Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing his best to achieve two immediate objectives. The goal of the West must be to stop him.
First, he’s seeking to distract his nation from the blindingly obvious, namely that he is losing badly on the battlefield and utterly failing to achieve even the vastly scaled back objectives of his invasion.
Second and simultaneously, Putin is playing desperately for time – hoping the political clock and the onset of winter in Europe will sap the will and energies of the Western powers that have all but eviscerated his military-industrial machine and destroyed the armed might of Russia.
Both sides – Russia and Ukraine with its western backers – are doing their best to turn the screws ahead of a winter which could ultimately decide who will win the most titanic clashes of forces in Europe since the Second World War. It’s worth a deep look at what’s in play right now.
Europe’s energy concerns
First up, there’s the West and its ability to keep supplying the Ukrainian war machine that has proven so effective in this David v. Goliath battle.
This ability to keep going depends on a host of variables – ranging from the availability of critical and affordable energy supplies for the coming winter, to the popular will across a broad range of nations with often conflicting priorities.
In the early hours of Friday in Brussels, European Union powers agreed a roadmap to control energy prices that have been surging on the heels of embargoes on Russian imports and the Kremlin cutting natural gas supplies at a whim.
These include an emergency cap on the benchmark European gas trading hub – the Dutch Title Transfer Facility – and permission for EU gas companies to create a cartel to buy gas on the international market.
While French President Emmanuel Macron waxed euphoric leaving the summit, which he described as having “maintained European unity,” he conceded that there was only a “clear mandate” for the European Commission to start working on a gas cap mechanism.
Still, divisions remain, with Europe’s biggest economy, Germany, skeptical of any price caps. Now energy ministers must work out details with a Germany concerned such caps would encourage higher consumption – a further burden on restricted supplies.
Putin’s useful friends in Europe
These divisions are all part of Putin’s fondest dream. Manifold forces in Europe could prove central to achieving success from the Kremlin’s viewpoint, which amounts to the continent failing to agree on essentials.
Germany and France are already at loggerheads on many of these issues. Though in an effort to reach some accommodation, Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have scheduled a conference call for Wednesday.
And now a new government has taken power in Italy. Giorgia Meloni was sworn in Saturday as Italy’s first woman prime minister and has attempted to brush aside the post-fascist aura of her party. One of her far-right coalition partners meanwhile, has expressed deep appreciation for Putin.
Silvio Berlusconi, himself a four-time prime minister of Italy, was recorded at a gathering of his party loyalists, describing with glee the 20 bottles of vodka Putin sent to him together with “a very sweet letter” on his 86th birthday.
Berlusconi, in a secretly recorded audio tape, said he’d returned Putin’s gesture with bottles of Lambrusco wine, adding that “I knew him as a peaceful and sensible person,” in the LaPresse audio clip.
The other leading member of the ruling Italian coalition, Matteo Salvini, named Saturday as deputy prime minister, said during the campaign, “I would not want the sanctions [on Russia] to harm those who impose them more than those who are hit by them.”
At the same time, Poland and Hungary, longtime ultra-right-wing soulmates united against liberal policies of the EU that seemed calculated to reduce their influence, have now disagreed over Ukraine. Poland has taken deep offense at the pro-Putin sentiments of Hungary’s populist leader Viktor Orban.
The limits of America’s ‘blank check’
Similar forces seem to be at work in Washington where House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, poised to become Speaker of the House if Republicans take control after next month’s elections, told an interviewer, “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine. They just won’t do it.”
Meanwhile on Monday, the influential 30-member Congressional progressive caucus called on Biden to open talks with Russia on ending the conflict while its troops are still occupying vast stretches of the country and its missiles and drones are striking deep into the interior.
Hours later, caucus chair Mia Jacob, facing a firestorm of criticism, emailed reporters with a statement “clarifying” their remarks in support of Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to renew America’s support.
Indeed, while the US has proffered more than $60 billion in aid since Biden took office, when Congress authorized $40 billion for Ukraine last May, only Republicans voted against the latest aid package.
In short, there is every incentive for Putin to prolong the conflict as long as possible to allow many of these forces in the West to kick in. A long, cold winter in Europe, persistent inflation and higher interest rates leading to a recession on both sides of the Atlantic could mean irresistible pressure on already skeptical leaders to dial back on financial and military support.
This support in terms of arms, materiel and now training for Ukrainian forces have been the underpinnings of their remarkable battlefield successes against a weakening, undersupplied and ill-prepared Russian military.
At the same time, the West is turning up the pressure on Russia. Last Thursday, the State Department released a detailed report on the impact of sanctions and export controls strangling the Russian military-industrial complex.
Russian production of hypersonic missiles has all but ceased “due to the lack of necessary semi-conductors,” said the report. Aircraft are being cannibalized for spare parts, plants producing anti-aircraft systems have shut down, and “Russia has reverted to Soviet-era defense stocks” for replenishment. The Soviet era ended more than 30 years ago.
A day before this report, the US announced seizure of all property of a top Russian procurement agent Yury Orekhov and his agencies “responsible for procuring US-origin technologies for Russian end-users…including advanced semiconductors and microprocessors.”
The Justice Department also announced charges against individuals and companies seeking to smuggle high-tech equipment into Russia in violation of sanctions.
All these actions point to an increasing desperation by Russia to access vitally-needed components for production of high-tech weaponry stalled by western sanctions and embargos that have begun to strangle the Kremlin’s military-industrial complex.
Where that leaves Russia
This pressure from the West may finally be producing real results. Putin’s announced martial law in Ukrainian territories Russia now only partly controls, attacks on civilian targets deep in Ukraine’s interior, and a new, hardline commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Shurokin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” by colleagues, all suggest a growing frustration bordering on fear that the Russian people may begin noticing what has long been blindingly obvious: Putin is losing.
This is the very moment when it is so essential that Ukraine and their western supporters push on with tenacity.
Shurokin appeared on Moscow television last week to suggest the Kremlin’s new objective – that actually dates back decades – is to force Ukraine into Russia’s orbit and keep it from joining the EU and especially NATO. Shurokin said: “We just want one thing, for Ukraine to be independent of the West and NATO and be friendly to the Russian state.”
Still, there remain hardliners like Pavel Gubarev, Russia’s puppet leader in Donetsk, who voiced his real intention toward Ukrainians: “We aren’t coming to kill you, but to convince you. But if you don’t want to be convinced, we’ll kill you. We’ll kill as many as we have to: 1 million, 5 million, or exterminate all of you.”
This should be the real fear of any in the West still prepared to waffle over 100% support of Ukraine and its people.