All the assessments of the ongoing war in Ukraine, nearly six months on from the Russian invasion, point to a state of attrition taking shape on all fronts. This makes a breakthrough and/or victory for any of the warring parties impossible, meaning the imminent cessation of military activity has become something of an unattainable dream. Despite Ukraine’s recent successes in holding off Russian advances on various fronts due to the new weapons it has received from NATO countries, it is unlikely that Kyiv will be in a position to liberate its occupied towns and cities any time soon. Similarly — and if we believe the recent US assessment that Russia has lost between 70,000 and 80,000 of its troops to death or injury during the campaign — Moscow’s military is unlikely to achieve its aim of returning all of Ukraine to its alleged legitimate Russian owners, at least not during this campaign.
This leaves the EU, which has stood firmly on Ukraine’s side as it attempts to fend off the unprovoked Russian aggression, exposed on all fronts in its bid to defend its easternmost flank. Any failure of the bloc now might encourage the Kremlin leadership to aspire to return countries such as Poland and the Baltic states to its orbit. And this will come at a price for the bloc, which rose from the ashes of the Second World War to promote unity and prosperity for its members within a stable and peaceful Europe.
The EU is suddenly facing an existential threat that could drive a wedge between its members, as the adversities of this “just” war — as it is in the eyes of the EU leadership but not necessarily among all its people — could prove divisive as the state of attrition sets in. The war’s economic, political and social ramifications could shake the essence of a union that moves slowly, like a behemoth, and is known for its democracy but not for its absolute unity.
Most opinion polls in the EU point to continued support of about 70 percent for the EU’s policies of standing by Ukraine and increasing sanctions on Russia. But disruptions are on the horizon, as inflation seems to be skyrocketing and the increase in the cost of living is causing pain across Europe. Societies and economies are paying dearly for the high cost of oil and gas, with the potential that homes might go cold this winter if the Kremlin decides to further weaponize its energy supplies. Moscow’s strategy is clear: Keep the energy squeeze on and eventually individual EU nations will acquiesce to the pain felt by their citizens and waver on the application of sanctions. Gazprom last month further reduced its gas supply to EU nations through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline and this could get even worse in parallel with the bloc’s efforts to stave off the impending winter crisis. Member states are grappling to find alternative sources of energy and have even reached a nonbinding agreement that nations must reduce their gas consumption by 15 percent. The Western world’s sanctions on Russia have not had the hoped-for impact, as Moscow has managed to stabilize its ruble. However, the signs are that imports have collapsed and the country faces challenges in sourcing the parts and technology needed to keep its military and civilian industrial sectors going.
Attrition is spreading pain for all, but the EU’s open societies and democratic systems are likely to be the most exposed. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Josep Borrell last month called for “strategic patience.” This points indirectly to the need to stand unified as the economic downturn in Russia emerges, but only if no cracks are shown in the EU’s walls. Europe’s nations and people have kept their part of the bargain against all odds, including opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees and the bloc’s coffers to military and other assistance for six months, but the political landscape is showing signs of change. This is not just related to Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has insisted on maintaining a pragmatic relationship with Moscow and also forced an exemption for his country from the EU’s embargo on importing Russian oil.