Europe now is stuck ‘up to the gills’ with wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia, and unable to confront the consequences.
Emmanuel Macron irritated many people (just as Kissinger did at the WEF), when he said, ‘we should not humiliate Vladimir Putin’, because there must be a negotiated settlement. This has been French policy from early in this saga. More importantly, it is the Franco-German policy, and therefore it may end as the EU’s policy as well.
The qualification ‘may’ is important – as on Ukraine policy, the EU is more rancorously divided than during the Iraq War. And in a system (the EU system) that structurally insists on consensus (however much it is a confected one), when the wounds go deep, the consequence is that one issue can gridlock the whole system (as occurred in the lead-up to the Iraq war). If anything, the fractures in Europe today are wider and more acrimonious (i.e. acerbated by Rule of Law enforcements).
Whilst the tag ‘realist’ has acquired (in present circumstances) the connotation of ‘appeasement’, what Macron simply is saying is that the West cannot, and will not, maintain its current level of support for Ukraine indefinitely. Politics is intruding in all European states. In Germany, in France and in Italy too, there is a body of opinion against continued engagement in the conflict. Simply, the coming economic train crash is becoming all too apparent and threatening.
Boris Johnson’s rough ride in the recent confidence vote in the 1922 Committee may not have been explicitly linked to Ukraine, but the underlying indictments of Johnson’s Net Zero policies (viewed by Conservative voters as stealth-socialism), immigration and rising living costs, nonetheless certainly were.
Of course, ‘one swallow does not make a summer’. But Johnson’s dramatic collapse in popular standing, resulting from his economic belligerence towards Russia, is sending the European leadership in to a spin. “We are seeing panic in Europe due to Ukraine”, President Erdogan remarked.
What is notable is that for all Macron’s embrace of ‘European strategic autonomy’ in calling for a deal, he may be closer to Washington than are the London hawks. Yes, at the outset, the word ‘deal’ was vaguely present in American discourse, but then there followed a long hiatus in which, for about two and a half months, the narrative became solely: the need to bloody Putin’s nose.
The U.S. mood – the narrative – is turning, seemingly reconciled to more bad military news emanating out of Ukraine (with even quasi-neo-con Edward Luttwak throwing-in the towel, saying Russia will win, and that Donbass should have a say in its own fate).
Just as Johnson’s embrace of Ukraine is viewed as a desperate bid to summon the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War (Thatcher faced rising inflation and mounting domestic anger at her agenda, yet the victorious conflict over Argentina in 1982 helped power her to re-election), “Talk of the Ukraine crisis providing a ‘Falklands moment’ for Johnson – however – is simply fool’s gold for desperate Conservatives”, wrote Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. It may prove ‘fool’s gold’ for Brussels too.
If there is something to be said about Macron’s call for a deal, it is that even a limited ceasefire deal – which probably is what Macron has in mind – would not be feasible in this toxic, polarised western atmosphere. In short, Macron is ‘out over his skis’. Ducks (to mix metaphors) first need lining-up:
America would need to walk back its vicious ‘hate Putin’ meme. They would need to pivot messaging to a ‘spin’ about the ‘win’ that might be inherent to talking with Putin, otherwise the very act of talking with ‘evil Putin’ will backfire in a flood of public acrimony. Macron has just had a taste of this.
A certain reset has already begun (either by design or reader boredom). Ukraine news hardly rates ‘above the fold’ treatment in U.S. media today. Google ‘war’ searches and links have fallen off a cliff. In any event, the Democratic Party clearly needs to focus on the domestic issues, inflation, firearms and abortion – the issues that will dominate the midterms.
Here’s the thing. The EU clearly is fractured, but so are the American security élites. Perhaps a drawn-out stalemate, a war of attrition, keeping both Russia and western Europe engaged with each other is preferred (not least by an emotionally engaged Biden) to a ‘deal’, but long war may no longer be available (if, as Luttwak suggests, Russia soon will win).
And would Biden, were he to opt to try for a Ukraine ‘deal’, be able to sustain – politically – anything less than a deal spun as a clear U.S. ‘win’? Is that even an option now? Almost certainly not. Moscow is not in the mood.
Would an offer of talks from Biden contain even a kernel of value to consider from a Russian perspective? Almost certainly not. If not, what’s there then to talk about.
Moscow says it is open to talks with Kiev. The Kremlin however, is not looking for a ‘way out’ (public opinion is dead-set against it). Call it ‘talks, if you will, but a better translation might be that Moscow is ready to accept Zelensky’s ‘surrender document’ under the rubric of ‘talks’ – no easy ‘win’ there for a Team Biden to tout to a sceptical American electorate!
Thus, in one sense, this ‘long war of attrition’ formula has certain ‘failure’ baked-in to it – for it was not military attrition, but the financial war that was configured as the West’s ‘first strike’ capacity. The “rouble would become rubble” almost immediately, as full-spectrum economic war collapsed Russia structurally (pulling down its will to fight in Ukraine). The warning to China (and others such as India), was expected to be stark.
At least that was the pre-war plan. Military action was never intended to be the ‘heavy lift’ for crushing Russia, but rather to act as the amplifier of domestic discontent as Russia’s economy crumbled under unprecedented sanctions. A Donbas insurgency, planned and prepared over eight years, was never supposed to get a ‘starring role’, precisely because the U.S. always imagined it likely that Russian forces ultimately would prevail. Nonetheless it became ‘the only game in town’.
But the financial war, on which hopes for a quick Russian collapse were founded, has not only failed, but paradoxically has rebounded to wound Europe very, very badly. That, and collapsing Ukrainian esprit de corps, have become an albatross hanging from the neck of the EU. There’s no walking away from sanctions, nor from the imminence of Ukrainian military implosion, without Russia emerging the clear ‘winner’.
It is a debacle (however much the ‘spin artists’ twist and turn). Unsurprisingly then, European leaders are looking for an off-ramp from the noxious effects of policies which they – the EU – so breathlessly adopted, without even bothering to do ‘due diligence’.
But the point here is a much graver one: Even if there were to be wider talks (say) next week, can the West even theoretically agree on what it might say to Mr Putin? Has it, at least, done due diligence on how Russia, in its turn, would define its vision for the Eurasian future? And if so, would the European negotiators have the political mandate to respond, or would the talks collapse because Europe cannot answer to any negotiation mandate, beyond one strictly limited to issues of Ukraine’s future make-up?
Russia, in fact, has set forth clearly its strategic aims. In December 2021, Russia issued two draft treaties to the U.S. and NATO which included demands for a security architecture in Europe that would guarantee indivisible security for all, and a withdrawal by NATO to its former 1997 eastern limits. These documents underline that Ukraine is but one small part to Russia’s wider strategic aims. The two drafts were ignored in Washington.
The Ukraine war, in principle, could be ended through a negotiated settlement that addresses Russia’s wider security concerns across the European expanse, whilst still maintaining Ukraine’s independence – albeit with the Ukrainian north-east, east and south linked in some configuration to Russia, or absorbed into it.
But then, there is the reality that the EU has offshored its political mandate in respect to Ukraine to an overarching NATO. And the latter’s clear objective is to exclude Russia from the world political ‘chess board’ as a player, and to implode the Russian economy – to return Russia to the Yeltsin era, in other words.
As such, NATO objectives imply no room for dialogue. Moscow’s ‘long war’ too has to be correctly understood – it is not just about security threats emanating from Ukraine, but the security threat emanating from a culture, self-defined as an excusatory western ‘civilisation’:
Christopher Dawson in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, written nearly a century ago, writes: “Why is it that Europe alone among the civilisations of the world has been continually shaken and transformed by an energy of spiritual unrest that refuses to be content with the unchanging law of social tradition which rules the oriental cultures? It is because the religious ideal has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity, and to change the world”?
Do those European leaders contemplating a ‘deal’ understand that, whether they agree or not, the latter sums up the popular Russian perception? And that winning in Ukraine is seen as the necessary Cathartic trigger to re-launch Russian and other non-western civilisations?
The question then becomes: Does the European Union have a hand to play in such a scenario, separate to Washington’s? Actually no; it has no locus.
The EU has no locus – for – as Wolfgang Streeck has noted in his essay on “The EU after Ukraine”, west European states, apparently as a matter of course (i.e. without deeper reflection), agreed “to leave it to Biden to decide on its behalf – Europe’s fate will depend on Biden’s fate: That is, on the decisions, or non-decisions, of the U.S. government”. The EU thus effectively situates itself as an outlier province, within American domestic politics.
Some EU élites were triumphant: Ukraine had fixed the EU unambiguously as ‘North Atlanticist’, period. But why the glee?
It is true that the Ukraine war may (temporarily) have neutralized the various fault lines where the EU was crumbling. For some time, efforts have been made by the EU Commission to address the democracy void arising from the de factocentralization and depoliticization of the Union’s political economy, through filling the gap with a neoliberal ‘politics of values’ to be rigorously enforced by the EU – upon recalcitrant member states – through economic sanctions.
Identity rights, according to this interpretation, would serve as a substitute for the debates over political economy, with compliance on values to be enforced on member-states through economic sanctions (Rule of Law).
It is not hard to see how Ukraine might have gelled with Ursula von der Leyen’s determination to enforce EU values, not only on the likes of Orbán, but as a tool to uproot lingering pro-Russian sentiments in a factious EU, and firmly to plant North Atlanticism as the overriding EU value. Sanctioning Russia and its traditionalist notions was in perfect harmony with sanctioning East European states for their social traditionalism too.
This came at a cost however – the cost of catapulting the United States into a position of renewed hegemony over western Europe. It has forced Europe to continue wide-ranging, indeed crippling economic sanctions on Russia, which as a collateral effect, reinforces the position of U.S. dominance as a supplier of energy and raw materials to Europe.
It rules out completely Macron’s ideas that the EU needs a ‘European strategic sovereignty’ that can mitigate Russia’s legitimate security concerns. Europe now is stuck ‘up to the gills’ with wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia, and unable to confront the consequences. There is literally ‘no way’ the ensuing structural inflation or the economic contraction can, or will be, contained. The EU has abdicated on the means to bring the war to its end. Only sharing a table whilst Zelensky signs the surrender document remains to it.
There will be no serious attempt in the U.S. before November even to try to curb inflation. The consequence of this EU surrender to U.S. Command is that in respect to inflation, too, the EU will be dependent on the vicarious shifts of U.S. electoral politics. It just is as possible that Biden will order a new issue of ‘stimmie checks’ to mitigate the effects of inflation on American pocketbooks (thus further accelerating inflation), as it is as likely for him to permit Quantitative Tightening (aimed at reducing inflation) in the run up to the midterms.
As the effects of the war set in, these will bring a serious backlash against Brussels.
*(H. G. Wells)
The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.