Time is of the essence in doing what needs to be done on Ukraine. Western liberal democracies must act now to effectively support Ukraine to both defend against the continuing Russian attacks and, very importantly, to counterattack in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia and take them back.
Western help has to be massive and decisive. There is a need for action on three fronts —maximum economic pressure on Russia, all needed weapons to Ukraine, and, where necessary, appropriate and judicious military action. Anything less risks being short sighted and eventually plain wrong in virtually every area — morality, security, politics, economics.
President Putin is clearly intent on securing new additions to the Russian Federation in the form of a great arch of ‘Russian lands’, from Kharkiv to Kherson and with the Sea of Azov a Russian lake. Arguably, he may also want to capture Odessa — the Black Sea port city important to czars and Soviets alike — and even reach all the way to the Russian-controlled enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, occupying the entire Black Sea coast of Ukraine, and rendering the latter a land-locked country.
By the May 9 annual parade in Moscow, commemorating victory against the Nazis in WWII, he would want to show that he is on his way to achieving such goals. At this point, this seems to be essential for him. It may look good to the majority of the Russian public, for the usual reasons, but especially in the virtual reality in which the Russian people are increasingly made to live.
Achieving such goals will lead to the consolidation of power of the despotic/authoritarian political system in place in Russia with President Putin as its undisputed leader for the long run. Any liberal democratic prospects for the Russian people will be quashed.
This means that President Putin will most likely pull out all the stops in the coming weeks. For the sake of avoiding a cascading breakdown of the world order and the spread of war he must not be allowed to be successful in his efforts.
However, President Putin will indeed be successful if the US and its European allies do not do what is needed to help Ukraine not only defend against further advances of the Russian forces but also dislodge these forces from the east and the south of Ukraine. At this point in time, Western democracies are failing to do everything that is needed: (i) apply maximum economic pressure on Russia, (ii) supply all needed weapons to Ukraine and (iii) use appropriate and judicious military action.
Maximum economic pressure
Regarding the issue of economic pressure on Russia, Western leaders are not making their calculations correctly. They have undertaken some important steps in terms of sanctions against Russia, and this has put pressure on Russia that would be felt mostly over the medium term.
However, these steps have mostly ‘poked the bear’. Western leaders have not applied all the economic pressure they could so as to maximally contribute to shaping the fate of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Specifically, many of them have held back from cutting off imports of oil and gas from Russia completely and with immediate effect. That would truly mean maximum economic pressure on Russia at a time that it is needed.
To do their calculations right, Western leaders, in particular in some major EU member states, need to put together a proper balance sheet of the benefits and costs of continuing to buy these Russian hydrocarbon exports. Currently, these political leaders seem to be taking into account only the benefit to their economy in the near term from not cutting off of the flow of these Russian energy exports; or at least they consider such a benefit as dwarfing any of the costs.
This specific benefit could be avoiding a recession over the coming year or so and a temporary reduction by a couple of percentage points in the level of the national income in some of the worst-hit countries by some calculations. For example, according to a recent joint forecast by five major German research institutes on behalf of the German government, in the event of an abrupt cutoff of Russian gas exports, German GDP could decrease by 2.2 percent in 2023 after increasing more slowly — by 0.8 percentage points — to reach 1.9 percent in 2022.
The benefit of avoiding such a recession would in turn mean avoiding discomfort and discontent among the public in their countries, and the attendant effects on national political leaders’ own career prospects down the road.
The benefit of avoiding a recession seems to these European politicians to exceed the cost of the degradation of universal and European values — "respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law” — by their trading with President Putin’s regime while it is conquering and ravaging another European country with a democratically elected government.
These Western leaders are thus effectively preferring to finance the subjugation of Ukraine’s population and the abuse and violence unleashed to erase its identity, instead of dealing with a reduction of a couple of percentage points in the level of their national income for a year or so.
One could very well take on these European country leaders and challenge them in their own partial and limited calculations. One could argue that the degradation of values and morality that they are accepting by financing Russia’s conquest and destruction of a sovereign European country actually weighs more than the avoidance of a recession, some economic discomfort for their electorates and a decline in their popularity or electability in the polls.
However, we would argue that even if one accepted the apparently ‘Scrooge-like’ weighing of some European leaders, they would still be wrong in their calculus as they are overlooking other costs of their decision to keep buying Russian gas and oil. We would argue that they are not taking account of the long list of potential costs — besides with respect to values and morality — of a long war or a victory by Russia in Ukraine.
- First, these costs for sure need to include the costs of accommodating on a permanent basis millions of refugees from Ukraine, either directly in these European leaders’ own countries or in other countries that would in turn require EU member state resources to support them. In this context, one would need to add the potential side-effects — such as nationalism, bigotry, extremism — of the prolonged presence of large populations of refugees in countries, and the attendant political and economic costs.
- Second, these costs need to also include the costs from an increase in the centrifugal forces within the EU from a prolonged war at the edge of Central Europe or a Russian victory there. Such centrifugal forces are bound to increase as the sphere of influence of Russia would de facto become greater — actually, be reestablished — and some countries in the EU would become more amenable to accept Russian priorities as legitimate while other countries in the EU would consider such countries as undermining the union itself. The fragility and notorious dilly-dallying and ineffectiveness of the EU would become more pervasive. Decreased cohesion and unity in the EU in many areas and the potential exit of some member states would imply high costs for countries in the EU — maybe more for the large ones. This is because they need a strong EU for the sake of their own economic performance. The costs would also be high for national politicians in EU countries that have staked their careers on the European experiment.
