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17 April 2024

Ukraine is Europe’s problem now

Germany expects a long war of attrition in Ukraine. That is a war Putin is likely to win.

By Wolfgang Münchau

The US Congress will probably pass a version of a Ukraine aid package soon, but we shouldn’t hold our breath. The deal that Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said he would propose has the official approval of Donald Trump. It is a loan-lease package, which means Ukraine would receive military aid in the form of a commercial credit and leased military equipment to be returned after use. The materiel side is for political cover – as in the Second World War when the US supplied arms to its allies on the basis of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act. But it makes a difference if the financial-aid part comes in the form of a loan or a grant.

If and when Ukraine joins the EU, its debts will effectively become EU debt, as the EU will ultimately have to fund the country’s transition. What Trump and Johnson are doing is pushing the burden of funding to Europe. Even if the package is agreed, there will still be legislative and logistical delays before it is implemented. Since this legislation in the House would be different from that already approved by the US Senate, if passed it will go back to a conference committee that will need to agree on a joint text.

In the meantime, Russia has exploited the policy vacuum at the heart of the West’s Ukraine politics. Its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure have been devastating. On 13 April Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, announced that Germany would be sending another Patriot air-defence system to Ukraine to add to the two it has already supplied. This is welcome, but will not be decisive. Volodymyr Zelensky said he would need 25 systems to defend the country fully. This gap is a good metric of the scale of the problem – a gap between Western promises and the conflict’s reality.

As US foreign policy becomes increasingly focused on the Middle East, this is becoming Europe’s war. Apart from more air-defence systems, what Ukraine and its European allies need most urgently is a strategy – a clear idea of what the first- and second-best outcomes are, a2nd how to work towards them. It is rare that modern wars end with outright winners and losers. There are more likely outcomes to this war than Russia annexing all of Ukraine or suffering total defeat.

The West’s biggest mistake was to underestimate Vladimir Putin’s grip on power and his resilience – and to overestimate the impact its sanctions would have on the Russian economy. Russia had higher growth rates in 2023 than any large Western economy; in terms of purchasing power, it is approximately the size of Germany. Now that there is resistance the West seems to have lost interest, and its attention is now mostly on the Middle East.

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A recent comment from Scholz underlined the West’s lack of strategy. On 16 March he said that he expected the Ukraine war to last for a long time. This is consistent with an unofficial estimate I heard from a source who told me that the working assumption in the Berlin chancellery is that the war will continue for a decade. This expectation is highly revealing. Ten years is beyond even the most optimistic estimates of the Scholz administration’s expected lifespan. It’s another way of saying we have no clue how the war will end, and we will happily leave this to the next person in charge.

The Germans are providing more aid and weapons than anyone else in Europe – but strategically, they are a disaster. The only clarity we get from Berlin is on its red lines. We know that Scholz does not want an escalation beyond the borders of Ukraine. Everything else is surrounded by dense fog. The red-line approach gave us the eurozone debt crisis in the last decade. Now the German government is applying it to foreign policy.

It is undoubtedly true that the West has more and better weapons than Russia, and a lot more resources. When Iran attacked Israel on 13 April, it was impressive that the air defences deployed by Israel and its allies were able to intercept all but a few of the more than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles launched by Iran. A Western-supported proxy war against Russia in Ukraine should not really be a contest. But it has turned into one because of the strategic failure to set specific war goals and devise plans for achieving them, such as: secure current battle lines, liberate occupied territories segment by segment, identify potential exit points between the extremes of total defeat and total victory, and prepare a diplomatic deal for when the war ends.

The implicit strategy behind a ten-year war is an attempt to exhaust the enemy, or else hope that some external event will intervene in our favour. I would not advise Western leaders to try to beat Putin in a contest of willpower and endurance. We are far more likely than Russia to succumb to geopolitical attention deficit disorder or chronic fatigue syndrome. A ten-year war would also put Ukraine’s accession to EU and Nato into a state of permafrost, and it would become financially debilitating for Ukraine and the EU. Neither Nato nor the EU can accept a country that is in a state of war. Did their leaders think this through?

We are entering a political situation that is unfamiliar to Europeans. Germany is the only country with any capacity to assist Ukraine – yet Germany is the country with the red lines. The US, meanwhile, remains a distant and increasingly reluctant supporter. It is not just about Trump. With or without him, Ukraine is a European problem now.

[See also: How to stop the far right in Europe]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran