LONDON — The West rallied against Russia’s war against Ukraine more quickly and forcefully than almost anyone had expected. But as the war spirals into a protracted conflict, which could drag on for months or even years, it is testing the resolve of Western countries, with European and American officials wondering if the mounting economic toll will erode their solidarity with time.
So far, the fissures are mostly skin deep: Hungary’s refusal to sign an embargo on Russian oil, thwarting the European Union’s effort to impose a continent-wide ban; unrest in Paris over the Biden administration’s aggressive goal of militarily weakening Russian President Vladimir V. Putin; a beleaguered President Biden blaming soaring food and gasoline prices on a Putin price hike.
Alongside those tensions are more signs of solidarity: Finland and Sweden on Wednesday moved closer to joining NATO, and Britain offered both countries security guarantees to guard against the Russian threat. In Washington, the House voted 368-57 Tuesday in favor of a nearly $40 billion aid package for Ukraine.
However, Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border only 76 days ago, a blink of an eye in the scheme of eternal wars in history. As the fighting progresses, the cascading effect on supply chains, energy pipelines and agricultural crops will be felt more acutely at gas pumps and on supermarket shelves.
Putin, some experts say, is calculating that the West will tire before Russia of a long twilight struggle over Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, especially if the price for continued Western support is accelerating inflation rates, energy disruptions, depleted public finances. and fatigued populations.
The Biden administration’s director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, crystallized those doubts Tuesday, warning senators that Putin was preparing for a prolonged siege and “likely was counting on the determination of the US and the EU to weaken in the face of food shortages, inflation and energy”. the scarcity worsens”.
On Wednesday, Biden traveled to a farm in Kankakee, Illinois, to demonstrate that Putin’s war was to blame for food shortages and lowering the cost of living for American families, an unspoken sign that his staunch support for Ukraine , a policy that has won bipartisan support in Washington, could come at a political cost.
Putin faces his own internal pressures, which were evident in the calibrated tone he delivered during a speech in Moscow’s Red Square on Monday, without calling for a mass mobilization or threatening to escalate the conflict. But he also made clear that there is no end in sight to what he falsely called Russia’s campaign to rid its neighbor of “torturers, death squads and Nazis.”
On the ground in Ukraine, the fighting shows signs of turning into a protracted battle. A day after Ukraine’s counteroffensive toppled Russian forces from a cluster of towns northeast of the city of Kharkiv, the region’s governor said on Wednesday that Ukrainian efforts had driven forces “further” away from Moscow. of the city, giving them “even fewer opportunities to shoot”. in the regional center.
Ukraine’s apparent success in pushing Russian troops back from Kharkiv, its second-largest city some 20 miles from the Russian border, appears to have helped reduce bombing there in recent days, even as Russia advances along along parts of the front line in the Donbas. region in eastern Ukraine.
That Ukraine even found itself in an ongoing pitched battle, nearly three months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion, is remarkable. Analysts pointed out that a prolonged war would stretch the resources of a Russian army that has already suffered heavy losses in men and machinery. Given that, some argue that the West should press its advantage by tightening Moscow’s economic stranglehold.
“I am concerned about Western fatigue,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, “which is why the leaders of the free world should do more now to hasten the end of the war.”
The United States and the European Union, he said, should impose a full range of crippling sanctions immediately, instead of rolling them out in escalating waves, as they have done so far. Western countries had approached such a strategy with military help, he said, which had helped the Ukrainians keep the Russians at bay.
But faltering negotiations over a European oil embargo show the limits of that approach when it comes to Russian energy supplies. European Union ambassadors held another fruitless meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, failing to break through fierce resistance from a single bloc member, Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has a warm relationship with Putin and has been at loggerheads with Brussels, dashed hopes of a show of unity when he blocked the latest move, arguing that a ban on Russian oil would be the best option. equivalent to an “atomic bomb” for the Hungarian economy.
Orban has continued to resist, even after concessions that would give Hungary more time to shelve Russian oil and intense lobbying from other leaders. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, flew to Budapest to try to convince him while President Emmanuel Macron called him on the phone.
“We will only support this proposal if Brussels comes up with a solution to the problem that Brussels created,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said, adding that modernizing Hungary’s energy sector would cost “many, many billions of euros.” .
In Washington, Biden has had less trouble rallying support for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The House vote for a massive aid package showed how the brutality of the war had overcome resistance from both the right and the left to American involvement in military conflicts abroad.
And yet rising food and fuel prices, made worse by war, pose a genuine threat to Biden. Food prices rose 0.9 percent in April from a month earlier, according to data released on Wednesday. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the administration was “terribly concerned about the world’s food supply,” adding that 275 million people around the world face hunger.
“Putin’s war has cut off critical food sources,” Biden told farmers in Illinois. “Our farmers are helping on both fronts, lowering the price of food at home and expanding production and feeding the world in need.”
It remains to be seen whether the United States can increase agricultural production enough to alleviate the shortage. But the farm visit came as Biden, pressured by the fastest pace of inflation in 40 years, tried to reassure Americans that the White House is taking price hikes seriously.
While Putin faces arguably much greater pressures, from rising combat casualties to economic pain caused by sanctions, he is tapping into nationalist sentiments, which some analysts say will give him staying power.
The Kremlin signaled on Wednesday that it may annex Ukraine’s strategically important southern Kherson region as occupation authorities said they would prepare a formal request to Putin to absorb their region into Russia.
“They are motivated by powerful nationalism,” said Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford University, “for which they are willing to suffer extraordinary economic damage.” Still, he added, the West’s forceful response could be “a turning point in the self-confidence of democracies.”
For some Europeans, the United States may be going too far. French diplomats with ties to Macron have described the evolution of US policy as essentially arming Ukraine to the limit and maintaining sanctions on Russia indefinitely. France, they said, wants to push through negotiations with Putin because there was no other path to lasting European security.
Other analysts argue that the threats to Western unity are exaggerated. The moves by Finland and Sweden to join NATO suggest not only that the alliance is coming together, but also that its center of gravity is shifting east.
Even before invading Ukraine, Putin warned those countries that they would face “retaliation” if they joined NATO. On a visit to Stockholm, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that the mutual security declaration Britain signed with Sweden, under which the two countries pledged to help each other if faced with a military threat or natural disaster, would counter that threat.
“Sovereign nations must be free to make those decisions without fear, influence or threat of retaliation,” said Mr. Johnson, joined by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden. The declaration “will allow us to share more intelligence, strengthen our military exercises and promote our joint development of technology,” he said.
Despite Germany’s ambivalence about cutting off Russian gas, it seems highly unlikely that it will change course on its historic commitment to increase military spending. On Wednesday, Germany began training the first class of Ukrainian gun crews in the use of self-propelled howitzers in western Germany. The German military plans to donate seven of the heavy weapons to Ukraine.
“The Russians, because of their barbarism, continue to generate images and news that will help the cause of Western unity,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a political scientist who served at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “If the Ukrainians continue to be successful, I think people will cheer for them.”
The report was contributed by Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, roger cohen from Paris, Matthew Mpoke Bigg Y Cora Engelbrecht From london, anna swanson Y alan rappeport of Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Christopher F. Schuetze of Berlin