The EU’s crumbling unity has given Putin another chance to win

In the first days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Europe’s response was an astonishing force and unity. Without calls or any global leadership, crowds across the continent protested, and governments offered to send weapons and receive Ukrainian refugees. It seemed as if Putin had made a catastrophic miscalculation, united the free world against him and invited to the most sweeping sanction regime in my memory. But this picture is changing now – and fast.

This week’s EU summit resembles a classic of the genre: full of warm words for Volodymyr Zelensky and an offer of “accession candidate” status for his country. But behind the scenes, there is great division. To the rage of the newer EU members, it seems that a clause will be inserted stating that Ukraine would not join until other countries were ready to assimilate its population. The accession process takes a decade or more. As a Kremlin official recently pointed out, Ukraine may not exist within two years.

The divisions do not stop there. For example: is Putin a partner or a pariah? Emmanuel Macron keeps calling him and occasionally warns the rest of Europe that Russia cannot be “humiliated” or seen “touching face”. The Prime Minister of Estonia has responded directly. “Putin can save face by going back to Russia,” she said on her recent trip to London. “I do not see any point in really talking to him if we want to get the message across that he is isolated.” The president of Poland is even more rude and asks if anyone is worried about saving Hitler’s face.

Then comes Germany. Olaf Scholz, its new chancellor, initially spoke of a tough game – and promised to spend 100 billion euros more on defense, buy US F-35s and abandon the newly built Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia. But the weapons Germany promised have been slow to come. Seven PzH 2000 howitzers, promised in early May, were delivered this week. But there is still no sign of the promised rocket artillery and air defense tanks, and Germany has vetoed Estonia and Spain’s attempts to send their own German-made set to Ukraine.

There is growing suspicion in Berlin that Scholz is trying to play on both sides, wanting a more Putin-compatible solution to the crisis. One of his senior advisers said this week that we should think as much about relations with Moscow after the conflict as we do arms deliveries to Ukraine.

In a major political speech this week, Scholz said Putin should be thwarted – but stopped wishing Ukraine victory. Perhaps part of him feels that Zelensky is doomed, which raises the question: why prolong the pain? Why continue with this jingoistic quarrel? And why put Germany through an avoidable winter of misery?

It is not only that Ukraine is having a hard time on the battlefield and losing up to a thousand soldiers a day. The economic war may be turning, with Putin ending up on the offensive. The rise in energy prices has meant a windfall for the Kremlin of 20 billion euros (17 billion pounds) from Germany in the first four months alone.

This was right from the set-off the error in the sanction plan. If Germany had no alternative to Russian oil and gas, it would always keep buying – Putin’s war machine financed as it went. But at much higher prices.

These prices would be lower (and the Kremlin much poorer) if the Saudis played ball and pumped more oil to keep world prices down, as they did in the 1980s. But Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, does not choose side. He strikingly failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and has a Macron-like habit of taking the phone to Putin. When the Saudi energy minister went to the economic summit in St. Petersburg. Petersburg last week, he declared that his country’s relations with Russia were “as hot as the weather in Riyadh”.

Incidentally, the video-linked star speaker at Putin’s conference was Xi Jinping – now much closer to Moscow than he appeared to be immediately after the invasion. President Xi turned 69 last week and celebrated it by calling Putin to reassure him that relations between China and Russia have maintained “momentum” in light of – ahem – “global turbulence and transformation”.

Russia has now displaced Saudi Arabia as China’s largest oil supplier. As for India, it buys 25 times more Russian oil than it used to. In all, Russia should make $ 320 billion (260 billion pounds) from selling energy this year, a 35 percent increase over last year.

So much for starving Putin’s war machine. Had Germany stopped buying Russian gas, the sanctions could have been disabling. But they were not. Now Putin has found new customers and new ways to get his hands on most other things he needs. The sanctions will cause massive pain: Russian inflation is high and its economy will have a downturn comparable to the crash of 2008. But with huge liquidity reserves and most of Russia’s army in Ukraine, it’s not hard to see a situation where Putin ends up winning.

He is already getting ready and invites Europe to imagine a winter where he is in control – and shuts off Europe’s gas taps. He has been making small cuts in his supplies to Europe over the last few days to see who is squealing. He has not been disappointed. Robert Habeck, Germany’s deputy prime minister and energy minister, said yesterday that “the restriction of gas supplies is an economic attack”. It does not sound like a country ready to break away from Russian gas in the near future.

So this brings us back to the division of Europe. The post-Soviet countries, many of which joined the EU only to protect themselves from Russia, see this as an existential threat. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will have torn up the old rule-based world order that protects small countries from large ones. China would swallow Taiwan. Putin would start thinking about carving a land corridor for Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the other side of Lithuania.

Meanwhile, France and Germany are talking about realpolitik: the need to be firm with Russia, but to deal with it in the long run. To offer EU membership, just not in a moment. To offer support to Ukraine, but not go so far as to actually save it. All of this would be in line with Putin’s original commitment: that a indebted, exhausted West can no longer defend democracy and has no stomach for a protracted struggle. There may not be much time left to prove him wrong.

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