Before war fatigue sets in further, a rethink needed to avoid a years-long conflict
Speaking at a private dinner in London recently, a senior serving British military officer argued that the west had no choice but to see Ukraine as just one phase in a decade-long battle with Russia. “If Ukraine wins, Russia will never accept that. If Russia wins, it will go further,” he said.
Yet in Whitehall they fear the “F word” – fatigue – and worry that the west with its TikTok-attention span and bias towards instant gratification does not have the resolve for the years-long sacrifice required to defeat Russia, or even stem the military tide in the villages of eastern Ukraine.
That anxiety is shared by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, who in a speech to marketing professionals in Cannes this week pleaded with them to use their creative ingenuity to keep the world focused on his country’s struggle: “Don’t let the world switch to something else,” he said.
So the succession of summits over the next week – European Council, G7 and Nato – come at a pivotal moment in the four-month-old war, not just on the battlefield but in the equally important parallel contests to maintain domestic support, damage the Russian economy and build geostrategic alliances.
Every effort at the summits will be made to show unity and resolve, but there is little disguising that this is a dark point. Inflation across the eurozone rose above 8% last month. A gallon of petrol has risen above $5 (£4.09) in the US. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, the weaponiser of everything, is turning off gas supplies to Europe and blocking sub-Saharan Africa’s grain. US security assistance to Ukraine since the invasion began on 24 February is valued at $5.6bn, but it is estimated that the country needs $5bn-$7bn a month to function.
Political heat rises in the west
Western leaders are already feeling the political heat. Joe Biden stares at defeat in the November midterms, and Donald Trump is now the bookies’ favourite to win the White House in 2024. Emmanuel Macron appears paralysed after losing his parliamentary majority and seeing the French electorate hand nearly 90 seats to the “Putin-ist” Marine Le Pen. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has already lost elections in two states and struggles to convince that his turning point on defence represents a change of German mindset.
In Italy, the prime minister, Mario Draghi, one of the steadiest European voices on Ukraine, is under pressure over arm sales to Kyiv and has seen his foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, quit the Five Star Movement to form another parliamentary group to back him. In the UK, Boris Johnson has survived a no-confidence vote within the Tory party but now seems to see populist domestic dividing lines, not Ukraine, as his route to salvation. The socialist-led government in Spain, which host hosts next week’s Nato summit, has just seen itself obliterated in provincial elections in Andalusia – previously the bastion of socialism and where 20% of Spanish voters reside.
Bulgaria’s six-month-old governing coalition, which had been the leading anti-Russian government in the Balkans, fell in a confidence vote on Wednesday, a situation that could lead to a new Russian ally in the EU.
Not all these crises can be attributed directly to Ukraine, or to any voter sympathy for Putin, but the growing economic spillover from the war hardly make incumbents popular. The old adage “foreign policy is not important until suddenly it is very important” has never been more true.
So what to do? One faction led by the UK and Poland demands these summits must be a hard-headed and honest council of war, not confined to discussions about abstract future strategic defence concepts, global investment funds or self-congratulatory praise of democracy. If Ukrainians are losing as many as 200 lives a day, as Kyiv has admitted, there has to be a strategic rethink, or else some of the big trends – in the global information war, on the battlefield and in the world economy – will keep going Putin’s way.
Johnson hinted at his frustration when he told the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, that the international community needed to “shift the dial on Ukraine”. His specific gripe is the number of Greek-owned vessels transporting Putin’s oil, but in interviews in the European press Johnson urged allies to recognise that more of the same risked Putin going into any talks “holding the high cards”.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing party, also sounded a warning, saying: “The delivery of heavy weapons, here and now, not in a few months, may decide the outcome of the war.” If the weapons were not delivered, events may take a really bad turn. If Russian forces launched an attack on the north-east city of Kharkiv and broke through the frontline in the eastern Donbas region, “there will be escalation and a big, terrible defeat for the west”.
The Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told the Guardian “War fatigue is kicking in. Russia is playing on us getting tired. We must not fall into the trap. Ukraine’s position is deteriorating and Russia is more aggressive than ever because they want to show the victories back home, so it is getting more and more difficult.”
Kallas wants very clear commitments on a seventh round of EU sanctions, on Nato’s new forward defence posture and on Ukraine being given EU membership candidate status. But she is the first to say Ukraine’s greatest requirement is longer-range artillery and heavier weaponry.
On the battlefield
Gustav Gressel, a security expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, said Ukraine’s own defence industry had been destroyed and its stocks of old Russian weaponry exhausted, leaving its military dependent on western life-support.
Gressel said the shortage of artillery vehicles would turn into a tank shortage in two or three months on the basis of the current attrition rate and the loss of Ukraine’s production line in Kharkiv. Supplying tanks requires longer preparation time in terms of logistics and training rather than ammunition.
“If we always discuss the crisis, once it occurs and start the delivery programme only once the situation in Ukraine is urgent, we will always give the Russians the edge in the war, and they will use it,” said Gressel, adding that part of the problem was Germany continuing to insist Nato policy was not to supply tanks, even though no such policy exists.