- Third, there would be costs from the loss of legitimacy of the specific EU member states effectively financing the invasion and of the EU as a whole on the global scene. It is difficult to see how this could be avoided if Russia were to be victorious over Ukraine or there was a prolonged war while Russian gas and oil flowed freely into the EU and payments flowed from the EU to Russia. The EU and its major member states would not be able to advocate in international fora for and expect accountability and sacrifices from other countries. This would surely arise, for example, when other counties would need to deal with their economic policy mistakes or when they would be asked to help uphold international norms and values in some area. (Consider the example of the recent negative response of India to a US suggestion that it forego higher energy imports from Russia to avoid weakening the effect of Western sanctions on Russia.)
How would the EU and its members advocate and expect accountability and sacrifices when they themselves could not properly deal with their own mistakes regarding energy dependency — for which they had been thoroughly forewarned by the United States? Or, when they were willing to exchange their European values of legality, freedom, democracy and human rights for a couple of percentage points in the level of GDP for a year or so? While the effects of such loss of legitimacy would unfold in complex ways and over time, they are bound to have deleterious implications for both economic prosperity and the political standing of the EU and its major member states in the world.
Thus, regarding the issue of economic pressure on Russia, Western and especially EU leaders need to rethink their calculations and do them correctly. If they do so, it’s probable that they will decide to immediately and completely discontinue importing gas and oil from Russia. And they will not validate President Putin’s yearslong strategy of transforming them into hostages with Russian energy supplies so that he can resurrect unobstructed the Soviet Union.
Regarding the EU collectively, this is an important opportunity for it to demonstrate it is living up to its raison d’être as a union. For example, there will be a need for the EU to spearhead efforts to secure supplies of natural gas at favorable prices (from sources other than Russia) for the EU as a whole as well as coordinatethe use of available gas inflows among member states, with those that have a surplus (for one reason or another) helping those that have a deficit.
Preparation for the longer term energy solutions for Europe should also be coordinated by the EU. Quite importantly, the Union should also aim to help shore up the parts of member states’ economic sectors and household sectors that will bear the short-term, but real, pain from stopping abruptly importing Russian hydrocarbons. In addition, the EU should aim to coordinate the distribution and support of the millions of temporary refugees within the Union. Moreover, it should also help member states handle the cost of taking in the refugees.
Such EU level actions would attenuate the misgivings and resistance at national level by affected categories of producers and households to doing the right thing regarding Russian energy exports and taking care of refugees. The EU can and should aim to undertake the actions above in its role as a union of providing EU-level public goods. To the extent that financing is necessary, the EU could issue bonds. If the EU rises to the occasion, it would come out stronger on account of it.
All needed weapons
Turning to the provision of weapons to Ukraine, the United States and its European allies would best serve their values, their security as well as their political and economic interests by supplying now all the weapons that Ukraine needs as there is no time to waste at all.
It is true that there has been some progress since the time of the ‘bad joke’ of the shipment of five thousand “defensive” helmets by a major EU country to Ukraine and the refusal of that country to provide “offensive” weapons when the war was clearly imminent. For example, certain anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons provided to Ukraine by some NATO countries seem to have been very effective in pushing the Russian army back, away from Kiev.
Yet, other NATO countries have refused to allow weapons to be delivered to Ukraine through their territory. And some others have shied away from providing to Ukraine weapons they have in their stockpiles and Ukrainian forces need and know how to operate.
Still, others are planning to send weapons that may not be the ones most needed for winning the imminent battles in the — different from the Kiev area — terrains of east and south Ukraine and taking these areas back from the Russian forces. Finally, deliveries of weapons are not taking place fast enough. So, the performance of Western countries has (so far) been mixed in the area of providing all the weapons that Ukraine needs.
The question that Western leaders need to urgently ask themselves is whether the weapons being provided to Ukraine are adequate in terms of effectiveness, quantity and timeliness for the task at hand at this point in the war — that is, to avoid military outcomes that lead to the annexation by Russia of large parts of the south and east of Ukraine. The answer is needed today and the matching action too.
The option of military action
Finally, as has been argued elsewhere, “there are risks in using appropriate military action to confront aggression “where nations take what they want by force”, but the risks are arguably higher from a cascading breakdown of the world order.”
The US and its European allies must retain the option of taking appropriate and judicious military action in Ukraine. It makes sense from a global strategic perspective for the West: to demonstrate its moral advantage, uphold international norms, avoid precedent setting of restoration of empire, show commitment to protect democracy and liberty against authoritarian and autarchic regimes, press for an acceptable and long-lasting peace, and actually reduce the probability of nuclear war.
Western leaders should strive to avoid time inconsistency on Ukraine, i.e., avoid that their preference now will become inconsistent at a later point in time.
The arguments for no military action by Western liberal democracies in Ukraine will feel inadequate when the vision of President Putin materializes: “Russia has crushed Ukrainian resistance in the east and the south. The country is divided in half. Tens of thousands have been killed. There are upward of 15 million Ukrainians displaced, with half of them in straining European countries and the rest struggling to make do in the rump Ukrainian state. Ukraine is a wasteland from the ravages of the war. Many Ukrainians feel embittered and left to their fate by Western liberal democracies, which they see as reluctant to stand by them all the way, trying to protect parochial interests.” And leaders of Western democracies will undoubtedly be seen as partly responsible for the above vista.
Putting on the table the option of judicious and appropriate military action is not an easy choice. Risks abound both ways. But there is a moral imperative to not allow this vista to materialize under one’s watch.