The economic toll of the Russian war in Ukraine tests Western solidarity

LONDON – The West has united against Russia’s war against Ukraine more quickly and firmly than most anyone expected. But as the war turns into a protracted conflict, which could last for months or even years, it is testing the resolve of Western countries, with European and American officials wondering whether the growing economic toll will erode their solidarity over time.

So far, the cracks are mostly superficial: Hungary’s refusal to sign an embargo on Russian oil, nullifying the European Union’s effort to impose a continental ban; restlessness in Paris with the Biden administration’s aggressive goal of militarily weakening Russian President Vladimir V. Putin; a beleaguered president Biden who blames sky-high food and gas prices for Putin’s price hike.

Alongside these tensions, there are further signs of solidarity: Finland and Sweden moved closer to NATO membership on Wednesday, with Britain offering both countries security guarantees to defend against the Russian threat. In Washington on Tuesday, the House voted 368 to 57 in favor of a nearly $ 40 billion in aid package for Ukraine.

Yet Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border only 76 days ago, a blink of an eye in the pattern of history’s forever wars. As the fighting progresses, the cascading effect on supply chains, pipelines and agricultural crops will be felt most acutely at gas stations and on supermarket shelves.

Mr. Putin, some experts say, is calculating that the West will tire before Russia wages a long twilight fight for Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, especially if the price for the West’s continued support is turbulent inflation rates. power outages, impoverished public finances and tired populations.

The Biden administration’s director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, crystallized these doubts Tuesday, warning senators that Putin was digging for a long siege and “probably counting on the determination of the US and EU to weaken due to the shortage. of food, inflation and energy shortages get worse “.

Wednesday, Mr. Biden went to a farm in Kankakee, Ill.to argue that Putin’s war was the cause of food shortages and cost-of-living pressure on American families, a tacit sign that his steadfast support for Ukraine – a policy that garnered bipartisan support in Washington – could lead to a political cost.

Mr. Putin faces his own internal pressures, which were evident in the calibrated tone he sounded during a speech Monday in Moscow’s Red Square, neither calling for mass mobilization nor threatening an escalation of the conflict. But he also made it clear that there was no end in sight for what he falsely called Russia’s campaign to free his neighbor from “torturers, death squads and Nazis”.

On the ground in Ukraine, the fighting shows signs of a long battle. The day after the counter-offensive by Russian forces deployed to Ukraine from a group of cities north-east of the city of Kharkiv, the region’s governor said Wednesday that Ukrainian efforts had pushed Moscow forces “even further” from the city. giving them “even fewer opportunities to shoot the regional center”.

Ukraine’s apparent success in pushing Russian troops out of Kharkiv – its second largest city, about 20 miles from the Russian border – appears to have helped reduce bombing in recent days, even as Russia advances along parts of the former. line in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The fact that Ukraine has even found itself in an ongoing pitched battle nearly three months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion is remarkable. Analysts pointed out that a prolonged war would bewitch the resources of a Russian army that has already suffered heavy losses of men and machinery. That said, some argue that the West should use its advantage by strengthening the economic squeeze on Moscow.

“I worry about Western fatigue,” he said Michael A. McFaula former American ambassador to Russia, “that’s why the leaders of the free world should do more now to hasten the end of the war.”

The United States and the European Union, he said, should immediately impose a full range of crippling sanctions, rather than throwing them in escalating waves, as they have done so far. Western countries had approached such a comprehensive strategy with military aid, he said, which had helped the Ukrainians keep the Russians at bay.

But the ongoing negotiations on a European oil embargo show the limits of that approach when it comes to Russian energy supplies. Ambassadors of the European Union held another fruitless meeting Wednesday in Brussels, failing to break the fierce resistance of a single member of the bloc, Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has an affectionate relationship with Putin and has been at odds with Brussels, threw hopes of a demonstration of unity into chaos when he blocked the latest measure, arguing that a ban on Russian oil would be the equivalent of an “atomic bomb” for the Hungarian economy.

Mr. Orban continued to resist, even after concessions that would give Hungary more time to get rid of Russian oil and intense lobbying by other leaders. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, flew to Budapest to try to influence him while President Emmanuel Macron phoned him.

“We will support this proposal only if Brussels proposes a solution to the problem created by Brussels”, said the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, adding that the modernization of the Hungarian energy sector would cost “many, many billions of euros”.

In Washington, Mr. Biden encountered fewer problems rounding off support for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The House vote in favor of a massive aid package showed how the brutality of the war overcame both left and right resistance to American involvement in military conflicts abroad.

Yet the war-aggravated rise in food and fuel prices poses a real threat to Mr. Biden. The price of food rose 0.9% in April from the previous month, according to data released Wednesday. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the administration was “terribly concerned about global food supplies,” adding that 275 million people around the world face hunger.

“Putin’s war has cut off critical food sources,” Biden told Illinois farmers. “Our farmers are helping on both fronts, reducing the price of food at home and expanding production and feeding the world that needs it.”

Whether the US can increase agricultural production enough to alleviate shortages remains to be seen. But the visit to a farm came when Mr. Biden, under pressure from the fastest rate of inflation in 40 years, tried to reassure Americans that the White House is taking price increases seriously.

While Putin faces arguably much greater pressure – from increased combat casualties to economic pain caused by sanctions – he is exploiting nationalist sentiments, which some analysts say will give him stamina.

The Kremlin reported this on Wednesday could annex the strategically important southern Ukraine region of Khersonas the occupying authorities said they would prepare a formal request for Mr. Putin to absorb their region into Russia.

“They are motivated by a strong nationalism,” said Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford University, “for which they are willing to suffer extraordinary economic damage”. However, he added, the West’s muscular response could be “a turning point in the self-reliance of democracies”.

For some Europeans, the US may go too far. French diplomats who have ties to Macron have described the evolution of American politics as essentially arming Ukraine to the hilt and maintaining sanctions against Russia indefinitely. France, they said, wants to push hard for negotiations with Putin because there was no other way for lasting European security.

Other analysts argue that the threats to Western unity are exaggerated. The moves by Finland and Sweden to join NATO suggest not only that the alliance is reuniting, but also that its center of gravity is shifting to the east.

Even before he invaded Ukraine, Putin warned those countries that they would face “retaliation” if they joined NATO. During a visit to Stockholm, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that Britain’s mutual security declaration signed with Sweden – under which both countries pledged to help each other should they face a military threat or disaster natural – would have countered that threat.

“Sovereign nations must be free to make those decisions without fear, influence or threat of retaliation,” said Johnson, along with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. The statement “will allow us to share more information, strengthen our military exercises and promote our joint development of technology,” he said.

Despite Germany’s ambivalence about cutting Russian gas, it seems highly unlikely that it will reverse its historic pledge to increase military spending. On Wednesday, Germany began training the first class of Ukrainian armed crews on the use of self-propelled howitzers in West Germany. The German army plans to donate seven of the heavy weapons to Ukraine.

“The Russians, because of their barbarism, continue to generate images and news that will help the cause of Western unity,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a political scientist who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush. “If the Ukrainians continue to be successful, I think people will cheer them up.”

The report was provided by Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Roger Cohen from Paris, Matthew Mpoke Bigg Other Cora Engelbrecht from London, Ana Swanson Other Alan Rapport from Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, e Christopher F. Schuetz from Berlin.