In Ukraine war’s battle of wills, the West is showing fatigue

I was in the hills of northern Italy last week, mainly on holiday but also curious how the war in Ukraine has affected life next door in Europe.

It wasn’t hard to find the effects.

Not happy with $5 a gallon for gas? Try $8. “It hurts to fill up the tank,” groaned my friend Roberto Pesciani, a retired teacher.

utility bills? Natural gas costs in Italy are four times higher than in the USA.

“Heating costs are going up. Food prices have gone up. Everything is going up,” said Pesciani.

Concerns go beyond inflation. Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio recently warned that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports could spark a global bread war that could spark famine in Africa and a new wave of migrants to Europe.

“The problem with sanctions against Russia is that they only work if they also hurt us,” Pesciani noted.

The economic pain is creating political problems for European governments that have joined the US-led sanctions campaign against Russia: “Ukraine Fatigue”.

“It’s already there,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute for International Affairs, told me. “The pain [from sanctions] is of course much higher in Russia than in the West, but our pain tolerance is lower. So the question is which curve is steeper – Russia’s ability to wage war or our ability to endure economic pain.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is counting on winning this competition. The West’s economic sanctions “had no prospect of success from the start,” he said in a fiery speech in St. Petersburg on Friday. “We are a strong people and master every challenge.”

Political concerns in Italy and its neighbors were reflected in a survey of 10 countries released last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Most Europeans blame Russia for starting the war, but they are divided on what to do about it, the poll says.

In both Germany and France, a majority of around 40 percent are in what pollsters dubbed “peace camps”: they want the war to end as soon as possible, even if it means making Ukrainian concessions to Russia. About 20% are in a “justice camp”: they want to see Russia suffer a decisive defeat, even if it means a protracted war.

Italians are even more dovish. A majority, 52%, are in the peace camp.

Despite this, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi last week took a night train from Poland to Kyiv, the embattled Ukrainian capital, to show their support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Just a few weeks ago, all three sounded shaky about the war. Macron has been very public in trying to get Putin to talk, saying the West should avoid “humiliating” Russia. Scholz and Draghi made more discreet attempts to see if the Russian leader might consider negotiations.

Putin, bent on military victory, rebuffed all three. Once he even refused to take a call from Macron.

After showing their troubled constituents last week that they had tried to make peace, the three Western leaders took a harder line in Kyiv.

Ukraine “must be able to win,” Macron said.

“Ukraine is part of the European family,” said Scholz.

“The Ukrainian people defend the values ​​of democracy,” Draghi said.

The three did not deliver what Zelenskyy wanted most: quick delivery of new weapons.

But they supported Ukraine’s application for membership of the European Union – a welcome declaration in Kyiv, even if it was almost entirely symbolic.

The main effect, however, was a surprisingly clear signal to Putin that the European united front is not yet crumbling.

The Russian president responded by immediately halting the flow of natural gas to the west, a reminder that he can inflict economic pain on his neighbors whenever he chooses.

Americans, including President Biden, have it easier. We don’t depend on Russian natural gas to heat our homes. And domestically, the confrontation with Russia has led to an unusual bipartisan consensus: the Democrats have backed Biden’s combative stance; so have most Republicans, with the exception of the most fervently pro-Trump wing of the GOP.

But even in the United States, inflation has eroded public support for the war – only less dramatically than in Europe.

In April, an Associated Press poll found that a majority of American voters believed the United States should impose tough sanctions on Russia, even if it causes US economic pain. By May the majority had shifted; 51% said the top priority should be limiting the damage to the US economy.

As Gideon Rachman of London’s Financial Times noted last month, the war in Ukraine is being fought on three fronts – and the West is involved on all three. “The first front is the battlefield itself,” he wrote. “The second front is economic. The third front is the battle of wills.”

The biggest challenge on this third front could come this fall — if demand for heating oil surges, if Putin finds new ways to undermine Western cohesion, and if Biden returns to Congress to demand billions more in aid.

The stakes will be high. Can the leaders of Europe and the United States rally their people to endure economic sacrifices for Ukraine – or is this a contest only Putin can win? In Ukraine war’s battle of wills, the West is showing fatigue

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