Editor’s note: David A.Andelman, CNN contributor, two-time Deadline Club Award winner, Knight 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 was previously correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinions on CNN.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing his best to achieve two immediate goals. The goal of the West must be to stop it.
First, he seeks to distract his nation from the blinding evidence that he is losing heavily on the battlefield and utterly failing to achieve even the drastically reduced goals of his invasion.
Secondly and simultaneously, Putin is desperate to buy time – hoping that the political clock and the onset of winter in Europe will sap the will and energies of the Western powers that have all but gutted his military-industrial machine and destroyed power. army of Russia.
Both sides – Russia and Ukraine with its Western backers – are doing their best to tighten the screws ahead of a winter that could finally decide who will win the most titanic clash of forces in Europe since World War II. It’s worth taking a deep look at what’s at stake right now.
Europe’s energy concerns
First, there is the West and its ability to continue supplying the Ukrainian war machine that has proven so effective in this David vs. Goliath battle.
This ability to continue depends on a host of variables – from the availability of critical and affordable energy supplies for the coming winter, to the popular will of a wide range of nations with often conflicting priorities.
In the early hours of Friday in Brussels, the powers of the European Union agreed on a roadmap to control energy prices that have soared in the wake of Russian import embargoes and the Kremlin cutting natural gas supplies on a whim.
These include a emergency stopper on Europe’s gas trading hub – the Dutch Title Transfer Facility – and allowing EU gas companies to create a cartel to buy gas on the international market.
As French President Emmanuel Macron became euphoric as he left the summit, which he described as having “maintained European unity”, he conceded there was only a “clear mandate” for the European Commission begins work on a gas cap mechanism.
Yet divisions remain, with Europe’s largest economy, Germany, skeptical of any price caps. Now energy ministers must work out the details with a Germany that fears such caps will encourage higher consumption – an added burden on tight supplies.
Putin’s Helpful Friends in Europe
These divisions are all part of Putin’s dearest dream. Multiple forces in Europe could prove essential for success from the Kremlin’s perspective, which amounts to the continent failing to agree on the essentials.
Germany and France are already at odds on many of these issues. Although in an effort to find a compromise, 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 as Italy’s first female prime minister on Saturday and tried to brush off her party’s post-fascist aura. Meanwhile, one of his far-right coalition partners expressed deep gratitude for Putin.
Silvio Berlusconi, himself a four-time Italian prime minister, was recorded at a rally of his party supporters happily describing the 20 bottles of vodka Putin sent him with ‘a very sweet letter’ on the occasion of his 86th birthday.
Berlusconi, in a secretly recorded audio tape, said he 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 leader of Italy’s ruling coalition, Matteo Salvini, who was appointed deputy prime minister on Saturday, said during the campaign: “I wouldn’t want the sanctions [on Russia] do more harm to those who impose them than to those who are struck by them.
At the same time, Poland and Hungary, longtime ultra-right soulmates united against liberal EU policies that seemed calculated to reduce their influence, are now at odds over Ukraine. Poland was deeply offended by the pro-Putin sentiments of Hungarian populist leader Viktor Orban.
The limits of the American “blank check”
Similar forces appear to be at work in Washington where House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is poised to become House speaker if Republicans take control after next month’s election, an interviewer told an interviewer. “I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write Ukraine a blank check. They just won’t.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the influential 30-member congressional progressive caucus called on Biden to open talks with Russia on ending the conflict as his troops still occupy large swaths of the country and his missiles and drones strike deep inside.
Hours later, caucus chair Mia Jacob, facing a storm of criticism, emailed reporters with a statement “clarifying” their pro-Ukraine remarks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to renew American support.
Indeed, while the United States has offered more than $60 billion in aid since Biden took office, when Congress authorized $40 billion for Ukraine last May, only Republicans have voted against the latest aid package.
In short, Putin has every interest in prolonging the conflict as long as possible to allow many of these Western forces to come into play. A long, cold winter in Europe, persistent inflation and higher interest rates driving a recession on both sides of the Atlantic could mean irresistible pressure on already skeptical leaders to roll back financial and military support.
This support in terms of arms, materiel and now training for Ukrainian forces has been the foundation of their remarkable battlefield successes against a weakened, undersupplied and ill-prepared Russian army.
At the same time, the West is increasing the pressure on Russia. Last Thursday, the State Department released a detailed report on the impact of sanctions and export controls strangling Russia’s military-industrial complex.
Russian production of hypersonic missiles has all but ceased “due to the lack of necessary semiconductors”, according to the report. Planes are cannibalized for spare parts, factories producing anti-aircraft systems have closed, and “Russia has reverted to Soviet-era defense stocks” to restock. The Soviet era ended more than 30 years ago.
A day before this report, the United States announced the seizure of all the assets of a major Russian procurement agent, Yury Orekhov, and his agencies “responsible for the purchase of American-sourced technologies for users. Russian end products…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 of these actions point to Russia’s growing desperation to gain access to critical components for the production of high-tech weapons blocked by Western sanctions and embargoes that have begun to strangle the Kremlin’s military-industrial complex.
Where does that leave Russia
This pressure from the West could finally produce real results. Putin’s announced martial law in Ukrainian territories that Russia now only partially controls, attacks on civilian targets deep inside Ukraine, and an intransigent new commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Shurokin, nicknamed ” General Armageddon” by his colleagues, all suggest growing frustration bordering on fear that the Russian people are beginning to notice what has long since become blindingly obvious: Putin is losing.
This is the very moment when it is so essential that Ukraine and its Western supporters press on tenaciously.
Shurokin appeared on Moscow television last week to suggest that the Kremlin’s new goal – which in fact dates back decades – is to force Ukraine into Russia’s orbit and prevent it from joining the EU and especially NATO. Shurokin said: “We only want one thing, for Ukraine to be independent from the West and from NATO and to be friendly with the Russian state.”
Yet there remain hardliners like Pavel Gubarev, Russia’s puppet leader in Donetsk, who voiced his true intention towards the Ukrainians: “We are not 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 it takes: 1 million, 5 million, or we’ll exterminate you all.
This should be the real fear of all those in the West who are still ready to express over 100% support for Ukraine and its people.