LONDON — The West united faster and more firmly against Russia’s war against Ukraine than almost anyone expected. But as the war turns into a protracted conflict, one that can drag on for months or even years, it is testing the resolve of Western countries, with European and American officials questioning whether the mounting economic toll will increase their solidarity over the course of the war. time will affect.
So far, the cracks are mostly superficial: Hungary’s refusal to sign an embargo on Russian oil, thwarting the European Union from imposing a continent-wide ban; unrest in Paris with the Biden administration’s aggressive goal of militarily weakening Russian President Vladimir V. Putin; a beleaguered President Biden who blames skyrocketing food and gas prices for Putin’s price hike.
In addition to those tensions, there are further signs of solidarity: Finland and Sweden moved closer to joining NATO on Wednesday, with Britain offering both countries security guarantees to counter the Russian threat. In Washington, the House voted 368 to 57 on Tuesday for a nearly $40 billion aid package for Ukraine.
Yet the Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border just 76 days ago, a moment in the schedule of history’s eternal wars. As the fighting continues, the cascading effect on supply chains, energy pipelines and agricultural crops will be felt more acutely at gas pumps and on supermarket shelves.
According to some experts, Mr Putin calculates that the West will tire sooner than Russia from a long twilight battle for Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, especially if the price for the West’s continued support is high inflation rates, energy outages, depleted public finances and weary populations. .
The director of national intelligence for the Biden administration, Avril D. Haines, crystallized those doubts on Tuesday, warning senators that Mr. Putin was digging for a long siege and “was probably counting on the decision of the US and the EU to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy shortages worsen.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Biden traveled to a farm in Kankakee, Illinois, to claim that Mr. Putin’s war had caused food shortages and pressure on the cost of living for American families, a tacit sign that his steadfast support for Ukraine — a policy that has received bipartisan support in Washington — could come at a political cost.
Mr Putin is facing his own domestic pressure, as was evident in the calibrated tone he struck during a speech in Moscow’s Red Square on Monday, in which he did not call for mass mobilization or threaten to escalate the conflict. But he also made it clear that there was no end in sight to what he falsely called Russia’s campaign to rid its neighbor of “torturers, death squads and Nazis”.
On the ground in Ukraine, the fighting is showing signs of a protracted battle. A day after Ukraine’s counter-offensive, Russian troops from a cluster of towns northeast of the city of Kharkov dethroned, the region’s governor said on Wednesday that Ukrainian efforts had pushed Moscow’s troops “even further” from the city, causing them to “run the city”. even less likely to fire at the regional center.”
Ukraine’s apparent success in pushing back Russian forces outside Kharkiv — the second-largest city about 20 miles from the Russian border — appears to have helped reduce shelling there in recent days, even as Russia advances along parts of the frontline in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
That Ukraine would even find itself in an ongoing battle almost three months after Russia launched a large-scale invasion is remarkable. Analysts pointed out that a prolonged war would strain the resources of a Russian army that has already suffered heavy casualties in men and machines. Given that some argue that the West should exercise its advantage by tightening the economic stranglehold on Moscow.
“I’m concerned about Western fatigue,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, “that’s why free world leaders should do more now to hasten the end of the war.”
The United States and the European Union, he said, should immediately impose a full range of crippling sanctions, rather than roll them out in escalating waves, as they have done so far. Western countries had come close to such an all-in strategy with military aid, he said, which had helped the Ukrainians hold off the Russians.
But the faltering negotiations on a European oil embargo show the limits of that approach when it comes to Russia’s energy supply. European Union ambassadors held another fruitless meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, failing to crush the fierce resistance of a single member of the bloc, Hungary.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has a warm relationship with Putin and at odds with Brussels, dashed hopes of a show of unity when he blocked the latest measure, arguing that a ban on Russian oil would be the best would be a solution. equivalent of an “atomic bomb” for the Hungarian economy.
Mr Orban has continued to resist even after concessions that would give Hungary more time to get rid of Russian oil and intense lobbying by other leaders. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, flew to Budapest to try and convince him while President Emmanuel Macron telephoned him.
“We will only support this proposal if Brussels proposes a solution to the problem that Brussels has caused,” said Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, adding that modernizing the Hungarian energy sector “would cost many, many billions of euros” .
In Washington, Mr. Biden has had fewer problems raising aid for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The House vote for a massive aid package showed how the brutality of the war had overcome resistance from both the right and left to US involvement in military conflicts abroad.
And yet rising food and fuel prices, exacerbated by the war, pose a real threat to Mr Biden. The price of food rose 0.9 percent in April from the previous month, data released Wednesday showed. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the government was “terribly concerned about the global food supply”, adding that 275 million people around the world are suffering from hunger.
“Putin’s war has cut off critical food sources,” Biden told farmers in Illinois. “Our farmers are helping on both fronts, by lowering the price of food at home, expanding production and feeding the world in need.”
It remains to be seen whether the United States can increase agricultural production enough to reduce deficits. But the farm visit came as Mr. Biden, pressured by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years, tried to reassure Americans that the White House is taking price hikes seriously.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
To the ground. A Ukrainian counter-offensive at Kharkov appears to have contributed to the sharp decrease in Russian shelling in the eastern city. But Moscow’s troops are advancing along other parts of the front line.
While Mr Putin is arguably under much greater pressure — from rising battle casualties to the economic pain caused by sanctions — he is exploiting nationalist sentiments, which some analysts say will give him lasting strength.
The Kremlin on Wednesday indicated it could annex the strategically important southern Ukrainian region of Kherson as occupation authorities said they would prepare a formal request to Putin to incorporate their region into Russia.
“They are driven by strong nationalism,” said Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford University, “for which they are willing to suffer extraordinary economic loss.” Still, he added, the West’s muscular response could be “a moment of sea change in the self-confidence of democracies.”
For some Europeans, the United States may be going too far. French diplomats linked to Mr Macron described the evolving US policy as essentially arming Ukraine to its limits and maintaining sanctions against Russia indefinitely. France, they said, is pushing hard for negotiations with Mr Putin because there was no other path to sustainable European security.
Other analysts argue that the threats to Western unity are exaggerated. Finland and Sweden’s moves to join NATO suggest not only that the alliance is contracting, but also that its center of gravity is shifting eastward.
Even before invading Ukraine, Mr Putin warned those countries that they would face “retaliation” if they joined NATO. During a visit to Stockholm, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that the Mutual Security Declaration Britain signed with Sweden — in which both countries pledged to come to each other’s aid if faced with a military threat or natural disaster — would counter that threat.
“Sovereign nations should be free to make those decisions without fear or influence or threat of retaliation,” Mr Johnson said, along with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden. The statement “will enable us to share more intelligence, strengthen our military exercises and advance our joint technology development,” he said.
Despite Germany’s ambivalence about cutting Russian gas, it seems highly unlikely that its historic commitment to increase military spending will change course. Germany began training first-class Ukrainian gun crews in the use of self-propelled howitzers in West Germany on Wednesday. The German army plans to donate seven of the heavy weapons to Ukraine.
“The Russians, because of their barbarity, continue to generate images and news that will aid the cause of Western unity,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a political scientist who worked in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “If the Ukrainians continue to succeed, I think people will encourage them.”
Reporting contributed by Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Roger Cohen from Paris, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cora Engelbrecht from London, Ana Swanson and Alan Rappeport from Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.