This year’s scorching European summer has fostered a strange mixture of hedonism and stoicism. The post-Covid determination to take a holiday and frolic in the sun has existed alongside a pervasive sense of resignation in the face of hardships already looming on the horizon. It is a jarring contradiction born of the all-too-real awareness that a war is being fought next door.
Six months after Russia’s invasion, Europe’s attention is no longer as compulsively fixed on Ukraine as it was. Those experts in military tactics have largely vanished from our television screens, along with their convoluted maps. It has taken the threat of a conflagration at the largest nuclear power station in Europe—at Zaporizhzhia—for Ukraine to reclaim a place in the headlines of the Western media. What has endured, largely undiminished, at least in Europe, is the early sense of popular solidarity with Ukraine and a certain pride that this solidarity is still there.
The question is: How much longer can it last? And what will happen if it starts to fracture or simply retreats? This is a doubly difficult question to answer because, for all the prominence of Ukraine in the news, there has been a conspicuous lack of discussion in most European countries about the role of Europe in the war and nothing at all that could pass for an informed debate.
The cause—Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state, and its status as a victim of Russian military aggression—are so obviously unimpeachable, that supplying whatever help Ukraine’s president and his HQ demand has become something of a sacred duty in itself. Meanwhile, some in Ukraine have resurrected old arguments about their country nobly fulfilling its own sacred, and historic, duty to stand as the West’s bulwark against the Eurasian beast.
That Europe’s military assistance for Ukraine has evolved and expanded over time has rarely been challenged. So long as Ukrainians are intent on continuing the fight—and they have become more, rather than less, so as their losses have mounted and time has gone on—who are we, the argument goes, to militate for peace? Anyone on the European side who even hints that Ukraine might at least to think about a time when it might need to cut its losses is dismissed as an appeaser, a shill for Russia, or worse.
There have been differences of emphasis within Europe to be sure, with the undercurrents breaking roughly along the line between old and new members of the European Union, and with the argument boiling down to who might be exhibiting too much or too little esprit de corps. The UK, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson (and no longer in the EU), has been staunchly on the side of “new Europe.” Sweden—a new convert to NATO in response to the Russian invasion—veers in the same direction.
France and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy, are seen as less enthusiastic about military support for Ukraine, and more concerned to contain the war—with 20th-century history offering at least part of an explanation. When a choice has had to be made, however, Old Europe has joined its voice to that of New Europe, and the united front has been maintained. Ukraine must win. When the EU sought to slash its energy dependence on Russia, the semblance of unity was maintained, albeit at the cost of some flexibility (for Hungary, among others).
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As summer turns into autumn, however, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a crossroads is being reached that will test both the limits of European unity and the strength of its commitment to Ukraine. Few are admitting as much quite so starkly, but with much of Europe facing either double-digit inflation or winter rationing of energy, or both, governments face some profoundly difficult choices. They can rack up their national debt by subsidizing prices to consumers and business; they can risk the wrath of their populations by raising prices and/or taxes; or they can try to do something in between. But something will have to be done, and whatever is done will have implications for Ukraine.
Some countries are better placed, or better prepared, to weather the winter than others. France is less dependent on others for energy than most, and it will subsidize prices so that customers face just a single-digit price increase. Having upended the energy strategy it has pursued for the past 30 years, Germany is preparing for levies on consumers, industry shutdowns, and delays to many climate objectives, as coal and nuclear return to the mix. Italy, whose technocratic government was felled by economic discord, faces elections next month, so its response is in limbo. Spain is trying to accelerate a new pipeline from Algeria, and the EU has quietly turned its interest in Azerbaijan away from human rights and on to oil and gas.
Nowhere, however, is the debate about what to do about soaring energy prices more confused or contested than in the UK. This is partly because there has been no seriously functioning government since early July, when half the cabinet defected and Boris Johnson was forced to resign. But it is also because a tribal rift that has been exposed by the ensuing Conservative Party leadership context, between small-state tax-cutters on the one side and self-styled defenders of sound finance on the other.
There will be no resolution until Johnson’s successor is declared on September 5, and the quarrels may not even end then. Meanwhile, every possible group is ferociously lobbying for its own interests. Amid the cacophony, however, what might be surprising to any longtime observer of UK politics is the absence of the normal UK government response to any setback. Almost no one is openly blaming the foreigners—in this case, the Russians—at least not in so many words.
For mass consumption, the energy crisis—let’s call it that—is being treated more as an unforeseeable catastrophe, akin to a natural disaster, than as the direct consequence of something anyone, such as Russia, did. The actual reason for the steep energy hikes is commonly left hanging.
