Is the Western Coalition Against Russia Beginning to Founder? | Opinion

In the 14 weeks since Russian forces first sent ballistic missiles into Ukraine, the West has proved itself to be a strong, unified bloc. Before the Feb. 24 invasion, the European Union (EU) was often divided against itself on Russia policy, with countries like Poland and the Baltics frequently pitted against France, Germany and Italy, who preferred to preserve lines of communication with the Kremlin. By virtue of its brutality in Ukraine, however, Russia has managed to bring Europe together—so much so that even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the most sympathetic ear Moscow has in EU, went along with the bloc's earlier sanctions measures.

Now in its fourth month, the war has reached a state of attrition, with Russian troops making incremental but tangible gains in the east of the country and Ukrainian forces either holding defensive lines in other areas or launching small counterattacks to spread Russian military resources thin. Beyond the battlefield, the big question is whether the West will be able to maintain the same amount of collective unity it mustered during the war's first weeks.

On the surface, it would appear the answer is self-evident: yes. Earlier this week, the EU decided to phase out imports of Russian crude oil by the end of the year, mimicking Washington's own Russian oil import ban in March. Yet the oil sanctions were only finalized after a month of internal haggling, fed by opposition from land-locked countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are highly dependent on Russian crude to keep the lights on. In the end, the sixth EU sanctions package against Moscow was considerably different from what the European Commission proposed in early May—at the insistence of Hungary, Russian oil deliveries via pipeline are still permitted until some undetermined future date. Because EU rules require unanimity on sanctions issues, Orbán was able to use his leverage to draw out the negotiations and eventually preserve Hungary's energy supply.

If the discussions over Russia oil sanctions threatened to torpedo the EU's cohesiveness, a debate over cutting or eliminating Russian natural gas will be even more fraught. The EU relies on Russia for about 40 percent of its natural gas, and 10 countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria, imported more than 75 percent of their gas from Moscow. With inflation in the Eurozone at a 23-year high, the last thing many European governments want to do is adopt a policy that forces their people to pay even more for fuel. Austria's Chancellor Karl Nehammer has already dismissed the idea of Russian natural gas being the target of the next round of EU sanctions.

While U.S. and European officials won't admit it, there is a growing rift between Washington and some European countries as to what constitutes success in Ukraine. There's an agreement on what the ideal scenario would be: Ukraine establishing full control over every inch of its territory (including Crimea), and Russian troops withdrawing from the goodness of their hearts.

But as is often the case in international politics, the ideal is sheer fantasy, an outgrowth of our hopes and dreams rather than a reflection of reality. Therein lies the fundamental disagreement within the West. There is a divergence about what it will take to end the war in Ukraine and what a so-called victory in Ukraine is supposed to look like. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the U.K. and Poland, simply don't buy into the logic of a ceasefire when Russia troops have the momentum in the Donbas and occupy approximately one-fifth of Ukrainian territory. "We must avoid a bad peace," Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted on May 25. "A badly negotiated peace for Ukraine would mean a bad peace for us all."

For German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, however, a negotiated peace is exactly what the situation calls for. Last weekend, the two European leaders held a three-way telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and implored the Russian leader to begin a direct dialogue with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi went a step further, tabling a draft peace proposal that included an immediate ceasefire along the current front-line, to be followed by discussions over Ukraine's neutral status, security guarantees for Kyiv and autonomy for Crimea and the Donbas. That Moscow and Kyiv rejected Italy's proposal doesn't paper over the fact that different European governments are starting to view the war in different ways.

A demonstrator holds up a placard
A demonstrator holds up a placard with the lettering "No War." ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

There is even some dispute within the U.S. government about next steps. Russia is now the most sanctioned country on the planet, courtesy of the Biden administration's moves over the last four months that have banned the export of high-end technology to Russia, frozen hundreds of billions of dollars in Russian foreign reserves and kicked large Russian financial institutions off the SWIFT payment system. There are now reports of the White House and State Department deliberating over a more aggressive strategy against the Russian oil industry, perhaps by sanctioning any foreign entity who purchases, finances, or transports Russian oil. Treasury Department officials are hesitant to advocate for secondary sanctions, arguing it would further tighten the oil market at a time when prices are in the triple-digits.

All of these disagreements could very well be rectified after rounds of intense negotiations. But as the war proceeds and the sanctions begin to impact consumers in the West, the coalition against Russia is bound to experience more of these internal fractures over policy and strategy.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.