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Column: War in Ukraine is a battle of wills and economic pain — and the West is showing fatigue

Several men in suits, framed by rubble and a windshield's shattered glass, seen from the driver's seat of a damaged vehicle.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron survey damage from the war in Irpin, Ukraine.
(Ludovic Marin / Associated Press)

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

It wasn’t hard to find the effects.

You’re unhappy about $5 a gallon for gas? Try $8. “It’s painful filling the tank,” my friend Roberto Pesciani, a retired teacher, moaned.

The Supreme Court has long benefited from Americans’ perception that it stood apart from partisan politics. That view has sharply eroded.

Utility bills? The cost of natural gas is four times as high in Italy as in the United States.

“Heating prices are up. Grocery prices are up. Everything’s going up,” Pesciani said.

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The worries go beyond inflation. Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, warned recently that Russia’s blockade on Ukraine’s grain exports could spark a global bread war, producing famine in Africa and a new wave of migrants heading for Europe.

“The problem with sanctions on Russia is that they will only work if they hurt us too,” Pesciani observed.

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

“It’s here already,” Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, told me. “The pain [from sanctions] is far higher in Russia than in the West, of course, but our tolerance of pain 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 betting he’ll win that contest. The West’s economic sanctions “had no chance of success from the very beginning,” he said in a fiery speech in St. Petersburg on Friday. “We are a strong people and can cope with any challenge.”

The political anxiety in Italy and its neighbors was reflected in a 10-country poll released last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Most Europeans blame Russia for starting the war, but they’re divided over what to do about it, the poll found.

In both Germany and France, a plurality of about 40% are in what the pollsters called a “peace camp”: They want the war to end as soon as possible, even if that requires Ukrainian concessions to Russia. About 20% are in a “justice camp”: They want to see Russia suffer a decisive defeat, even if that means a longer war.

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

Despite that, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi took an overnight train from Poland to Kyiv, the embattled Ukrainian capital, last week to show their support for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Only a few weeks ago, all three sounded wobbly on the war. Macron made a very public effort to entice Putin into talks and said the West should avoid trying to “humiliate” 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. At one point he even refused to take a telephone call from Macron.

So last week, having shown their restive voters that they had tried to make peace, the three Western leaders took a harder line in Kyiv.

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

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

“The Ukrainian people are defending the values of democracy,” Draghi said.

The three didn’t deliver what Zelensky wanted most: quick delivery of new weapons.

But they did endorse Ukraine’s application for membership in the European Union — a welcome statement in Kyiv even if it was almost entirely symbolic.

The main impact, though, was a surprisingly firm signal to Putin that Europe’s united front isn’t crumbling yet.

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

Americans, including President Biden, have it easier. We don’t rely on Russian natural gas to heat our homes. And domestically, the confrontation with Russia has produced an unusual bipartisan consensus: Democrats have lined up behind Biden’s hawkish stance; most Republicans have too, except for the most zealously pro-Trump wing of the GOP.

Even in the United States, however, 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 thought the United States should impose tough sanctions against Russia, even if it means U.S. economic pain. By May, the majority had shifted; 51% said the top priority should be limiting damage to the U.S. 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 in 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 greatest challenge on that third front may come this fall — when the demand for heating fuel increases, when Putin finds new ways to undermine Western cohesion, and when Biden returns to Congress to ask for billions more in aid.

The stakes will be high. Can the leaders of Europe and the United States rally their people to endure economic sacrifice for the sake of Ukraine — or is that a contest only Putin can win?


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