Cracks are appearing in the Western front against Moscow, with America’s European allies increasingly split over whether to keep shipping more powerful weapons to Ukraine, which some of them fear could prolong the conflict and increase its economic fallout.
At the center of the disagreement—which is splitting a group of Western European powers from the U.S., U.K. and a group of mostly central and northern European nations—are diverging perceptions of the long-term threat posed by Russia and whether Ukraine can actually prevail on the battlefield.
The first bloc, led by France and Germany, is growing reluctant to provide Ukraine the kinds of offensive, long-range weapons it would need to reclaim ground lost to Russia’s armies in the country’s south and east. They doubt Russia would directly threaten the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
On the other side, Washington, London and a group of mainly central and northern European nations, some of them former Soviet bloc members, see the Russian offensive as a harbinger of further expansion by Moscow, making Ukraine the front line in a broader war pitching Russia against the West.
The differences between the two groups—which European officials said have been building in recent weeks, as Ukraine lost ground in its Donbas area—are getting aired more loudly in public this week, as the European Union’s heads of government hold a summit on Ukraine.
Collectively, European governments have been able to agree on measures to isolate Russia’s economy that once would have been unthinkable, including an embargo on most of the crude oil Russia sells to Europe. But opinion is sharply divided on the stakes of the war and Ukraine’s chances.
Public statements by the leaders of France and Germany and comments by those countries’ officials suggest they are skeptical Kyiv can expel the invaders and they have called for a negotiated cease-fire, triggering complaints from Ukraine that it is being pushed to make territorial concessions.
Leaders in the Baltic States, Poland and elsewhere argue instead that supplying Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated heavy weapons is critical to not just hold the line, but reverse Russian advances and deal Moscow the kind of blow that would deter Russian President
from any further military action in the future.
“This is an unprecedented attack on Ukraine,” said Latvian Defense Minister
“Our understanding, which is based on a long history of interactions with Russia, is that we cannot rely on Russian mercy and we see the Russian attack on Ukraine as simply the prelude for further Russian imperial expansionism.”
Some Western European nations are losing appetite for sustaining a war they think is unwinnable and has reached a bloody stalemate that is draining European resources and exacerbating a looming recession. By contrast, Poland and the Baltic countries, who once lived under the Kremlin’s boot, see themselves as next in line for Russian imperialist expansion.
The flow of millions of Ukrainian refugees into those countries has brought the war much closer to citizens’ ordinary lives, while for Germany, Austria and Italy, the conflict is primarily felt through higher energy costs.
“Every phone call, ministers from the north of Europe and central Europe are getting more and more angry,” said a senior Czech official. “This is destroying the unity. It’s precisely what Putin wants and what the French and Germans are giving him.”
Unlike the leaders of Britain, Poland, the Baltic nations and several central European countries, French and German leaders have yet to visit Kyiv. German Chancellor
has repeatedly warned that the conflict could lead to a third World War and nuclear annihilation. The goal of Western engagement, Mr. Scholz has said, was to keep Russia from winning.
Germany hasn’t sent tanks to Ukraine and agreed to ship seven pieces of heavy artillery. So far, Europe’s largest economy, with a population exceeding 83 million, has sent military aid worth about €200 million, according to government estimates—less than Estonia, with a population of just over one million. France has sent 12 howitzer-type cannons to Kyiv and no tanks or aerial defenses.
Poland has delivered more than 240 Soviet-designed T72 tanks to Ukraine, alongside drones, rocket launchers, dozens of infantry fighting vehicles and truckloads of ammunition. The Czech Republic has shipped helicopter gunships, tanks, and parts needed to keep Ukraine’s air force flying.
Ordinary citizens in Lithuania and the Czech Republic have donated tens of millions of euros to crowdsourcing campaigns to buy Turkish drones and Soviet-era weapons for Ukraine.
“We’re sending whatever we can, whatever we have, and whenever we’re able to,” said Polish President
who has visited Ukrainian President
twice and speaks to him most days. “Why? Because we believe that this is a war on civilization. This is about a war for the defense of Europe.”
Germany also has yet to replace the Polish and Czech tanks that had been sent to Ukraine with German-made hardware, as it agreed to do as part of a swap. A spokesman for the German government said this was due to lengthy procedures including maintenance, while some Defense Ministry officials decried a lack of political will to act with greater expedience.
“It is very disappointing that neither the federal government nor the Chancellor personally have the courage to speak about a victory for Ukraine and act accordingly in supporting Ukraine with modern, heavy weapons,” said
Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin.
Germany, which has for decades pursued a Russia-friendly policy and whose economy is heavily reliant on Russian gas imports, is still beholden to an approach that has demonstrably failed following Mr. Putin’s illegal invasion, the ambassador said.
Around 70% of Germans support the cautious policy of Mr. Scholz, according to a Forsa poll from early May. It showed 46% of Germans fear that heavy weapons deliveries increase the danger of the war spreading beyond Ukraine. Other polls have shown similar misgivings in Italy and France.
French and German officials reject accusations that they are doing too little or that they are pushing Mr. Zelensky into making concessions. French President
and Mr. Scholz, who regularly speak to the Ukrainian president and his Russian counterpart, have repeatedly said that Kyiv will decide the terms of any peace agreement.
Germany and France agree with the U.S., Canada and Western Europe regarding the war in Ukraine, said
Mr. Scholz’s chief of staff and a government minister. He said there were some differences in approach between Berlin and other nations in Central and Eastern Europe, though not in their assessment of the threat posed by Mr. Putin.
“If we don’t confront Putin’s ambitions in a decisive and united manner, the conflict will spread to the republic of Moldova, Georgia but also the western Balkans,” Mr. Schmidt warned in a recent panel debate in Berlin.
He said Mr. Scholz’s lengthy conversations with Mr. Putin—on Saturday, Mr. Scholz and Mr. Macron spoke to Mr. Putin for over 80 minutes—served to explain the geostrategic reality to a leader who isn’t being fully informed by his subordinates.
“When the chancellor speaks to Putin it is also about making clear to him what is actually happening,” Mr. Schmidt said. The German leader tells Mr. Putin: “‘It’s not going according to plan…you, Mr. Putin, must also consider how to get out of this situation, you are digging yourself deeper into a hole.’”
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