Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
The surprising success of Ukraine’s offensive to retake territory Russia seized since its invasion February has left Russian President Vladimir Putin with precious few choices to turn the tide of war. Without a mass mobilization, which Putin has ruled out for fear of domestic opposition, Russia is running out of men and materiel to keep the territory it still holds, let alone regain the initiative. Putin’s best hope—perhaps his only hope—is that Western support for Ukraine will crumble as the costs of war, including energy shortages and rising prices, begin to hit home in Europe.
Putin has been here before. He invaded Ukraine believing that a divided and weakened West did not have the stomach for confrontation. He was wrong. The United States and its allies responded with a unity and ferocity that surprised not only Moscow but many in Brussels, London, and Washington as well. Western countries placed unprecedented sanctions on the Russian economy, sent massive quantities of weapons to Ukraine, took in millions of refugees, and provided critical financial support to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat. Ukrainians rallied to their country’s cause and have retaken more than 60,000 square kilometers of territory that Russia had captured since February.
Putin reacted to Ukraine’s and the West’s stiff resistance by scaling back his ambitions and shifting Russian military operations to Ukraine’s east. As he did this, he reduced the supply of Russian gas to Europe and waited for the West’s remarkable unity to collapse. Now, with winter just months away, he is counting on the end of Russian gas shipments to cause Europe even more pain and finally break the West’s will. He is also increasing Russian meddling in European domestic politics to enhance pro-Russian political forces, mainly on the right, while continuing to use disinformation to foster a narrative in countries in the global South that the West is to blame for their increasingly perilous economic predicament.
The pressure on Western unity is real. The euphoria and determination that marked the initial strong reaction to Russia’s invasion was always bound to be tested. Both within and between countries, squabbles over who should bear the burden of making Russia pay for its aggression were inevitable. Worries about “Ukraine fatigue” increased over the summer. In June, former Pentagon official Andrew Exum proclaimed that “Western support for Ukraine has peaked.” The following month, Fareed Zakaria warned that the West’s strategy was in danger of failing because “homes in Europe might not have enough heat” this winter.
Despite such handwringing, or perhaps because of it, the collapse of Western resolve remains unlikely, even if Ukraine’s current counteroffensive stalls. Recognizing Putin’s potential leverage, the West has moved decisively to undercut it. Europeans, perhaps even more than Americans, understand that the price of freedom is high—and that Ukrainians are bearing a far bigger cost than they are. The shock produced by the first major ground war in Europe since World War II is real and lasting—as is the determination to ensure that Russia fails.
Putin has two main levers to divide the West: energy, especially natural gas exports to Europe, and disinformation, including interfering in foreign political campaigns. Last year, the EU imported 40 percent of the gas it consumed from Russia—with German dependence on Russian gas closer to 65 percent. Those numbers are even higher in many countries in central and eastern Europe. Even before the war, Russia would manipulate gas exports to spur price spikes—a practice it has accelerated since invading Ukraine this year. It has turned off the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which delivers gas directly to Germany, and it has cut off supplies entirely to Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Poland. Natural gas prices in Europe have increased tenfold since last year, and electricity prices have soared as well. EU countries have found it difficult to quickly find alternatives to replace Russian energy sources, and gas-dependent industries such as chemicals and manufacturing are warning that they may face their worst crisis since World War II this winter.
Putin calculates that as prices skyrocket and Europe is left in the cold, angry publics will press their governments to seek an accommodation with Moscow to get gas flowing once again. European governments know they face a challenge. They have promised massive consumer subsidies to keep gas and electricity prices low. European leaders have traveled all over the world to secure access to new sources of supply, including from Algeria, Australia, and Azerbaijan. They have also instituted conservation measures, including turning off lights in public buildings and lowering thermostats, to try to preserve gas reserves. But a particularly harsh winter could stretch supplies too thin, forcing European governments to appeal to Putin to resume the flow of gas.
Putin is also famous for using disinformation to meddle in political campaigns. According to U.S. intelligence, the Kremlin has spent more than $300 million since 2014 on foreign political parties and candidates in an attempt to skew election results in its favor. In Europe and the United States, disinformation continues to feed pro-Russian sentiment, especially among far-right voices. Interference from Moscow helped persuade pro-Putin party leaders in Italy, such as the League’s Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi, to bring down the Italian unity government led by Mario Draghi, which had been surprisingly firm in condemning Russia’s aggression. Putin’s disinformation army is also continuing to stoke tensions in other parts of Europe by amplifying false information about Western actions and blaming Ukrainian “Nazis” for the conflict. And in the United States, the Kremlin is exploiting social media and feeding sympathetic narratives in right-wing media to fuel internal disagreement over whether to stand up to Russia and at what cost.
Putin has two main levers to divide the West: energy and disinformation.
Critical to this campaign is trying to make the West look bad. Russia has blamed the West for the global food and fuel crises that the war has accelerated. And it has worked, especially in the global South, where many blame their growing hardship as much on Western sanctions as on the Russian decision to go to war, even though sanctions specifically exclude food exports, and it is Russia that has benefited greatly from rising fuel prices.
