Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 17 July 2022

Putin is already at war with Europe. There is only one way to stop him

Simon Tisdall

He has weaponised food, energy and refugees, spreading economic and political pain across the continent. Sanctions don’t work, a land for peace deal would be a disaster. Only the military route remains

A gas pipeline burns after it was hit during shelling from Russian positions in northern Kharkiv in Ukraine.
A gas pipeline burns after it was hit during shelling from Russian positions in northern Kharkiv in Ukraine. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Time to wake up and smell the cordite. Like shockwaves from an exploding missile, Vladimir Putin’s war on Europe’s edge is rapidly rolling westwards, blasting its way through the front doors of homes, businesses and workplaces from Berlin to Birmingham. Its fallout seeds a toxic rain of instability, hardship and fear.

The idea the Ukraine conflict could be confined to Ukraine – Nato’s politically convenient grand delusion – and that western sanctions and arms supplies would stop the Russians was always a nonsense. Now, enraged by Kyiv’s stubborn resistance and hell-bent on punishing his punishers, Putin’s aim is the immiseration of Europe.

By weaponising energy, food, refugees and information, Russia’s leader spreads the economic and political pain, creating wartime conditions for all. A long, cold, calamity-filled European winter of power shortages and turmoil looms. And like a coin-fed gas meter, the price of western leaders’ timidity and shortsightedness ticks upwards by the hour.

Russia’s destabilisation operations, social media manipulation, cyber-attacks, diplomatic double-talk, nuclear blackmail, plus its unrelenting slaughter of civilians in Ukraine, will only intensify Europe’s state of siege in the months ahead. The west’s fanciful belief it could avoid continent-wide escalation is evaporating fast.

Though not entirely due to Putin’s war, Europe now faces fundamental challenges as big or bigger than the 2008 financial crash, Brexit, or the pandemic. Yet many EU and UK politicians skulk in denial. If, as predicted, the gas stops flowing and the lights dim, it will not just be a matter of closed factories, lost jobs, and depressed markets.

Freezing pensioners, hungry children, empty supermarket shelves, unaffordable cost of living increases, devalued wages, strikes and street protests point to Sri Lanka-style meltdowns. An exaggeration? Not really. Blowback, fanned by the Putin-admiring far right, is already gathering strength in Greece and Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

In prospect, too, is a shattering of EU solidarity as national governments compete for scarce resources. Brussels is due to publish a “winter preparedness plan” this week. But its provisions are unclear and unenforceable. The broader context is lack of an agreed, implemented EU-wide energy policy.

Despite bilateral cooperation pledges, a total Russian cut-off could pit country against country, further inflate prices, and split the anti-Moscow coalition. In such a scenario Putin would demand sanctions relief in return for resumed supplies, just as he has over blockaded Black Sea grain.

Import-dependent Germany is already taking unilateral steps, seeking alternative oil and gas suppliers. A national emergency moved closer after Moscow turned off the Nord Stream I pipeline last Monday. Many in Berlin fear (and some environmentalists hope) the shutdown – and any subsequent rationing – may become permanent.

Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor, fretted publicly about a “political nightmare”. Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, sounded similarly panicky last week. He predicted an imminent gas cut-off. Waxing Napoleonic, he urged European countries to form up in “order of battle”. But as in 1812, Russia has “General Winter”.

As if the mounting misery of millions were not daunting enough, then consider, too, the war’s knock-on impact on efforts to combat the climate and biodiversity crises. In the UK and elsewhere, net zero targets appear at increasing risk of being abandoned.

Because Europe faces “very, very strong conflict and strife” this winter over energy prices, it should make a short-term return to fossil fuels, Frans Timmermans, the European commission’s vice-president, suggested. Once again, Germany is showing a lead, increasing electricity production from coal-fired power stations. Once again, the west looks to tyrannical Gulf oil sheikhs for salvation.

A European winter of chaos may also strain US ties. By comparison, America’s post-pandemic recovery is more advanced, its economy more resilient, its energy costs much lower. Yet it is US president Joe Biden’s too-cautious leadership of Nato that has led Europe into this geopolitical cul-de-sac, even as a weakening euro slides below one dollar.

For Europeans, as they are re-learning to their cost, all wars are local. For Americans, as ever, all wars are foreign.

The sanctions, economic aid, and other non-military measures preferred by Biden were never going to be enough to bring Putin to heel. Some observers suspect a stalemate that slowly bleeds Russia suits US purposes, whatever the collateral damage. Yet right now, it’s Putin who is bleeding Europe. Sanctions are backfiring or poorly enforced. His energy coffers bulge. And Ukrainians aside, the pain is disproportionately felt by less wealthy European and developing countries. As instability grows, US-Europe divergence will feed pressure to change course.

The obvious escape route is a land-for-peace deal with Putin, agreed over Ukraine’s dead bodies. This kind of shoddy sellout has influential advocates. If (and it’s a big “if”), Russia returned to business as normal, it would alleviate Europe’s suffering – though probably not Ukraine’s.

Yet such a deal would also be a precedent-setting disaster for future peace and security across the continent and globally, too. Just think Taiwan. Or Estonia. It would destroy the sovereign integrity of democratic Ukraine.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: using Nato’s overwhelming power to decisively turn the military tide.

As previously argued here, direct, targeted, forceful western action to repulse Russia’s repulsive horde is not a vote for a third world war. It’s the only feasible way to bring this escalating horror to a swift conclusion while ensuring Putin, and those who might emulate him, do not profit from lawless butchery.

Intent on inflicting maximum disruption, Putin openly menaces the heartlands of European democracy. The writing is on the wall and may no longer be ignored. Enough of the half-measures and the dithering! Nato should act now to force Putin’s marauding troops back inside Russia’s recognised borders.

It’s not only Ukraine that requires saving. It’s Europe, too. 

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