Middle East last week, he didn’t get the change he was looking for, at least publicly. His early contempt for the kingdom’s unstable de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, weakened his influence.
Even Morocco – which in 2020 received recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara from the United States – abstained in the March 2 United Nations vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The lack of support for Western sanctions is not based exclusively on geopolitical considerations. While the West’s campaign is hurting Russia, it is also contributing to a spike in global energy and food prices, hurting developing economies the most. The prospect of a devastating global recession looms. And in the longer term, the West’s militarization of the international order it controls is likely to accelerate a process of decoupling that threatens to destroy Western cooperation with powers such as Russia and China and to s use it.
The West is not about to achieve the kind of resounding defeat of Russia it wants, not even close. What his Ukrainian policy has achieved so far is a stalemate on the battlefield and an escalation of the global food and energy crisis.
While the West should continue to support Ukraine, now is the time to negotiate a ceasefire and start serious peace talks. This includes, of course, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to decide the fate of the territories occupied by Russia. (A plebiscite on the future of the eastern Donbass region is a possible outcome.) It also involves NATO-led negotiations on Europe’s broader security system.
Such an outcome is not ideal, not least because it risks producing only a pause in the fighting, rather than a lasting peace. But the consequences of staying on the current path could turn out to be much worse.