The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
On July 26, the European Union announced a gas deal that was aimed at showing member states’ continued resolve on Russia: according to the agreement, EU states will reduce gas consumption by 15 percent between August and March, thus helping prevent a crisis in the winter by showing solidarity and limiting Russia’s ability to weaponize Europe’s energy supply. On the surface, it was a further demonstration of the unified front that the continent has mostly maintained since the outset of the war. In reality, however, the cuts are voluntary and many individual states have carve-outs that call into question how meaningful the deal will be, especially when gas shortages will affect some much more than others.
Six months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are signs that Europe is struggling to stay the course on an increasingly costly war. With rising inflation, an escalating energy crisis, and the growing threat of recession, European leaders have become more vocal about the socioeconomic fallout of the conflict and its political and geopolitical ripple effects. Meanwhile, beneath the outward show of consensus are simmering tensions about how to handle the war. Germany, for example, has dragged its feet about promised weapons shipments to Ukraine. In Italy, where the coalition government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi has fallen, there is mounting political opposition to military support for Kyiv among the country’s populist parties. And although five packages of sanctions were approved at lightning speed, Europeans spent weeks bickering over a sixth one aimed at Russian oil, which was held up by the EU’s in-house autocrat, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Amid these challenges, a larger question looms about how long European unity on the war can be sustained and what might cause it to collapse. In fact, the greatest threat to the European coalition may not be the lack of progress in ending the heightened violence in Ukraine, as has been the case up to now, but a comparative lull in the conflict, which could allow Moscow to lure some EU states into pressing Kyiv to make concessions, particularly if the energy crisis continues to get worse. Paradoxically, by giving in to the illusion of peace, Europe and the West could end up prolonging the war at everyone’s expense.
During the early phase of the war, the European Union showed remarkable resolve. Never known for its speed, Brussels managed, in a matter of weeks, to approve the most far-reaching sanctions ever implemented. European governments quickly stepped up on defense, with Germany announcing a staggering 100 billion euros in additional military spending and the EU facilitating arms transfers to a third party for the first time. Europe also agreed to give temporary protection to millions of Ukrainian citizens, including the freedom to move and work across the EU. And in June, the European Council formally granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in the EU, as well as granting Georgia status as a prospective candidate, pending reforms. For much of the spring, the new dynamic seemed to bear out German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s claim that the Russian invasion was a Zeitenwende, a turning point, and that Europeans were ready to meet the challenge.
Since then, however, the momentum in Brussels has flagged. Although the EU states eventually agreed to an oil embargo on Russia, for example, it will occur with a time lag that may allow Russia to adapt. And despite the recent gas agreement on energy saving, a true gas embargo is nowhere in sight. In fact, rather than an EU gas embargo on Russia, it is Moscow that has turned off the gas in Europe. Six countries—Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Poland, and the Netherlands—have been cut off completely from Russian supply. Furthermore, Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company, drastically reduced gas flows to the rest of Europe. Nord Stream 1, which is the largest pipeline bringing Russian gas to Europe and which is mostly owned by Gazprom, was temporarily closed in July for maintenance. It has since reopened, but gas exports are down to 20 percent of the agreed amounts, with further disruptions on the horizon. Rather than agreeing on new sanctions, the EU is scrambling to address gas storages in many countries and struggling to ration use. To diversify its supplies, it is seeking new energy partnerships with the United States, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caucasus. The International Monetary Fund estimates that in the event of a complete cutoff of Russian gas to Europe, the economies of some countries—including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy—could contract by more than five percent. It will be a cold and costly winter.
The mounting economic pressures are already starting to have worrying consequences in European politics. In countries such as Italy and France, populist and right-wing nationalist parties are using the costs of war to rally public support. They argue that by sanctioning Russia and embracing the green agenda, European governments and EU institutions are fueling inflation, hollowing out industry, and destroying jobs. It is a message that has also been amplified in the mainstream media. Already in France’s presidential election in April, extreme right- and left-wing parties performed strongly—an outcome that was repeated in the parliamentary election in June. Far more dramatic was Draghi’s fall in Italy in July, after the three parties with closest ties to the Kremlin pulled back their support for the coalition government of which they were part.
