Western leaders have given mixed messages on ending war in Ukraine. They fear the fallout of a power change in Moscow, and when it comes to Putin, it may be a case of "better the devil you know."
KYIV — If you tried to summarize how the West feels about ending the Russian-Ukrainian war, you would be pretty surprised at the drastically varied range of responses. On the one hand, Western leaders often say that they will stand by Ukraine as long as necessary, and that Russia "must not win." And yet they also emphasize that a change of power in Russia is out of the question.
The fact is that the West is constantly supplying Ukraine with weapons and other supplies, not to mention money. But they are doing so at a snail's pace (with some countries even blocking the supply of weapons). They also won't give tanks and aircraft, and forbid that weapons that have been delivered already be allowed to fire on Russian territory.
But then, Western politicians emphasize the inviolability of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, while mentioning the need to cede Crimea and Donbas for the sake of peace.
What does all of this mean? Only one thing — the West is striving to help Ukraine win but is incredibly afraid of Russia's total defeat in this war.
Business as usual
Let’s ignore the politicians and experts directly or indirectly bribed by the Kremlin, as well as the left and the extreme right and focus on the realists. Twenty years of Putin's rule and high energy prices have created a unique business model in Europe.
Russia exports oil and gas to the West for money, but then it uses this money to buy things from the West because it doesn't produce anything decent itself. So European countries benefit the most from this model. And yes sure, the Kremlin elite makes a good profit too. The point is that any tension on the border disrupts this balance.
That is why for eight years, since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Western business people have been putting pressure on their governments to soften anti-Russian sanctions or ignore them altogether. Even the death of Dutch citizens on flight MH-17 from a Russian missile did not prevent Dutch companies from building the Crimean Bridge, which solidified Russia's claim to the territory.
The risks of punishment
Since the start of the invasion, many business people were waiting for the quick defeat of Ukraine so they could continue doing business with Russia after briefly expressing their sympathies.
But ordinary citizens are also not free of blame. On the one hand, according to the Eurobarometer, 80% of Europeans support sanctions against Russia, but on the other, 58% are partially or completely not ready for an increase in energy prices as a result of these sanctions. Of course, this is only a statistical average, but the fact that 38% of Germans are not ready to endure an economic downturn in order to maintain sanctions is concerning.
The pressure businesses and citizens are putting on their governments will not go away easily.
The results of a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) poll divides Europeans into two opposing groups: the “Peace” camp (35%) who wants the war to end as soon as possible, even at the cost of Ukrainian concessions. And a “Justice” camp whose pressing goal is to punish Russia for its aggression and restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine (22%). In all countries, apart from Poland, the “Peace” camp prevails, although another 20% have not yet decided.
It is clear that the pressure businesses and average citizens are putting on their governments will not go away easily. What's more, the fears of these people can hardly be called unjustified.
Here is what Europeans are most afraid of (when asked to choose two options): Nuclear war (35%); war spreading across Europe (34%); great economic crisis (31%); and another 29% are afraid of inflation and 17% of supply disruptions.
The list shows the reasons why European leaders objectively do not want to get involved with Russia. Ironically, the Feb. 24 invasion awakened long-dormant fears of nuclear war, Russian occupation, and famine.
The escalation of the conflict will lead to oil and gas disruptions, and any government that allows this to happen will collapse. Europeans, of course, sympathize with Ukraine, but this is up until the first cold winter. Let's also not forget that gas is not only an energy carrier, but also a raw material for the chemical industry in Germany. In America, the situation is different, but even there, many are dissatisfied with the rise in gasoline prices. The economic crisis caused by the Russian invasion has already been called "Putinflation", and the end is not yet in sight.
Military equipment on Manezhnaya Square during the August 1991 coup
Feet of clay
The hunger caused by the blockade of Ukrainian wheat does not directly threaten the wealthy West, but it reduces stability in the rest of the world, forcing Washington, London and Paris to scatter their attention. Ultimately, the longer the war continues, the less strong the support for those governments involved, even if that involves simply supplying aid to Ukraine.
Alright, you might say, these are all good reasons why the European old guard does not want escalation. Presidents and prime ministers care more about their own voters than Ukrainians, that is clear. But why are they choosing a protracted battle? Why won't the Free World use all its might to defeat Russia in half a year and return to normal life?
The answer is that they are afraid of the total defeat of Russia.
History shows that the defeat of an authoritarian regime on the battlefield almost always provokes its downfall, and in the case of empires, even their collapse. There is not the slightest doubt that the current Russian Federation is a colossus with feet of clay that will fall at the first serious push. A repeat of 1917 and 1991 is inevitable, when Russia underwent total regime change, and this is what scares the West so much.
The problems with a Russian defeat
After all, if today there is a fear of a nuclear war, what will happen if Russia splits apart and instead of one country with bombs, there are a dozen and a half? Spoiler: nothing apocalyptic, you can't launch missiles from any regional center. Strategic weapons don't work that way. However, the possibility of selling warheads to terrorists in the other countries remains.
Another concern is a war of everyone against everyone — a massive redistribution of borders, decolonization processes, civil and inter-ethnic conflicts, a total humanitarian crisis, terrorism (both domestic and exported from ISIS), and eventually genocide. Whatever one might say, the West still finds Putin more tolerable than the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Then, there is the issue of refugees.
Another problem is oil and gas. If there are interruptions with them today, what will happen when you have to negotiate with a dozen independent states? And what if the pipelines are damaged by the war? And if the oil fields are bombed? What if the drillers run away? It is not always easy to exchange oil for money.
And then there is wheat. A catastrophe in Russia may remove it from the list of food exporters, which means it will make problems for the Global South.
Finally, there is the issue of refugees. Not millions, but tens of millions of people could move to countries that are not ready to host them.
The China threat
The most important problem is China. The fall of Russia may result in unprecedented prosperity for the country due to the spread of its influence in Siberia and Central Asia. Europe may not care, but the U.S. does not relish that prospect.
And do not think that all of this is nonsense. If people consider a threat to be real, then it is real. That's why in 1991, George Bush Sr. discouraged Kyiv from declaring independence. To prevent this from happening again, long-term systematic work within Russia is needed — and it was already needed yesterday. Is the West doing that? Do they have a sufficient army to protect themselves from the risks of the collapse of Russia? Being afraid and being careful is always easier than doing something.
30 years ago, all these fears stopped us from pushing the USSR too hard — and now we have a problem with Putin. Understanding the fears that grip the Free World today will keep us from falling into that trap a second time.
So, the West will not abandon Ukraine in this war, that's for sure. But Ukraine should not expect a miracle from them either.
*Sergiy Gromenko is a Security Specialist and member of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.
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