Even after Ukraine blunted the initial Russian invasion, calls for the West to find a way out of the war mounted. Self-described “realists” floated plans that encouraged Ukrainian concessions or even capitulation to end the war. Believing that Ukraine had no serious prospect of reversing Russian gains, influential thinkers such as Henry Kissinger and the political scientists Barry Posen and Charles Kupchan argued that Kyiv’s best option was to sue for peace, accept at least a temporary loss of territory, and forgo joining NATO. Some European leaders, including Draghi, called for a cease-fire that would keep Russian gains in place, and others, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, warned of the danger of humiliating Moscow.
The United States and the EU have resisted these calls, but material and financial support to Ukraine is beginning to slow. Some European countries have run out of weapons and military supplies to transfer to Ukraine, and U.S. officials warn that the extraordinary levels of military support the United States has sent to Ukraine over the past six months will be impossible to sustain as U.S. military stocks begin to dwindle. Economic support is also slowing down, with requests for more financial aid to Kyiv facing greater skepticism in the U.S. Congress and Europeans far behind in fulfilling their initial pledges of assistance.
Despite these pressures, Western support for Ukraine remains strong. The U.S. public continues to be staunchly in favor of helping Ukraine. Over 70 percent of Americans support providing Ukraine with military and financial assistance, according to a new survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The few congressional Republicans who vote no on assisting Ukraine get outsize media attention, but large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate have repeatedly voted yes. And in a firm demonstration of U.S. commitment, 95 senators voted to approve Finland and Sweden joining NATO—thus extending U.S. security guarantees to countries on Russia’s northwestern flank.
Washington’s broad support for Ukraine has stiffened support across the West. Germany’s swift and decisive foreign policy pivot has also been critical. Berlin long believed that peace required dialogue, engagement, and trade with Moscow—and even German dependence on Russian energy. No more. The coalition government led by the Social Democrats and the Green Party has abandoned the decades-old idea that greater engagement would help avoid conflict with Russia. It is weaning Germany off Russian gas and has agreed to end Russian coal and oil imports this year. The Green Party has embraced what one of its leading officials, German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, called the “bitter” decision to reactivate coal plants. Habeck’s fellow Green Party member, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, has vowed that Berlin “will stand by Ukraine for as long as necessary” and that its assistance will include weapons as well as financial and humanitarian aid. The German public seems to approve. A July poll found that 70 percent of German respondents wanted their government to support Ukraine even though almost half of them think sanctions harm Germany more than Russia.
In Italy, meanwhile, Russia’s success in helping topple the Draghi government does not mean that the next government in Rome will accommodate Moscow. Polls show that the center-right will win a majority in the country’s September 25 elections. Italy’s likely next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is staunchly pro-Western and anti-Russian, even if her party descends from Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. In August, she called the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ 398 to 9 vote in favor of Finland and Sweden joining NATO “good news” and told a German newspaper that the “historical cornerstones of Italian foreign policy—Europe and the Atlantic Alliance—are the very first point of our program.” She added that “if Ukraine loses and the West succumbs, the highest price will be paid by us Europeans who in recent years have not invested enough in our security, both in military and energy terms.”
To be sure, the coming months will test Europe. After the extreme heat that engulfed the continent this summer, Europeans could face a brutally cold winter with energy in short supply and prices soaring. European governments, however, have acted decisively to forestall that outcome. They have scrambled to secure new energy supplies and to conserve stocks already on hand. As a result, European gas reserves are now close to historical levels, including at 85 percent in Germany and 92 percent in France. Governments are also addressing price shocks, with the United Kingdom offering a £150 billion package to shield households and companies from soaring prices, Germany enacting a €65 billion relief package in support of consumers, and France capping energy price increases at four percent through the end of the year. These are enormous sums of money, attesting to the governments’ determination to blunt popular opposition to supporting Ukraine.
Finally, those who believe Western unity will soon crack often suggest that accommodating Putin would work. But no such escape route exists. For example, imagine if Germany decides to cry uncle and halts its weapons shipments and economic support to Ukraine. This would be suboptimal, of course. But Germany’s contributions are only a small part of the funds and arms flowing to Ukraine. Moreover, Germany could lift sanctions on Russia only if it convinces the entire EU to go along—an unlikely outcome, given that most eastern European countries consider Russia’s aggression a mortal threat. Berlin could urge Kyiv to settle with Moscow, but the Ukrainians likely would not listen, especially if they continue winning on the battlefield. Berlin would also know that embracing a policy shift with little chance of success would come at a high price. Such an about-face would upend its relations with its partners in Europe and, just as important, with the United States—something Germany has sought to avoid ever since the end of World War II.
Putin is hardly alone in believing that Western unity is temporary and cannot last. Many skeptics in the West believe democracies will buckle in the face of hardship. But such voices underestimate the West’s staying power. Russia’s invasion was a historic affront to international rules and norms, and NATO countries see it as a dire threat to European and American security. The West has responded with a unity that few had thought possible. Today, Russia is the most sanctioned country on earth. Military support to Ukraine has given Kyiv a real edge in the war—perhaps a decisive one. Europe is fully committed to denying Russia its energy weapon by weaning itself off Russian fossil fuel exports.
None of this will change because winter is coming. Eventually, winter will end, and Putin’s leverage will be exhausted. Large majorities in Europe and North America understand that their security and freedom depend on Ukraine remaining free, independent, and part of the West. Those are the true stakes of this war. And it is why the West will stand firm.
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