These events may only be a foretaste of what is to come. Taking their cues from the Kremlin’s playbook, many populist parties have adopted rhetoric that belies their actual intentions. Rather than admitting that they want to throw Ukraine under the bus, populist party leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini say that they are for peace, compromise, and diplomacy. Populists took a temporary beating with the pandemic as their no-vax narrative left Europeans largely unimpressed. But the Ukraine war, coupled with the energy crisis, has given them a perfect opportunity to rise again. Over time, this dynamic could create a new surge in nationalist populism that could imperil not just European unity but the existence of the European Union as a whole. Whereas a nationalist Europe is possible, a nationalist EU is a contradiction in terms.
Even more concerning for Europe is the return of old geopolitical cleavages. First is the growing divide between the continent’s east and west, with the states on Ukraine’s border, such as the Baltic countries and Poland, calling for justice through sanctions and robust military support for Ukraine, and states in western Europe, such as France, Germany, and Italy, leaning toward compromise with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial remarks in June about the importance of not humiliating Russia while Russian artillery was pummeling Ukraine is a case in point. As the energy and economic crises deepen, countries that are farther away from the frontline are more likely to push for dialing down the war. Eastern European leaders, although their countries are also suffering from the economic fallout, will probably remain firm in their conviction that peace is possible only when Ukraine has expelled Russian forces from its territory and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been held accountable for his aggression.
The second cleavage runs north–south, a divide that almost tore the eurozone apart during the sovereign debt crisis a decade ago. With the near-term possibility of recession, and perhaps even stagflation, the difference in the borrowing costs between northern and southern EU member states—notably between Germany and Italy—is growing. France, Spain, and Italy, which have less room for fiscal maneuver to face a recession, are calling for a new initiative from Brussels to top up Europe’s post-pandemic recovery fund and help cope with the economic costs of the war, including the expensive energy transition. This time, however, Germany, which has seen its energy prices triple and, because of its heavy reliance on Russian gas, is far more exposed to Russia’s energy blackmail than many other members, is less likely to support such a move. If anything, the German government seems likely to call on other EU members to help alleviate Germany’s energy crisis rather than to provide its own financial resources to help other members’ economic woes. No wonder Germany strongly backed the EU gas-saving agreement in July.
Putin wagers that it is just a matter of time until Europe is pulled apart.
These divisions are precisely what Putin had hoped for. Convinced that Europe’s liberal democracies are weak and morally corrupt, the Russian leader has banked on the assumption that the West’s unity on Ukraine will crumble and could ultimately break in the coming months. By playing cat and mouse on gas, creating a world food crisis by blockading the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, and pursuing a scorched-earth strategy in Ukraine, Putin may wager that it is just a matter of time until the West, starting with Europe, is pulled apart by competing pressures. As Moscow sees it, liberal democracies have a low pain threshold: they are not capable of playing a long game if it comes at a high social or economic price.
Moscow is aware that sanctions are causing colossal damage to Russia. Putin has admitted this much in public. The Kremlin also knows that the damage will grow over time. For the time being, although the energy decoupling between Europe and Russia has led to the most acute energy crisis since the 1973 oil embargo, Russia has reveled in sky-high oil and gas prices. But as Europe weans itself from Russian fossil fuels—both by diversifying its energy sources and stepping up its transition to clean energy—it will eventually emerge stronger from this crisis. By contrast, despite Moscow’s new, much vaunted ties to Beijing, it will take years for China to replace Europe as a market for Russian hydrocarbons, and for a variety of reasons, China is highly unlikely to be as lucrative for Moscow as Europe has been. Furthermore, it is difficult to see China investing in Russia’s energy transition: Russia’s long-term economic future is bleak.
Putin must recognize this reality, but his calculus is probably that Europe will break first, given its fragile unity. Internal pressures on the continent will allow him to achieve his war aims in Ukraine and perhaps, sooner or later, return to business as usual with Europe, or at least with some European countries. As the Kremlin sees it, Europe’s divisions and weaknesses will prevent a long-term scenario in which Russia bears the strategic, economic, and political costs of its invasion.
