EU’s crumbling unity gave Putin another shot at winning

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In the first days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Europe’s response was surprisingly strong and unified. Without an invitation or any global leadership, crowds marched across the continent and governments offered to send arms and take in Ukrainian refugees. It seemed that Putin had made a catastrophic miscalculation, uniting the free world against him and inviting the most radical sanctions regime in living memory. But that picture is changing – and fast.

This week’s European Union summit looks like a classic of its kind: full of warm words for Volodymyr Zelensky and an offer of ‘candidate’ status for his country. But behind the scenes, there is a huge discord. To the fury of new EU members, it looks like a clause will be inserted that Ukraine would not join until other countries are ready to assimilate its people. The membership process takes a decade or more. As a Kremlin official recently pointed out, Ukraine could no longer exist within two years.

The divisions do not end there. For example: Is Putin a partner or an outcast? Emmanuel Macron keeps phoning him and sometimes warning the rest of Europe that Russia cannot be “humiliated” or seen as “losing face”. The Estonian Prime Minister responded directly. “Putin can save face by returning to Russia,” she said during her recent trip to London. “I don’t see any point in really talking to him if we want to get the message across that he’s isolated.” The Polish president is even more rude, asking if anyone was worried about saving face for Hitler.

Next comes Germany. Olaf Scholz, its new chancellor, first spoke of a tough game – pledging to spend 100 billion euros more on defence, buy US F-35s and abandon the newly built Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. built to Russia. But the weapons promised by Germany are slow in coming. Seven PzH 2000 howitzers, promised in early May, were delivered this week. But there is still no sign of the promised rocket artillery and anti-aircraft tanks and Germany has vetoed attempts by Estonia and Spain to send their own German-made kit in Ukraine.

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There are growing suspicions in Berlin that Scholz is trying to play both sides, seeking a solution to the crisis more compatible with Putin. One of his top advisers said this week that we should be thinking as much about post-conflict relations with Moscow as about arms supplies to Ukraine.

In a major political speech this week, Scholz said Putin should be thwarted – but refrained from wishing victory to Ukraine. Maybe part of him feels that Zelensky is doomed, which begs the question: why prolong the agony? Why continue this chauvinistic masquerade? And why subject Germany to a winter of avoidable misery?

It’s not just that Ukraine is struggling on the battlefield, losing up to a thousand soldiers a day. The economic war may be about to turn, with Putin going on the offensive. Soaring energy prices have been a boon for the Kremlin, with 20bn euros (£17bn) flowing in from Germany in the first four months alone.

This was, at first glance, the flaw in the sanctions plan. If Germany had no alternative to Russian oil and gas, it was always going to keep buying – funding Putin’s war machine as it went. But at much higher prices.

Those prices would be lower (and the Kremlin much poorer) if the Saudis played ball, pumping more oil to keep world prices low as they did in the 1980s. But Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, does not choose sides. He obviously failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and has a Macron-style habit of picking up the phone with Putin. When Saudi Arabia’s energy minister visited the St Petersburg economic summit last week, he said his country’s relations with Russia were “as hot as the weather in Riyadh”.

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By the way, the star speaker at Putin’s conference was Xi Jinping – now much closer to Moscow than he seemed to be immediately after the invasion. President Xi turned 69 last week and celebrated it by calling Putin to reassure him that Sino-Russian relations have maintained their “momentum” in the face of – ahem – “global turbulence and transformation”.

Russia has now supplanted Saudi Arabia as China’s top oil supplier. As for India, it buys 25 times more Russian oil than before. In total, Russia is expected to earn $320bn (£260bn) from energy sales this year, up 35% from last year.

So much for starving Putin’s war machine. If Germany had stopped buying Russian gas, the sanctions could have been debilitating. But they weren’t. Now Putin has found new customers and new ways to get his hands on most of the other things he needs. Sanctions will cause massive suffering: Russian inflation is high and its economy will experience a downturn comparable to the crash of 2008. But with huge cash reserves and the bulk of the Russian military in Ukraine, it will not It’s not hard to see a situation where Putin will eventually win.

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He is already preparing, inviting Europe to imagine a winter where he is in control – and turning off Europe’s gas taps. He’s been making small cuts to his supplies to Europe in recent days, to see who’s squealing. He was not disappointed. Robert Habeck, German Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister, said yesterday that “the strangulation of gas supply is an economic attack”. It doesn’t look like a country ready to break away from Russian gas anytime soon.

So that brings us back to the split in Europe. Post-Soviet countries, many of whom joined the EU only to protect themselves from Russia, see it as an existential threat. If Putin is successful in Ukraine, he will have torn apart the old rules-based world order that protects small countries from big ones. China would swallow Taiwan. Putin is said to be starting to think about drawing a land corridor to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the other side of Lithuania.

Meanwhile, France and Germany talk about realpolitik: the need to be firm with Russia, but to approach it in the longer term. Offer EU membership, but not anytime soon. Offer support to Ukraine, but don’t go so far as to save it. All of this would be in line with Putin’s initial bet: that an exhausted and indebted West can no longer defend democracy and no longer has the courage to fight a prolonged struggle. There may not be much time left to prove him wrong.

EU’s crumbling unity gave Putin another chance to win appeared first on The Telegraph.

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