07/07/2022

IAhead of this week’s EU summit in Brussels, Germany’s Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor, Robert Habeck, warned that the sanctions agreement against Russia was “starting to unravel”. If this assessment aims to mobilize EU leaders at a crucial moment, it appears to have done its job well.

The partial ban on Russian oil imports agreed at Monday’s summit represents a significant, if belated, increase in the economic pressure on Vladimir Putin’s regime transported to central Europe via a Soviet-era pipeline. With Germany and Poland refraining from imports from this source, the ban should cover more than 90% of Russian oil shipments to Europe by the end of the year. The effect of the embargo over time, as well as other sanctions, will be to deprive Moscow of funds and resources to wage a prolonged war of attrition that it did not expect.

Therefore, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy coordinator, rightly described the oil embargo as a sign of unity and a “pioneering” agreement. The announcement of €9 billion in economic aid to Ukraine is also welcome, but it should only be seen as a start. The Kyiv School of Economics has calculated that the war causes about $4.5 billion in damage to civilian infrastructure every week. Post-war reconstruction could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

However, financing this daunting challenge is tomorrow’s task. In the short term – as it seeks to increase financial pressure on Putin – the West should give Ukraine the military support it needs to resist Russian forces, while still avoiding moves that could escalate and widen the war. In May, Washington committed a $40 billion package to aid the Ukrainian war effort, and U.S. arms supplies — including vital artillery assets — accelerated. European countries must speed up their contributions as the Kremlin seeks to concentrate overwhelming forces in the East and annex new territories. But US President Joe Biden this week ruled out the right to send long-range missile systems to Ukraine that could be used to strike targets in Russia. Moscow’s nuclear capability — and the menacing rhetoric that is sometimes used in relation to it — is bound to fuel the West’s strategic calculations, regardless.

The goal should be to enable President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people to negotiate their end from a position of strength and dignity while Putin’s horrific election campaign continues. If this is to be achieved, it will be through a combination of economic pressure on Moscow and military resistance. Russia’s armed forces are steadily and malignantly depleted even as additional territorial gains are made. Perhaps about 1,000 tanks were lost on the battlefield, while two tank manufacturers in Russia stopped production due to missing parts.

So far, Putin has completely ignored the human cost of his invasion, which is now measured in tens of thousands of lives lost. But the cumulative effect of the sanctions could impose logistical constraints on his brutal revenge ambitions. This week’s oil embargo is an important step in that direction.