With every additional month of war, the risk of European disunity grows, and the first worrying signals have already surfaced. But much will depend on the course of the conflict itself. If Russia continues the campaign of atrocities and destruction that has characterized the past six months, European leaders can count on Putin to keep them unified. Notwithstanding the energy crisis and the economic pain it has caused, as well as the political and geopolitical tensions these will bring about, Europeans are unlikely to step away from a bleeding Ukraine. At the current level of violence and with Russia openly declaring its ambitions to seek and hold more Ukrainian territory, Europeans will not withhold weapons and economic support to Kyiv, let alone lift sanctions in return for a truce. As long as Russia proceeds with its brutal onslaught, Europeans may kick and scream, but they will stay the course.
But it will be far more difficult for Europe if Putin, out of necessity rather than choice, changes tactics in Ukraine. By fall, Russia may simply lack the military capability to maintain the unrelenting military offensive of the last six months. Already, some Western intelligence agencies believe that Russia is incurring a very high military price for its war, in terms of both equipment and casualties. The CIA and MI6 estimate that over 15,000 Russian soldiers have died since February 24. These losses are likely to grow as Ukrainian forces receive higher-grade Western weapons. This does not mean that the Kremlin’s goals have changed, however: the pursuit of an ideological project is not easily deterred, and a leader that compares himself to Peter the Great is unlikely to settle for a few territorial gains in the Donbas. As Russia’s military becomes increasingly stretched, the Kremlin will likely have to adapt its strategy, including allowing for a temporary reduction in hostilities—fewer Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, say, or a broader reduction in artillery fire—to allow its forces to rebuild and regroup. Such a change would mean that the pace of war in the coming months could change according to the relative depletion and reconstitution of Russia’s military power.
The greatest risk that European leaders face is thus a hidden one: if Russian operations in Ukraine subside and Moscow begins to hint at some kind of compromise or truce, Europeans might fall in a trap. Such a prospect, although it would present itself as an opportunity to be seized, would likely be an insidious threat: for Moscow, it would simply serve as a way to gain time to prepare for the next round of fighting, a few months down the line. And if some countries supported such a step, it could further divide Europe, even as it helped the Kremlin prolong the war.
It is precisely when violence subsides that the West should show its true resilience and redouble support for Kyiv, to ensure not just that Russia loses this war but that Ukraine actually wins it, by securing a territorially and therefore economically viable state, with security guarantees, and, ultimately, a course toward reconstruction and democratic consolidation in the EU. But the temptation to seek accommodation with Russia would be strong, especially given that it would likely happen at a time of growing social, economic, political, and geopolitical pressures on the continent. If a reduction in violence in Ukraine coincides with a surging energy crisis in Europe, it could lead European leaders not just to argue and dither but to divide apart altogether.
By pursuing his aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Putin has galvanized and united the European Union—much as he has done with NATO and the West in general—in ways that might have seemed implausible before the war. It has been decades since there has been such a display of European and transatlantic cohesion and resolve. But it is far from clear that this can be sustained, particularly as the war itself changes and becomes increasingly unpredictable. Although the conflict is almost certain to continue, its evolution will likely not be linear. And in moments of lull, European leaders will face new challenges in sustaining the pressure on Russia and will no longer be able to count on the unifying effect of an acute external threat.
Putin surely believes that resilience is only about pain endurance, and that liberal democracies—first and foremost western European ones—are simply too weak in leadership and do not have what it takes to wait him out. Europeans, by contrast, have shown that they believe that resilience is not just about resisting pain but about the ability to adapt, react, and bounce back from crisis. Europeans understand that their democratic systems and European institutions are slow and messy but strong.
Europe’s path through its serial crises over the past few decades—including the sovereign debt crisis, migration, Brexit, and the COVID-19 pandemic—show just that. The Ukraine war and the way it will test Europe’s defenses, economies, and energy systems, as well as the social fabric of its democratic order, may well be the hardest test of all. To pass it, Europeans will need to find their own determination and strength rather than relying on Putin to do the job.
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