We use cookies to help improve and maintain our site. More information.

26 April 2024

Ukraine is Europe's problem now 

The US Congress has finally passed a Ukraine aid bill, a version that has the official approval of Donald Trump. It is what is called a loan-lease package, which means that Ukraine would receive military aid in the form of a commercial credit, and leased military equipment to be returned after use. The military side is for political cover, as it was during 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 of the package comes in the form of a loan or a grant.

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

In the meantime, Russia exploited the policy vacuum at the heart of the West's Ukraine politics and created facts on the ground. The attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure are devastating. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, sent one of Germany's 12 Patriot air defence systems to Ukraine. This is welcome, but will not be decisive. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said he would need 25 systems to defend the country fully. Ukraine has an estimated three to five. This gap is a good metric of the scale of the problem - a gap between Western promises and the reality on the ground.

As US foreign policy is focused increasingly 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 first and second-best outcomes and how to get there. It is rare that modern wars end with outright winners and losers. There are more probable 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 of power and his resilience, and to overestimate the impact economic sanctions would have on the Russian economy. Russia has registered higher growth rates than any of the large western economies. In terms of purchasing power, the country is approximately the size of Germany. Now that there is a push-back, the west seems to have lost interest and is now mostly focused on the war in the Middle East.

I was reminded by the absence of a strategy by a recent comment from Scholz. He said he expected the Ukraine war to last for a long time. This is consistent with an unofficial estimate I heard from a source according to which the working assumption in the Berlin chancellery is for the war to last 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 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 they are doing this to foreign policy.

It is undoubtedly true that the west has more and better weapons than Russia and a lot more resources. It was quite impressive to see the Patriots intercept all but seven of 120 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and 30 cruise missiles, which Iran sent in the direction of Israel.

A western-supported Ukrainian proxy war against Russia should not really be a contest. But it has turned into one because of the strategic failure to set specific war goals together with plans of how to achieve them: secure current battle lines; liberate occupied territories segment by segment; defining potential exit points that are located between the extremes of total defeat and total victory; and preparing a diplomatic deal for when the war ends.

The implicit strategy behind a ten-year war is the attempt to exhaust the enemy, or waiting for some other event to intrude. I would not advise Western leaders to try to beat Putin in a contest of endurance and will power. We ourselves are far more likely 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 would become financially crippling for Ukraine and the EU. Neither Nato nor the EU can accept a country that is in a state of war. Did they think this through?

We are entering a political situation that is unfamiliar to Europeans. Germany is the only country with any capacity for assistance for 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. It is our job now.

If you would like us to notify you when a new column appears, please fill out this form.