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"Fighting for your Freedom": The West’s Response to the Ukraine war 

 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Is the West up to meeting the challenges posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? At first glance, this would appear to be true. Against all expectations, the West’s response to the Russian aggression has been both united and resolute. 

However, the recent series of summits led by NATO, the G7 as well as the EU and the US leave a mixed impression. The discussions between heads of state and governments have not appeared to result in the desired outcomes. In the long run, the West’s self-appraisal of demonstrating cohesion and strength may prove misleading.

On the military level, the large sums of aid given to the Ukrainians has been accompanied by prudent restraint. The mantra that Western leaders continue to repeat is that of refusing further escalation of the war in Ukraine, by avoiding direct engagement with Russian forces. This is not very different to the Western attitude in Syria, which involved speeches, sanctions, and arms supplied to local allies. Other than through third parties, the West avoided any confrontation in Syria. In both cases, the idea of a "no fly zone" has been met with firm refusal from Western strategists. However, the West’s restraint also sends an unwanted message to Russia and the rest of the world: a nuclear power can carry out large-scale military operations for weeks on NATO's doorstep and enjoy a kind of immunity. In part, this "immunity" is linked to Russia’s status as a nuclear power. Yet it also speaks of the Western aversion to using a force it has cultivated for years. We may even go so far as to assume that the first factor serves as a smokescreen for the second.

The measures adopted by the West, in particular sanctions and energy policy changes, will have a significant impact.

China will undoubtedly draw conclusions from this situation with regard to its own plans regarding Taiwan.The measures adopted by the West, in particular sanctions and energy policy changes, will have a significant impact. Several sources estimate a decline between 10% and 15% in Russia’s GDP during the next year. For the time being, European countries have failed to impose an oil and gas embargo. 

This would be the only way to achieve a rapid and decisive impact on Russia’s capacity to fund the war.

Moreover, governments are reluctant to explain the full extent of the energy crisis to their public. This crisis will impact the lives and purchasing power of consumers, as well as companies, for several years to come. Here again, it is silence that sends an implicit message. Western governments should clearly state that the defense of their principles and security requires sacrifices on the part of their citizens.

Some have argued that Putin has already lost the war because of the West’s "strong reaction". This depends on how we define victory or defeat. The two implicit messages mentioned above could well be interpreted as signs of weakness. In consequence, the head of the Kremlin may think that time is on his side. Putin has the power to impose considerable sacrifices on his population.

Adding to this, it is important to consider the perception of the war by the rest of the world. It seems excessive to declare, as we sometimes hear, that "it is the West that is isolated". However, it is true that Russia continues to benefit from indulgences by a majority of emerging powers. Their resentment against the United States and the West in general seems greater than their disapproval of this war. On a practical level, this is leading to a situation whereby key countries like India or the Gulf States refuse to follow the West’s policy of isolating Russia. The Moscow-Beijing axis perceives the war in Ukraine as a strategic blow against a world order still dominated by the West. The more Russia and China feel that the rest of the world is only paying lip service to the West, the more incentive they will have to further undermine and change the current world order. 

What should the consequences of these facts be? At this stage, it seems that complacency will not protect the West from scenarios that threaten its strategic interests: a prolonged conflict without a real conclusion, a Ukrainian defeat confirming the validity of Putin's strategy, or a partitioning of the country through which the Russians would secure the richest lands in the East and the shore of the Sea of Azov. No matter how the situation evolves, Putin will inevitably present it as a strategic success. 

We can also say this in another way: the West’s current strategy implicitly aims at creating the conditions for a slow Russian non-victory. As the conflict continues, there is a growing risk of divisions from developing between Western countries regarding the course of action. The "endgame" that the Americans and Europeans should be seeking is, on the contrary, a rapid Russian defeat.

The West’s current strategy implicitly aims at creating the conditions for a slow Russian non-victory. 

This implies a different strategy, likely to be initially agreed upon by a small group of states. It also implies making tougher choices. Thus, the West needs to find alternatives to a no-fly zone, at least to prevent conventional Russian missiles from hitting Ukrainian cities. The precedent of the airlift to Berlin in 1948-49 should inspire Western decision-makers to fortify the delivery of weapons systems. Similarly, the transition of winter to spring should coincide with an embargo on Russian gas and oil. The size of the European gas market represents 75% of Russian exports - making Russia as dependent on the continuity of supply as its European customers. 

The US should take more risks on the military front, while the EU should develop its measures on the energy front. Combining these two actions, without relinquishing other measures, should be the subject of a deal between Washington and Brussels. France is among the countries that could propose such a change in Western strategy. The question is, how can this suggestion be reconciled with the traditional French line of a no-matter-what-dialogue with Moscow?

First, it is clear that the contact between President Macron and Putin has reached its limits. It goes without saying that France must remain available for any political settlement of the Ukrainian conflict. However, the point of no return has already been reached. Even if there was a way out of the crisis in Ukraine tomorrow, no one could seriously believe that the next French president will be able to sit around a table with Putin to discuss European peace and security as though nothing has happened. To remain credible among its European and American partners, France needs to send a clear message to Moscow. 

However, adopting a hard line in Ukraine might appear as meaning to "be ready to fight for the last Ukrainian". In fact, the Ukrainians are the ones who are asking for help to defend themselves. The West should listen to what President Zelensky has stated on several occasions: "we are fighting for your freedom". 



Copyright: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

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