July 28, 2022

Diane Francis

Europe’s been asleep until February when Putin said he wouldn’t invade Ukraine and launched Stalingrad-like sieges of cities the size of Dresden or Lyon or Genoa, targeting civilians, razing residences and burning crops. He’s now attacking the rest of Europe directly and pushing it into an energy crisis and recession with his cat-and-mouse games. He slashed gas volumes, asked for a turbine, hinted he may never ship gas again, admitted the turbine wasn’t needed, turned on the gas again at one-fifth the volume required, said another turbine was needed, and suggests the gas won’t flow at all this winter. This week, he agreed to lift blockades to let Ukrainian grain be exported to a starving Africa and Middle East, then bombed its export terminals the next day. The only welcome news is that finally Europe realizes it’s dealing with another madman who tortures his prey before devouring it and that it’s time to gird for battle.

“European leaders need to act like grown-ups and recognize that Putin declared war on them long ago. He is pushing the envelope and it is working. He will continue raising the stakes and engaging in larger-scale blackmail,” said Yuri Vitrenko, CEO of Ukraine’s energy conglomerate in an interview. “We must work together and not let Putin believe he has the upper hand. If Putin completely cuts off gas exports to Europe, it will be a difficult situation but not fatal. Prices will be high, people will have to save gas and energy, but nobody will die.”

The European Commission has taken Vitrenko’s “blackmail” accusation to heart and just cobbled together an emergency energy plan to ration and share gas to get through the winter. (Pre-invasion, Putin’s market share for oil and gas in Europe was 40 percent.) Rationing has begun, along with efforts to sign up alternative energy supplies. Some nations have banned air conditioning, cut back on public transportation, dimmed street lights, encouraged remote work and school again, rationed gasoline, and outlawed night shifts. The degree of pain varies in relation to their dependence on Russia.

But in recent days, the tone at the top is changing. France’s newly re-elected President Emmanuel Macron talks about France’s transition to a “war economy”. The commander of the French NATO detachment in Romania of 800 troops said publicly “we must be ready for all scenarios,” explaining that there is no sense at the moment as to how far the conflict in Ukraine will go. On Bastille Day, the annual march along the Champs-Elysees was called “a parade under the banner of Ukraine” and led by troops from the “Bucharest Nine” countries that are obviously next on Putin’s hit list: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Moldova was missing from the event, but its President has been feverishly making the media rounds warning that her country is concerned about the invasion.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been a proponent of tough sanctions and visited Kyiv in June with Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Schulz in a show of support and unity. He just

resigned, because his 17-month-old coalition fell apart, and concern is that this could breach European solidarity if the next leader is a “filoputiniani” or “Putin-Lover” as was retired leader Silvio Berlusconi. But most likely, Draghi’s policies will continue along with efforts such as the recent $4-billion gas deal with Algeria. Other European countries scramble to sign similar deals — Greece just announced a big deal with Saudi Arabia and the European Commission just signed a monster deal to triple gas imports from Azerbaijan by 2027.

Even wobbly Germany is on board, doubling its defense budget to meet NATO requirements and shipping weapons to Ukraine after some delays. Last week, its President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who switched from Putin appeaser to hardliner), appropriately labelled Putin’s war in Ukraine as “a war against the unity of Europe.” He even urged people to “accept significant disadvantages” in doing so, in the wake of German forecasts that Europe faces a “Lehman-style contagion” of energy-induced economic disruptions unless the continent weans itself from Russian energy and helps Ukraine fight.

Fortunately, Britain will continue to lead and goad Europe into more military aid and tougher sanctions because it looks likely that Liz Truss will become its next Prime Minister, the most hawkish, anti-Russian Tory in the party. As foreign minister, she raised the possibility of putting British boots on the ground to assist Ukraine and initiated an aggressive confiscation of oligarch assets in Britain immediately after the invasion in February. She has said repeatedly that “not a word of Russia’s Putin can be trusted”.

Europe’s backbone is essential to stop the conflict because Putin’s calculation has been that the continent is “soft” and cannot get its act together. Now they are doing so and recognize that if Ukraine cannot push Russia back to its borders, then NATO will be drawn into war as he moves west. NATO is increasing its European deployment to 300,000 from 40,000 troops and NATO members are being pressured to provide more weaponry to Ukraine — the continent’s proxy in this war with Putin. Only Ukrainian battlefield successes will make Putin realize there is no hope of victory and opt for a deal.

“Putin will try to use gas as leverage on Europe because he still believes he can make Europe accept his demands and hand Ukraine over to him,” said Vitrenko. “What Putin does next, depends on Europe, but he won’t get Ukraine which is what he wants.”