On top of the tank shortage is a lack of air defences. Ukraine’s manned portable missiles were produced in Russia. “In a war where the Russian air force is flying 250 to 300 sorties per day, Ukraine having 50 missiles to stretch across six months or until the next air defence system might be expected is not a good situation,” Gressel said. Here Germany has at least promised help in the shape of IRIS-T air defence system.
But the pace at which Germany acts frustrates. On Tuesday at the DGAP thinktank, Jens Plötner, a foreign policy adviser to Scholz, pointed out that a lot of pages were filled with discussions about the German delivery of 20 Martens tanks, but there were fewer larger articles about Europe’s future relationship with Russia. Scholz implicitly slapped him down, saying relations with Putin’s imperialist Russia were unimaginable in the foreseeable future.
But the longer Germany debates its role and the longer the war is prolonged, the greater the risk of spillover as the combatants spread the theatre of conflict. Lithuania has cut off a rail route to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, home to Russia’s Baltic fleet. Ukraine has fired weapons at the Russian navy in the Black Sea. An oil refinery in southern Russia was hit by a drone, causing wide-scale damage. Biden’s aides are carefully watching how Ukraine uses its powerful new Himars launchers – it has promised not to target Russian soil because he does not want the war to spread.
The second theatre of war has been the economy. The EU rule has been that in its six rounds of sanctions nothing would be implemented that would hurt the west more than it hurt Russia. Putin claimed in his recent St Petersburg speech that the sanctions blitzkrieg had not worked but instead backfired, pointing to the rouble’s recovery to pre-invasion levels. Germany’s warning of a Lehman brothers-style contagion in the energy markets bore him out.
Janis Kluge, of the German Institute for international affairs thinktank, said: “Russia is close to its sweet spot in gas trade with the EU. Volumes are small, putting pressure on the EU, yet prices are so high that revenues will still be more than enough, higher than in many previous years.” In essence the cut in supply, designed to reduce Europe’s stocks in the winter, is not affecting Gazprom profits.
That is not to say sanctions are ineffectual. The head of Russia’s Sberbank said it may take Russia a decade to return to its pre-invasion performance. Half the country’s imports and exports were sanctions-affected. Inflation is at 17% and rising, while national output is expected to fall by anything from 8% to 30% this year. But there is no guarantee sanctions will bring Moscow to its knees.
But it is the third theatre of war – the influence war – where the west is faring unexpectedly poorly. There is a growing awareness that the west’s narrative that Putin is fighting a colonial war and is responsible for its ripple effects is meeting indifference and even resistance in the global south.
With more than 40% of wheat consumed in Africa usually coming from Russia and Ukraine, one of the key organisers of the G7 summit in Germany, Wolfgang Schmidt, said it was vital to prevent Moscow and Beijing from dividing the G7 from the so-called Brics countries by blaming western sanctions for the shortages. Germany had invited leaders from Indonesia, India, South Africa, Argentina and Senegal, in part to prevent Russia and China succeeding in their goal.
Schmidt said: “When you talk to leaders outside Europe and the alliance at the moment then you will realise their perception of the [Ukraine] war is completely different from ours. They might say: ‘Yes, we are not OK with a country invading another.’ But and then comes the big but: ‘It is your sanctions that drive up food prices, energy prices and have a devastating effect on our population.’”
Ann Linde, the Swedish foreign minister, said that during her meetings with Asian and African ministers she also came across a narrative that the west was more engaged in Ukraine than it has been in wars in the south.
Her Austrian counterpart, Alexander Schallenberg, said that in his recent travels in India and the Middle East he discovered that although the EU may have won the information war on Ukraine in Europe, “a very different narrative” existed elsewhere. Outside Europe “we are the culprits, we are the reason for oil, seeds, grain and energy not being on the market or overpriced,” he said. “This is a war in Europe. But there’s another European war, because the shockwaves can be felt everywhere. It’s the first war since the second world war where you can feel the effects globally.”
A massive battle is now under way to accuse Russia of using hunger as a weapon of war. The blame game could not have higher stakes. Largely due to drought in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, 16.7 million people in east Africa are already dependent on food assistance. That number is likely to increase by 20 million by September alone. The World Food Programme claimed the Ukraine ripple effect would mean a further 44 million people worldwide would be classified as “food insecure or at high risk”.
Samantha Power, the head of USAID, argued this week that it was critical not just for Ukraine but for democracy to regain the upper hand in the information war, especially on the issue of why Ukrainian and Russian food is not reaching the global south. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, she said it was inherently challenging for any government that was enduring high food and fuel prices, but it was even more so for governments trying to buck the anti-democratic trend and elected on anti-corruption tickets. She highlighted the Dominican Republic, Malawi, Moldova and Zambia.
“You have said democracy delivers and then you find yourself with fertiliser and food prices skyrocketing, and inevitably you say: ‘This is a global phenomenon, Putin invaded Ukraine, Chinese debt is not doing us any favours.’ But whatever you say, citizens are looking at their leader and asking: ‘Was my life better off when I had the corrupt leader hostile to the rule of law?’” Power said.
It does not mean Putin has won. He has damaged himself irreparably. But more of the same for longer by the west is probably assigning Ukraine to a slow strangulation.