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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putin’s Dream: Is The West’s Pro-Ukraine Coalition About To Unravel?

In a world divided between democracies and autocracies, the autocrats can count on the democrats eventually dividing among themselves— the freedom to disagree is, after all, the very cornerstone of democracy.

Photo of France's Macron and Germany's Scholz in Berlin in October

France's Macron and Germany's Scholz in Berlin in October

Alex Hurst


PARIS — In a world divided between democracies and autocracies, the autocrats can count on the democrats eventually dividing among themselves— the freedom to disagree is, after all, the very cornerstone of democracy.

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In the global ideological clash playing out in the war in Ukraine, the moment has arrived where those divisions could wind up undermining the democratic cause itself. As Lucie Robequain writes for Les Echos, Vladimir Putin’s “dream” scenario is peaking over the horizon as France and Germany, the traditional co-drivers of European policy, are increasingly divided on a host of key issues from energy to industrial policy to arms production.

Supported by the West, Ukraine has managed to resist Russia’s invasion for eight long months.

But the Western coalition risks sliding into crisis as the intra-European divisions coincide with the growing economic costs of supporting Ukraine and uncertain support in the United States from House Republicans, who appear poised to take a majority after next week’s midterm elections.

France and Germany: Why is it so tense?

France is furious that Germany has, without giving its fellow EU members advance notice, unilaterally pursued a €200 billion support package for its own industry, which threatens to destabilize competitiveness in the single market. Berlin has also opted for U.S. and Israeli suppliers for a future missile defense shield over Eastern Europe rather than a European developed and produced alternative that would include the Franco-Italian SAMP/T system. There is also tension over Germany’s decision to continue to phase out nuclear power rather than turning to France for new next-generation reactors.

Plenty of smiles for the cameras, but no substantive breakthrough.

For its part, Germany, which built its economy on cheap Russian gas fueling an industry whose major export destination was China, sees an economic model collapsing on both ends in a newly divided world—and which it cannot reconfigure at the snap of its fingers. In this context, Berlin is particularly frustrated with France’s refusal allow the construction of a new natural gas pipeline that would connect Germany to Spain, which hosts the majority of Europe’s Liquified Natural Gas import terminals; France is also accused of promoting “European defense” initiatives that in reality favor its own industry.

Europe is more divided than ever

A lunch Wednesday between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz featured plenty of smiles for the cameras, but no substantive breakthrough on any of these points of contention.

“These arguments could seem fair game in times of peace,” writes Robequain. “But in the face of the conflict we’re up against with Russia, we shouldn’t pick the wrong enemy.”

Adding to the potential rifts is uncertainty in Italy, where former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi boasted to his party colleagues that he had exchanged gifts with Putin and suggested that Ukraine was to blame for the invasion. The revelations forced new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party relies on Berlusconi’s for its parliamentary majority, to run damage control. Still, it was another recent high-profile crack in what has been a remarkably united front in support of Kyiv.

All smiles?

Thursday's edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Potential for a change in the U.S. policy

Meanwhile, the sniping among allies is also happening on the transatlantic front: from the US, over European defense spending and levels of financial assistance to Ukraine; from Europe, over lack of U.S. consideration for the enormous economic hit to Continental economies due to energy costs—including imports of Liquified Natural Gas from the U.S., whose prices spiked wildly during the summer and early fall.

In the face of sometimes divergent interests within the West, the Biden Administration’s willingness to step in as funder and supplier of Ukrainian needs has been key to maintaining unity.

If the U.S. pulled back, would France, Germany, and the EU as a whole step up to fill the gap?

Beyond Europe’s own divisions, the potential for a change in this U.S. policy has foreign observers of the U.S. concerned.Le Monde’s Piotr Smolar sees a Republican Party that is taking its foreign policy cues from the likes of Tucker Carlson. “Their star preacher is the Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson, who never stops inversing who is responsible [for the war in Ukraine], by accusing his own government of having instigated and fueled the war,” writes Smolar. It’s not an anodyne observation; multiple outlets have noted the seemingly direct links between propaganda points from the Kremlin and the views espoused by Tucker Carlson.

The U.S. support to Ukraine is getting less certain

Yet the iron-clad support from the U.S. is now suddenly very much uncertain. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has threatened future financial assistance to Ukraine, warning that House Republicans would not write “a blank check” if they take control of Congress

Such a shift in Washington’s willingness to support Ukraine could risk throwing papered-over divisions into a full blown crisis in the Western coalition. If the U.S. pulled back, would France, Germany, and the EU as a whole step up to fill the gap? Or would it give cover to skeptics in those nations to press for a pull back themselves? You can be sure Putin will be watching, and dreaming.

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Updated Nov. 30, 2023 at 12:10 p.m.

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