The Ukraine war is being fought both on the battlefield and in the broader geopolitical context. And Russia seems to have a chance of winning on both fronts.
On the battlefield, Russia’s military machine initially showed itself to be ineffective and antiquated. But that has been par for the course for Russia ever since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Through a combination of barbarism and sheer numbers—‘Quantity has a quality all its own,’ said Stalin—Russia has generally managed to turn the tide. And, indeed, in Ukraine today, what has become a brutal war of attrition is producing slow but consistent Russian advances.
A similar shift in Russia’s favour may well be playing out geopolitically. The West’s resolve to uphold its robust values-based response is waning. Though NATO members projected unity at their recent summit in Madrid, Europe seems to be increasingly divided on Ukraine.
Eastern European countries, together with Finland and Sweden, view Russia as an immediate, even existential, threat. But for countries like Italy, Spain and even France, more immediate security concerns lie in North Africa and the Sahel, as well as in the possibility of a new migrant crisis. And amid skyrocketing inflation and slowing economic growth, the political sustainability of economic sanctions is far from certain.
A political shift is already taking place in Italy. The two largest parties in parliament—the Five Star Movement and the Lega—oppose arms delivery to Ukraine and have expressed their willingness to sacrifice Ukrainian territory in exchange for normal economic relations with Russia.
In Spain, the Socialist-led government has been supporting Ukraine, including by sending military equipment. But cracks are forming within the left-wing coalition, with the 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 deprived President Emmanuel Macron of his parliamentary majority in last month’s election—preach a diplomatic solution that would not ‘humiliate’ Russia.
The Ukraine war poses the most daunting dilemma for Germany. Ever 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 has been central to German strategic thinking. This helps to explain why Germany’s energy relationship with Russia has withstood so many challenges and crises.
Beyond severing ties with Russia, the European Union has decided to welcome greater integration with Ukraine and Moldova. This decision will not only bring heavy financial costs; Russian President Vladimir Putin will most likely feel just as threatened by having the democratic EU at his doorstep as he does by NATO’s enlargement.
Putin surely knows that if Europe’s strategic shift is to be credible, it will have to increase its military power. But how long will Europeans be willing to sustain higher military spending? Since the end of World War II, Europeans have enjoyed a culture of consumption and contentment—one that has left them ill-prepared for the disruptions that would come with a shift to a war footing.
The United Kingdom is a case apart, owing not only to its military vocation and global power aspirations, but also because it is in the throes of a domestic political meltdown, with Boris Johnson—who seemed to regard the war as a useful distraction from his self-inflicted troubles—having resigned as prime minister. But this does not mean that the UK is set to turn its back on Ukraine. Though Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has announced that he does not intend to enter the contest for leadership, his status as an early frontrunner suggests that there is strong public support for the UK’s involvement in Ukraine.
Beyond Europe, the West’s campaign against Russia has not always found strong support, even among allies and partners. Though India has deepened its strategic cooperation with the United States—together with Australia and Japan—through the Quad grouping, it has refused to join Western sanctions on Russia, its leading supplier of military hardware.
US President Joe Biden’s pleas for Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, in order to curb crude prices, have so far fallen on deaf ears. While energy policy topped the agenda during Biden’s trip to the Middle East last week, he didn’t secure the shift he sought, at least publicly. His early contempt for the kingdom’s volatile de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, weakened his leverage.
Even Morocco—which in 2020 received from the US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara—abstained from the 2 March United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
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 surge in global energy and food prices, which is hurting developing economies the most. The prospect of a devastating global recession looms. And in the longer term, the West’s weaponisation of the international order it controls is likely to accelerate a decoupling process that threatens to destroy Western cooperation with—and leverage over—powers like Russia and China.
The West is not poised to achieve the kind of resounding defeat of Russia it desires—not even close. What its Ukraine policy has achieved so far is a deadlock on the battlefield and an escalating global food and energy crisis.
While the West should continue to support Ukraine, the time has come to negotiate a ceasefire and launch serious peace talks. This includes, of course, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to decide the fate of Russian-occupied territories. (A plebiscite on the future of the eastern Donbas region is one possible outcome.) It also entails NATO-led negotiations on Europe’s broader security system.
Such an outcome is not ideal, particularly because it risks producing only a hiatus to the fighting, rather than an enduring peace. But the consequences of remaining on the current path could prove far worse.