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The EU’s crumbling unity has given Putin another opportunity to win

Europe is in danger of proving the Kremlin right: that it’s too divided and exhausted for a long fight

Credit: CLEMENS BILAN/Shutterstock

In the first days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Europe’s response was one of astonishing force and unity. Without prompts or any global leadership, crowds protested across the continent and governments offered to send arms and take in Ukrainian refugees. It seemed as if Putin had made a catastrophic miscalculation, uniting the free world against him and inviting the most sweeping sanctions regime in living memory. But this picture is now changing – and fast.

The European Union summit this week looks like a classic of the genre: full of warm words for Volodymyr Zelensky and an offer of “accession candidate” status for his country. But behind the scenes, there’s huge discord. To the fury of the newer EU members, it seems a clause will be inserted to the effect that Ukraine would not join before other countries were ready to assimilate its people. The accession process takes a decade or more. As a Kremlin official recently pointed out, Ukraine might not exist within two years.

The divisions don’t stop there. For example: is Putin a partner, or pariah? Emmanuel Macron keeps telephoning him and occasionally warns the rest of Europe that Russia cannot be “humiliated” or be seen to “lose face”. Estonia’s prime minister has responded directly. “Putin can save face by going back to Russia,” she said on her recent trip to London. “I don’t see any point in really talking to him if we want to get the message through that he’s isolated.” Poland’s president is even ruder, asking if anyone worried about saving Hitler’s face.

Then comes Germany. Olaf Scholz, its newish chancellor, initially talked a tough game – pledging to spend €100 billion more on defence, buy American F-35s and abandon the newly-built Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia. But the arms Germany promised have been slow in coming. Seven PzH 2000 howitzers, pledged at the start of 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 to Ukraine.

There is growing suspicion in Berlin that Scholz is trying to play both sides, angling for a more Putin-compatible solution to the crisis. One of his senior advisers said this week that we should think as much about relations with Moscow post-conflict as we do arms supplies to Ukraine.

In a big political speech this week, Scholz said that Putin should be thwarted – but stopped short of wishing Ukraine victory. Perhaps part of him feels that Zelensky is doomed which raises the question: why prolong the agony? Why carry on with this jingoistic charade? And why put Germany through an avoidable winter of misery?

It’s not just that Ukraine is finding it difficult on the battlefield, losing up to a thousand troops a day. The economic war may be about to turn, with Putin ending up on the offensive. The surge in energy prices has meant a windfall for the Kremlin, with €20 billion (£17 billion) from Germany in the first four months alone.

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

Those prices would be lower (and the Kremlin a lot poorer) if the Saudis played ball, pumping more oil to keep world prices down as they did in the 1980s. But Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, is not picking sides. He conspicuously failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and has a Macron-style habit of picking up the phone to Putin. When the Saudi energy minister went to the St Petersburg economic summit last week, he declared his country’s relations with Russia to be “as warm as the weather in Riyadh”.

The videolinked star speaker at Putin’s conference, by the way, was Xi Jinping – now a lot closer to Moscow than he appeared to be immediately after the invasion. President Xi turned 69 last week and celebrated by calling Putin to reassure him that China-Russian relations have maintained “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’s buying 25 times more Russian oil than it used to. All told, Russia should make $320 billion (£260 billion) selling energy this year, up 35 per cent on last year.

So much for starving Putin’s war machine. Had Germany stopped buying Russian gas, the sanctions might have been debilitating. But they weren’t. Now Putin has found new customers and new ways of getting his hands on most other things he needs. The sanctions will cause massive pain: Russian inflation is high and its economy will have a downturn comparable to the 2008 crash. But with huge cash reserves and most of Russia’s army in Ukraine, it’s not hard to see a situation where Putin ends up winning.

He’s already getting ready, inviting Europe to imagine a winter where he’s in control – and turning off Europe’s gas taps. He has made small cuts in his supplies to Europe in the last few days, to see who squeals. He hasn’t been disappointed. Robert Habeck, Germany’s deputy prime minister and energy minister, said yesterday that the “throttling of gas supplies is an economic attack”. It doesn’t sound like a country ready to break from Russian gas any time soon.

So this takes us back to Europe’s split. The post-Soviet countries, many of which only joined the EU to keep safe from Russia, see this as an existential threat. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he’ll have torn up the old rules-based world order which protects small countries from large ones. China would swallow Taiwan. Putin would start thinking about carving a land corridor to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the other side of Lithuania.

Meanwhile, France and Germany talk about realpolitik: the need to be firm with Russia, but to deal with it longer-term. To offer EU membership, just not any time soon. To offer support to Ukraine, but not go so far as to actually save it. This would all conform to Putin’s original bet: that a debt-addled, exhausted West cannot defend democracy anymore and has no stomach for a protracted fight. There might not be much time left to prove him wrong.