Sanctions on Russia are racing against war fatigue in Europe

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Welcome back. This weekend I’m looking at war fatigue in Europe and the US, and the impact of western sanctions on Russia.

But first, thanks for voting in last week’s poll. Some 58 per cent of readers said yes, the European Central Bank would use its new bond-buying instrument to help Italy, and 22 per cent of you said no. About a fifth thought — well, maybe. You can reach me at tony.barber@ft.com.


Inflation, an energy crisis and the prospect of economic recession are testing the resolve of European governments to maintain support for Ukraine. Critics of the war, many with a long record of pro-Russian sympathies, are exploiting the public’s concerns.

Among those who spoke out this week were Jeremy Corbyn, a former leader of the UK Labor party; Gerhard Schröder, a former German chancellor; and Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far right.

To this list we can add other opponents of the west’s stance such as Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister; Giuseppe Conte, a former Italian prime minister who helped to topple Mario Draghi’s government; and Alice Schwarzer, the doyenne of German feminism.

Except for Orbán, none of these figures holds power. More significant, in my view, were the remarks in June of Jens Plötner, foreign policy adviser to Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor. He said the media should focus more on the west’s future relationship with Russia than on supplying weapons to Ukraine.

The mood in Germany, the EU’s largest economy, which relies heavily on Russian gas, will be particularly important as the European winter approaches. In this excellent analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sergey Vakulenko outlines the problem:

In Russia’s strategic calculus, Europe’s dependence on Russian gas means European governments must either face a severe economic and political crisis at home this winter, or call a truce in their confrontation with Moscow, accommodating some of the Kremlin’s political demands on Ukraine, and lifting sanctions .

We also need to consider politics and public opinion in the US, without whose military aid Ukraine would be in deep trouble. The US economy is weakening. Tensions with China are rising. The midterm elections are only three months away, and the Republicans, many with Donald Trump’s backing, are putting President Joe Biden’s Democrats under pressure.

For Ukraine, which says it needs many more trillions of dollars in western financial and military assistance, these are worrying trends.

Another concern in Kyiv must be the risk that the western public’s interest in Ukraine’s cause is fading. Data from the media monitoring service Newswhip, as shown in this Grid News chart, indicate that global media coverage of the Ukraine was dipped sharply between February, when Russia invaded, and the end of May. Published news articles on Ukraine have fallen from a post-invasion peak of almost 77,000 a day in March to 10,000 in June.

Still, western governments are continuing to hold firm in their support for Ukraine. One reason is that they are confident that their economic sanctions are taking a toll on Russia’s war effort.

Critics contend that the sanctions are hurting Europe more than Russia. However, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths since the invasion to conceal official Russian statistics that would give a reasonably accurate picture of trends in the economy and public finances.

Perhaps the fullest and most up-to-date assessment of Russian economic trends appeared last month in a study by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and four other Yale University scholars. They concluded the following:

  • Business retreats (by western companies) and sanctions are catastrophically crippling the Russian economy

  • Russia’s strategic positioning as a commodities exporter has irrevocably deteriorated

  • Despite some lingering leakiness, Russian imports have largely collapsed

  • Russian domestic production has come to a complete standstill

  • Kremlin finances are in much, much more dire straits than conventionally understood

A similar analysis appears in this useful blog post by Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief.

You might say, well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? In fact, Borrell’s assessment is broadly in line with that of a number of respected independent academic institutions in western countries.

To sum up, it could be a hard winter in Europe, with unpredictable political consequences. But the Russian economy is under more intense pressure than most critics of western sanctions allow.

Notable, quotable

We have to follow the official line on how to express our patriotism — a Beijing-based media executive, who asked not to be named

One media employee explained to the FT how China’s communist authorities guided the public response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan

Tony’s picks of the week

  • The US drone strike killing of al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri has dealt a blow to the Taliban’s push for legitimacy in Afghanistan, say the FT’s Benjamin Parkin in New Delhi and Andrew England in London

  • The EU’s muddled asylum policy has turned the Greek island of Lesvos (also known in English as Lesbos) into a “refugee prison in paradise”, writes Anna Iasmi Vallianatou in a commentary for the London-based Chatham House think-tank

  • In a collaboration between the FT’s audience engagement team and foreign desks, my colleagues spoke to six Ukrainian refugees around the world, who shared their stories of hardship, heartache and uncertainty, but also of acts of kindness by people who offered them a safe place to call home

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