Six months after invading Ukraine, Russia is considering annexing part of the territory it occupies. Western countries, meanwhile, are supplying Ukraine with ever more sophisticated weapons and sending in armies of ‘military advisors’. Russia no longer wants to simply subjugate Ukraine, but to dismember it; the United States no longer wants to contain Russia, but to defeat it. There seems to be nothing to stop this spiral in which each side, increasingly dominated by supporters of war, thinks it has freedom of action because it is betting that its adversary, even with its back to the wall, will never use an option of last resort to extricate itself. But cemeteries are full of the victims of mistaken prognoses like that.
The European Union and the US promised military aid to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky so that he could recover the terrain conquered by the enemy. They have delegated to him the definition of missions and media coverage of operations intended to mobilise public opinion (see News we don’t want to hear, in this issue). If, as feared, Russia annexes all or part of the Donbass this autumn, or Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts to the south, will the West help Ukraine reconquer them, thereby running the risk of an even more direct and dangerous confrontation with Russia, which is likely to extend the same nuclear protection to these territories as it does to its existing borders (1)?
The question of sanctions needs to be approached with similar realism, because here too it cannot simply be a question of adopting a stance. The states that wanted to ‘punish’ Russia have undoubtedly succeeded in doing so (to the extent that it can no longer obtain spare parts and critical technologies), but have not come anywhere close to the objectives set out six months ago. On 1 March France’s economy minister Bruno Le Maire boasted, ‘We’re going to cause the Russian economy to collapse … The European Union is discovering its power.’ Unfortunately for him, the International Monetary Fund, hardly a hotbed of anti-Western thought, recently concluded that ‘Russia’s economy is estimated to have contracted during the second quarter by less than previously projected,’ while ‘the war’s effects on major European economies have been more negative than expected’ (2).
Russia’s energy exports, though down by volume, are earning more for Moscow because of surging prices. As a result, the financing of the Russian war machine has not suffered, unlike Europeans’ purchasing power, which has been hit by their leaders’ ill-considered decisions. The common energy policy, which these sanctions were to get off to a roaring start, has thus led to unmitigated disaster. Especially for the working classes, whose disposable income was already barely above the waterline.
There is rightly an outcry over the fact that decisions that have led to war and misery could have been taken largely by one man in Moscow. But is the situation so different elsewhere? And if so, for how much longer?
Translated by George Miller.
(1) See John J Mearsheimer, ‘Playing with fire in Ukraine: The underappreciated risks of catastrophic escalation’, Foreign Affairs, New York, 17 August 2022.
(2) ‘World Economic Outlook Update’, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC, July 2022.