There is a slightly different discussion at the elite level. Former foreign secretary William Hague is one of those publicly joining the dots between domestic politics in Europe and the war in Ukraine. In a recent article in the London Times, he warned that it would “suit Putin if our interest in Ukraine fails.”
What this might mean in practice was spelled out on the BBC’s current affairs program Newsnight by a very senior and much-decorated military man, Lt. Gen. Sir Simon Mayall. “We must keep making sure,” he said, “that the narrative says the problems with energy prices…are directly related to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” In other words, blaming Russia was a way to keep the British public on side.
So why, at least in the UK, is this case not being made more loudly, as Sir Simon seems to think it should? Let me offer a few suggestions. One: The powers-that-be are distracted by their leadership contest, but they also believe the public already blames Russia anyway, so there is no need to push the point. Two: Politicians have become so discredited that anything they might say invites suspicion. Why risk people questioning Russia’s culpability? Three: The “blame Russia” argument needs to be saved up for when things really get bad (e.g., when the power runs out or people can’t afford to heat their homes). Why waste it now?
But there may also be a fourth reason: If the discussion is about energy prices and inflation, it is not strictly correct to blame Russia. You can blame Russia for invading Ukraine. You can blame it for a blockade that has raised global food prices (although the grain ships are now departing). But the energy question is more complicated—and it may be that the UK, and some other European governments, would prefer not to open a debate that is long overdue about the dangers for the West of underwriting Ukraine’s defense and the potential costs, both for Ukraine and ourselves.
The difficulty for the Europeans is that, however much we blame Russia for triggering an energy shortage and withholding supplies (especially gas), this is not quite what has happened. What has happened is that after Russia invaded Ukraine, and the UK and the EU abandoned their long-standing practice of exempting the energy sector from sanctions and moved to curtail imports of Russian oil and gas. Now, this departure has spectacularly rebounded, in the short term at least.
Not only are many EU countries now struggling to reduce consumption or replace Russian supplies—in some instances competing against each other—but also Russia has been able to find new markets and exploit a rise in prices. If the aim was to starve Russia of funds, this has failed, and much of Europe now looks forward to a very cold and expensive winter. It may be that other parts of the sanctions package are hurting, or will hurt, Russia in time. So far, though, the damage has all been one-way.
Even now, Russia has not actually cut off the gas. But the flows—according to Russia, for technical reasons, according to the West for political reasons—have been reduced and become less predictable. The fear is that, come winter, Russia will turn off the taps. But it was Europe that first reached for the “energy weapon.” Any halt to supplies will be Russia’s response.
So while there is indeed a link between energy prices and the Ukraine war, any attempt by the EU or the UK to pin the blame on Russia will pose the question that has so far barely been broached, let alone answered: How far will people accept hardship for the sake of a principle—punishing an aggressor—and how far will they continue to support a war they were never asked to approve—either in Parliament or in any other public forum?
Even in Germany, where the public has been hugely supportive of Ukraine—generally more supportive, it has often seemed, than their chancellor—and where the government has been considerably more open about the risks than the government in the UK, support for stronger military support has declined, as the costs for ordinary Germans have started to become clear.
The UK could be one of the last European countries to turn against the war, not only because of Boris Johnson’s high-profile stand in support of President Volodymyr Zelensky—a stand that both of Johnson’s possible successors have pledged to continue—but also because here there is perhaps the widest gap in all Europe between leaders and led. No minister has been in any hurry to explain the link between support for the war and the energy price spiral.
Even as the candidates profess continuity on foreign policy, however, the next prime minister will have to face some awkward realities. Despite the advantage of oil and gas from the North Sea and its early embrace of renewables, the UK has been shown to be just as vulnerable to a global energy shock as anyone else. Presented with a choice between affordably warm homes in winter and continuing to defend Ukraine against Russia, what would the voting public choose?
Twice in recent days there have been unconfirmed reports that the UK is involved in secret talks with different parties to the war, though precisely to what end is unclear. Could it be a prelude to a change in policy with less emphasis on military support and more on diplomacy? Any answer will have to wait until the UK has a new government.
The cost of continuing to provide military support to Ukraine while providing minimal protection to Britons against unaffordable energy prices in winter and the inflation that comes with that, however, could be fatal to a government that will inevitably be led by someone without Boris Johnson’s persuasive charisma. And if public pressure forces the UK—which has been in many ways the cheerleader for a military victory—to start advocating a diplomatic outcome, that could spell the end of the always fragile European consensus and, with it, the end of Europe’s military defense of Ukraine.