Ukraine’s recent gains in the eastern sections of the country underscore the critical importance of continued Western support for Ukraine. The oncoming winter will test the West’s, and most especially Europe’s, commitment to maintain that support in order to provide Ukraine the political, economic and military backing indispensable to Ukraine’s ultimate victory.
Ukrainians are rightly ebullient over their forces’ recent impressive victories over Russian occupying forces, primarily in the east but also in the south near Kherson. These triumphs prove what many military planners and strategists have known for centuries: invading forces are no match for the resilience, courage, determination and utter doggedness and grit demonstrated by the forces and the people fighting to preserve their nation’s sovereignty and their own dignity.
It is also just as true that even intangibles like superhuman courage and determination require very tangible weapons, equipment, resources and money to carry the fight to the enemy. Ukraine has thankfully been able to rely on a steady flow of all that from the United States and its NATO allies. It’s no exaggeration to say the combination of unflinching Ukrainian will and unrelenting Western support has turned Vladimir Putin’s grandiose dreams of conquest into a hellish nightmare of defeat and humiliation.
Russia is no stranger to invasions, the two most notable having been Napoleon’s disaster of 1812 and Germany’s (aka Operation Barbarossa) of 1941-1942. Both ended in ignominious defeats for both invading forces and ultimately to losing those respective wars.
Long, unsustainable and indefensible supply lines were major factors in Russia’s ultimate defeat of the French and German armies. Today, poorly maintained and uncoordinated supply lines are compounding Russia’s task of subduing Ukraine. Ukraine, on the other hand, can count on a reliable flow, if not always the most desired, of necessary weapons and supplies to repel the invader.
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Is Winter Russia’s Ally?
In a rather strange turn of history, however, Putin is counting on winter, a major factor in the French and German defeats, to change his fortunes, less because of a chill in Ukrainian determination but rather a cooling of European will to continue its support at current levels. He is wielding one of the few major weapons he has left, oil and gas. Europe is now belatedly learning what it means to depend on a single energy supplier, especially an aggressive and manipulative one. The EU and individual European countries have taken impressive measures to reduce and ultimately eliminate the continent’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has been reduced from nearly 42% to the mid-to-low twenties, with commitments to eliminate all Russian gas from Europe, with a few notable exceptions like Hungary, by early 2023. Oil dependence is falling as well.
However, that dramatic progress will not be without pain and sacrifice on the part of European businesses. factories and people. In Putin’s demonic fever dream, he is expecting European will to weaken if not collapse as factories must either shut down periodically or operate at reduced hours. And he expects European popular support for continued backing of Ukraine will ebb as they huddle in homes and apartment buildings in heavy sweaters and jackets with thermostats turned low to conserve energy. Will shivering Europeans undergoing a distressed economy suffer for their struggling European colleagues to the east? Vladimir Putin thinks not.
And this is when the US must go even beyond what it has done to date on Ukraine’s behalf. It must show that it, too, is willing to suffer some pain in order to ensure Ukraine’s continuing gain in the battlefield.
First, considerable headway has already been made. US LNG exports to Europe through June of this year were at 39 billion cubic meters (bcm) versus 34 bcm in all of 2021. The stepped-up flows will continue. However, several obstacles stand in the way. LNG contracts are negotiated with customers for as long as a 20-year period. Exporters are bound by these and have limited leeway for modifying them. Additionally, infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic are impediments. LNG terminals in the US are already at capacity and Europe lacks sufficient receiving terminals. Businesses and governments on both sides are rushing to overcome these. For the US, however, the US administration and energy exporting companies should work cooperatively, e.g., perhaps minimizing bureaucratic and even some environmental standards on the production as well as the shipping side to ensure LNG flows continue and even increase. European governments, heretofore hesitant to take such un-green actions, should consider similar steps as well.
Second, Europeans, who already pay considerably more for their energy than their American counterparts, may want to see Americans taking steps to show solidarity not only for Ukrainians but also for Europeans. For example, today the least expensive gasoline in Europe is still considerably more expensive, sometimes by as much as two-three dollars per gallon, than the most expensive gasoline in the US, which is in California. The natural gas price differential is even greater, sometimes by as much as 40-50 times more, than what a typical American consumer might pay.
There are many ways this might be done. For one, a simple voluntary program asking Americans to lower their thermostats this winter. The natural gas saved would then be available for European customers. Another likely more controversial approach – especially in the run-up to this November’s midterm elections for Congress, in which the Biden administration is most keen to preserve its slim majorities – is a one-time gasoline surcharge. The revenue from such a tax could be used both to reimburse low-income consumers dependent on commuting for their livelihoods and also to continue US economic support for Ukraine. The additional supply generated by the tax-induced consumption reduction is also available for export to Europe to help mitigate their anticipated shortages.
Clearly, these would be tough measures for the American public to swallow right now. Inflation and the concomitant slowing economy remain uppermost on the minds of Americans today. While American public support for Ukraine is still generally strong, it has softened since the early days of the invasion. But there is a continuing strong belief that failure to turn back Putin’s invasion will only encourage the Russian bear to seek prey elsewhere in Europe. Stopping the bully Putin means continuing American and European support for Ukraine through the tough winter months.
The more important point is less the actual measures taken than America’s demonstration to Europe that America, too, is prepared to suffer some pain in order to save Ukraine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.