While Western leaders still talk of total victory against Russia, they risk ignoring a grim reality with no end in sight.
Matthew Blackburn is a Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, Oslo within NUPI’s Research Group on Russia, Asia and International Trade.
Cross-posted from Responsible Statecraft
For over 15 months, Western leaders have insisted Ukraine’s victory is written in the stars. There are constant reminders of the high stakes: Ukraine defeating Russia is Europe’s guarantee of a peaceful and prosperous future. Volodymyr Zelensky claims that Ukraine is protecting the continent from “the most anti-European force of the modern world.” According to the dominant binary interpretation of the conflict, the alternative to Ukrainian victory is a sordid capitulation to Russian aggression that would drag Europe into a new dark age.
This Manichean vision of present and future is sustained by “war optimism” — the insistence that Russia is on the road to economic, political, and military collapse; and the bright future will come. Recent statements at the G7 in Tokyo and by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Helsinki show little change: negotiations are still rejected, more weaponry is promised, and assurances are made about final victory. The recent abortive mutiny of mercenary maverick Yevgeny Prigozhin will shore up the narrative of Russia as a fragile state barely holding it together.
Behind the scenes, however, there must be concerns. Russia has not been broken economically, and for all the noise around the Prigozhin incident, no serious political fragmentation occurred, and the regime held firm. Partial mobilization has stabilized Russian defenses, and the Russian army has successfully adapted its anti-drone, infantry and artillery tactics. Russia retains an advantage in artillery production as NATO countries struggle to ramp up military-industrial capacity. The successful expansion and reorganization of the Russian army is part of the reason Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is no longer needed; the regular Russian army has been quite capable of coping with the Ukrainian counter-offensive without them.
If Russia is now strong enough to withstand a NATO-backed Ukraine, Europe faces a long war on its eastern flank. The Biden administration promises it is in for the long haul. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley expects “a very violent fight” that would “take a considerable amount of time and at high cost.” While Blinken dismisses the idea of a ceasefire, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently framed the Ukrainian counter-offensive as a means to strengthening Kyiv’s position at the negotiating table. Yet, given the huge distance between both sides’ positioning on territory, neutrality, and security guarantees, it is hard to see a plausible basis for a negotiated peace.
Europe’s elites are struggling to grasp the implications of a prolonged war on its eastern flank with a major nuclear power. Over the last two months, some differences have become visible on foreign policy. At the G7, European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen aligned the European Union with the Biden administration’s hard line on China while French President Emmanuel Macron resisted attempts to expand NATO’s reach to the Pacific theater. A month before this, Macron was much derided when, during a state visit to Beijing, he urged Europe to avoid taking sides over Taiwan and instead seek “strategic autonomy” as the third power in a new multipolar world order.
Given his track record for rhetorical flourishes and political opportunism, Macron is easy to dismiss. Yet his comments reflect a line of thinking that is not short-term and black-and-white, but strategic and long-term. Ukraine’s quick victory, which was bet on rapidly reordering the post-Soviet space for Europe’s benefit, has not materialized. Now, with the war set to drag on indefinitely, three serious threats to Europe’s future “strategic autonomy” are visible.
The first is an immediate and existential hard security problem. If the upcoming NATO summit in July goes as is expected, more weapons and money, perhaps even NATO membership, will be promised to Ukraine. Wary of triggering all-out war with Russia, NATO will not send its troops and pilots into Ukraine, leaving Kyiv reliant on a drip supply of more advanced weaponry that is insufficient for a successful general offensive.
If recent trends are indicative, Kyiv may resort to using new NATO weaponry to launch increasingly destructive sorties on Russian territory. This could compel Russia to respond in kind, using its long-range weapons to interdict NATO supply lines into Ukraine from Poland and Romania. This event would obviously put European leaders in a very difficult position: if NATO does not respond its reputation would be mortally wounded; if it does an escalation could occur to threaten Europe’s very existence, let alone its strategic autonomy.
The second is a medium-to-long term hard security problem. This assumes escalation management and a frozen conflict or “forever war” scenario. In this case, Ukraine will resemble Israel, a Western-armed state in constant readiness for military operations. Russia, cut out of Europe and unable to defeat Ukraine or stop its attacks, could become more radical and seek to make Europe pay with asymmetrical warfare. Such an approach would echo that of isolated Iran in the Middle East, but given Russia’s size, nuclear arsenal, and partnership with China, it would play out very differently. Europe would be caught in a classic security dilemma: increasing military assistance to Ukraine aiming to bolster Europe’s security which only results in more insecurity.
The third threat is economic. The loss of cheap energy from Russia is a serious challenge for Europe and is likely to be solved by dependency on LNG from America and long-term investment in expensive green energy. This means high energy prices will be the new “normal” for Europe. At the same time, in a “forever war” scenario in Ukraine, the Americans would continue to push Europe to spend far more on military production. In world trade terms, Europe would face U.S. pressure to side with Washington in future spats with China. With America moving to policies that resemble protectionism such as the Inflation Reduction Act, Europe could not even be sure of access to North American markets.
Finally, Europe could expect nothing resembling the Marshall Plan to help it cope with the strains. On the contrary it would be expected to contribute massive amounts of aid to Ukraine, a country with well-documented, multi-level corruption problems. The economic dimensions of this picture suggest Europe’s social contract would be unsustainable. As living standards drop and the economy contracts, voters would likely ask who is to blame and what is to be done. European leaders would not be able to point their fingers to Putin forever, which would create space for a new virulent wave of populism.
As we approach the NATO summit in Vilnius next month — and with the recent fiasco around Prigozhin still fresh — it is unrealistic to expect any serious changes on the war in Ukraine. Europe appears to have no way out; it is not in control of policy, and it is driven forward by uncontrollable events. Escaping the dark possibilities in the medium to long term demands responsible statecraft and determined leadership in the present. In the short term, Europe’s leaders must stop yielding to war fever and the euphoric projection of victory. It is time for Europe to seriously reassess the consequences of a long war in Ukraine rather than blindly marching into a future of instability, forever war, decline and impotence.