WHILE the united Nato front against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine remains officially intact, a visible divergence is developing between Europeans and Americans.
The Biden administration has allocated $40billion worth of military aid to help President Zelensky drive the Russians out of Ukraine. France and Germany, while joining the latest EU sanctions on Russian banks and oil exports this week, are meanwhile discussing with Putin the possibilities of a ceasefire that would probably leave the Russians with their gains.
Public debate in the United States itself oscillates between hawks who want to defeat Putin to destroy Russia’s superpower credibility and doves anxious to contain the war and alleviate the unintended but devastating worldwide economic effect of the sanctions imposed on Russia.
US elder statesman Henry Kissinger told the recent Davos conference that the war needed to be stopped within the next two months, even if it means Ukraine ceding territory, to avoid a direct East-West conflict developing. On the other hand, Left-wing billionaire activist George Soros told the meeting it was imperative to defeat Russia.
Doubts are starting to be heard about the wisdom of the hasty recruitment to Nato of Sweden and Finland. The latter joining would increase the alliance’s land border with Russia by 800 miles, containing the Russians permanently behind a Nato wall, but it comes at the price of new US obligations in Europe and distracts attention from its problems in Asia and the Middle East.
Any ambition Vladimir Putin may have nursed about recreating the former Soviet empire in east and central Europe has surely died in Ukraine. While Russia remains a nuclear power, it is not a land power capable of winning a conventional war against Nato or even strongly armed individual countries such as Finland or Poland.
Without the security deal it wants from the West, the historic enemy, its security will focus on alliances with China, Iran and possibly India, its ability to wage cyber warfare and, ultimately, its nuclear arsenal. Putin sent a message to that effect last week by successfully testing a zircon hypersonic missile against which the United States has no defence.
In Ukraine, America’s military largesse means Putin is no longer fighting to win but to ensure that Russia’s credibility survives the peace, which means keeping the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine that the plodding Russian army has conquered despite heavy losses.
At present, the Russians seem incapable of advancing much deeper into Ukraine but will not willingly surrender what they have captured. The Ukrainians have not so far been able to turn them back.
The way Biden sees the war will be decisive not only for its immediate future but also for the cohesion of the Nato alliance. Does the prize of Putin’s humiliation – entirely at Ukraine’s expense – outweigh the worsening for the world of the economic reverse effects of sanctions which are being felt even in the United States?
So far, Biden’s determination remains constant. He even surprised his own administration by promising to defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked it, although the US has no treaty obligation to Taiwan any more than it has to Ukraine and has deliberately avoided making one.
If the Biden administration insists on a clear defeat for Russia, there is no guarantee the Europeans will go along. A halt to the fighting and peace talks have become a European priority although that can happen only with full American participation, which is not at the moment on Biden’s radar.
Biden won’t talk to Putin but the Europeans are keeping contact. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron held a telephone conference with Putin at the weekend. They urged a ceasefire, negotiations between Putin and Zelensky and the lifting of the Russian naval blockade of Odessa to allow essential Ukrainian wheat exports to resume.
Zelensky’s dilemma is whether to side with the compromising Europeans, who have offered him coveted EU membership, or the Americans on whose expanding military aid depends any chance, however slim, he has of driving the Russians out of the country.
He knows that the Americans are fickle allies – see Afghanistan abandoned to the Taliban, Iraq abandoned to Iran and Libya abandoned to itself – who are using Ukraine’s tragedy for their own purposes. At some point, Zelensky must choose whether the faraway US or neighbouring Europe is best for Ukraine’s long-term interests.
Zelensky’s difficult options also provide Putin with a lifeline. They give him the opportunity to play the Europeans against the Americans but also to remind those Russians who are alarmed by the way the war has gone that their fundamental enemy is still the United States rather than their EU trading partners.
The EU on Monday agreed new sanctions on Russia which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said would reduce its oil exports to Europe by 90 per cent by the end of the year. Importantly, the embargo does not cover Russia’s gas exports, on which the EU is even more dependent.
The pipelined oil supply is only suspended pending the progress of Franco-German initiatives with Putin. It remains to be seen how the EU’s inflation hit economies will cope with the industrial and public reaction to their sacrifice if the war continues. Oil is scarce and the energy renewables on which von der Leyen counts to take up the slack even scarcer.
In the US, so-called foreign policy realists say the US has already done as much as it can, in the absence of physically joining the fight, to defend Ukraine without risking a direct crisis with Russia over its increased weapons supply if these are used for proactive offence against Russian territory or naval forces in the Black Sea.
They say Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s objective of weakening Russia to the extent that it cannot attack anyone else has already been achieved and that the adhesion of Finland and Sweden to Nato involves new commitments that Washington may regret.
Dr Sumantra Maitra, in an analysis for the conservative Centre for American Renewal, wrote: ‘Put simply, Russia is not going to be the hegemonic spectre looming over Europe anytime in the near future . . . Russia is a manageable threat that European states can increasingly balance on their own collectively.’
He added: ‘Neither Finland nor Sweden adds enough to the security of the alliance to justify the additional costs. Adding them would mean two more states as protectorates for whom the United States would be treaty-bound to go to a nuclear war.’