Originally published at Project-Syndicate | November 24th, 2022
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nine months ago, the West has not only delivered nearly $100 billion in aid to Ukraine, but also imposed unprecedented economic and financial sanctions on Russia. But with Europe facing the specter of energy shortages and some US lawmakers threatening to slash support for Ukraine, fears are mounting that the West could succumb to war fatigue.
The economic hardship Western populations are facing today is inextricably linked to the war in Ukraine. The overwhelming economic and military support these governments have provided to Ukraine in its heroic stand against the Russian invasion could be sustained only as long as the public’s compassion for Ukrainians outweighed the pain of sanctions and the fatigue that comes with a protracted, seemingly endless slog.
A schism always existed between the Central and Eastern European countries, for which the Ukraine war represents an immediate existential threat, and those in Western Europe. But, ultimately, it is up to the United States and Britain to hold the Western alliance together. And both countries have expressed concern that, if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky refuses to consider peace negotiations with Russia, the West’s “Ukraine fatigue” would worsen.
Now that Republicans have won a majority in the US House of Representatives, American pressure on Ukraine to pursue diplomacy is set to intensify. The likely next Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has already warned that people are not going to be “sitting in a recession and write a blank check to Ukraine.”
Moreover, General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised that Ukraine had achieved as much as it could expect on the battlefield and it should now cement its gains at the negotiating table. The same message came from NATO diplomats and from US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in his meeting with Zelensky last week. The easing of tensions between the US and China, signaled at last week’s meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, may also help to spur a shift to diplomacy in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s recent liberation of Kherson would put the country in a stronger bargaining position in any such negotiation. But the first step must be for Zelensky to concede that his preconditions for negotiations – Russia’s complete withdrawal from all parts of Ukraine, including Crimea and the Donbas, and a change of leadership in Moscow – are utterly unrealistic.
In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest oil producer, pumping out around 12 million barrels of oil per day. Ten years later, Russia (which inherited almost all the Soviet oil reserves) was producing only around six million barrels per day, and was fast on its way to becoming a second- or third-tier player in world energy markets. Today, despite its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russia still manages to export around eight million barrels of crude and refined product per day, while output is holding steady just under ten million barrels per day.
The rebound in Russia’s oil production over the last 25 years was made possible by Western technology, foreign direct investment, and oil-field services, along with unfettered (or greatly encouraged) access to the European market. In pursuit of lower energy prices, and motivated largely by greed, the US and Europe helped to build the public finances of modern Russia – one of the most aggressive and dangerous states ever.
After much dithering, the G7 has now put in place a price cap on Russian oil exports. This has real potential to limit Putin’s fossil-fuel revenue. But the cap announced so far is in line with market prices; there is no effective squeeze yet.
The West now faces a big decision. It can lower the price cap, thereby reducing Russian government revenue in the short run and encouraging a cap on Russian production over the coming years. Or it can timidly fold its cards and give Russia the entire pot, which would only embolden the Kremlin and give it the resources to carry out further attacks on Ukraine – and elsewhere.
The stakes are too high for the West to blink. The price cap on Russian oil must be lowered decisively, in response to continuing occupation of Ukraine and all the associated atrocities. Russia is finished as a major global energy power.
The West cannot give in to Russia, for three main reasons.
First, from the beginning, Putin has framed this conflict as a proxy war between Russia and the West. That means that any defeat or humiliation of Ukraine – including its agreement, under pressure from its allies, to a disgraceful peace deal – would be a defeat or humiliation of the West. The world’s most powerful alliance of democracies would effectively be handing victory to the Russian-Iran-Syria axis, which would affect everything from the transatlantic alliance to security in the Pacific.
Second, giving in to Russia would undermine the security of NATO member states. It would be naive to assume that Putin would stop with Ukraine. At a minimum, the “undefeated” Putin would constantly attempt to undermine NATO through hybrid warfare tactics. Far from stopping him, sanctions would strengthen his resolve to use new foreign conquests to distract Russians from their declining economic well-being.
Finally, anything less than a clear Ukrainian victory would decimate the Western-led international order that emerged after World War II. If Russia is allowed to get away with its brutal aggression in Ukraine, why would another authoritarian regime refrain from using force in pursuit of its own tactical or strategic objectives?
Giving in to Russia would mean the end of the world as we know it. Despite the chimera of a Russian nuclear attack and the real economic challenges it faces, the West has everything it needs – militarily, economically, and ideologically – to ensure that Ukraine wins the war. If it fails to act accordingly, the ground it loses – both figuratively and literally – will be difficult, if not impossible, to regain.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the message world leaders received from their militaries and intelligence services was that the Ukrainian resistance – and Zelensky’s government – could survive no more than two weeks against the world’s second-most-powerful military. The West thus saw little reason to send immediate military aid to Ukraine, and focused instead on imposing economic and financial sanctions against Russia.
But Ukraine’s success in holding Kyiv – aided by next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWS) and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that had already been sent by the United Kingdom, the Baltic countries, and Poland – radically changed outside perceptions of the country’s capacity for resistance. Weapons and training soon began to flow rapidly into Ukraine.
Revelations of war crimes in Bucha and many other places, together with Russia’s targeting of civilian infrastructure (particularly energy production), further solidified the resolve of the US and the European Union, with additional support from far-flung countries like Singapore and Japan. And this resolve seems intact, with Italy’s new right-wing government standing firmly against Russia as the war’s sole aggressor.
In fact, Ukraine has already won the diplomatic and social-media war. Even fence-sitters like China and India have attempted to distance themselves from Putin, especially following his nuclear threats.
Some in the West, including military leaders such as Milley, have called for negotiations. But such talks would favor Putin by giving him the chance to buy time to regroup and rearm. And as long as Ukraine has the military momentum – and the winter is likely to favor its better-equipped forces – it will be in no mood to negotiate.
Economic sanctions will gradually erode Russia’s ability to wage its war, not least by undermining its production of the long-range missiles it uses to attack Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Despite the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s threat to block European aid, I believe that the US and Europe will maintain their indispensable military and economic support for Ukraine.
Ukraine is facing an existential threat from an imperialist Russia. But, thanks to its well-trained army and astonishingly courageous people, it can prevail in expelling all Russian troops from its territory by the end of 2023. To help ensure that it does, its allies should supply it with the long-range missiles (for example, Army TACtical Missile Systems, with a range of over 180 miles) and replacement warplanes it needs to degrade Russia’s offensive capabilities.
Shlomo Ben-Ami: A former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace and the author of Prophets without Honor: The 2000 Camp David Summit and the End of the Two-State Solution (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Simon Johnson: A former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-chair of the COVID-19 Policy Alliance. He is the co-author (with Jonathan Gruber) of Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream and the co-author (with James Kwak) of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and The Next Financial Meltdown.
Salome Samadashvili: A former head of Georgia’s Mission to the European Union, is a member of Georgia’s parliament and Political Secretary of the Lelo for Georgia party.
Charles Tannock: A former member of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, is a fellow at GLOBSEC, a think tank based in Bratislava committed to enhancing security, prosperity, and sustainability.