Why the U.S. Can't Count on Europe in Fighting Russia | Opinion

The United States is counting on its European allies to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, but there are several reasons to doubt that support can continue indefinitely.

Europe is hurtling towards its greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. During the COVID-19 pandemic, European governments increased demand with massive monetary stimulus packages while at the same time reducing supply by closing businesses and urging workers to stay home. This unleashed some of the highest inflation rates seen in a generation.

Then came Russia's invasion of Ukraine followed by Europe's efforts to weaken Russian President Vladimir Putin with extensive economic sanctions. Those sanctions backfired. While the value of the ruble has in fact risen, Europe faces energy shortages, inflation, and slower economic growth.

Governments are in trouble, with Italy's prime minister already losing his job. In the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and Spain, there have been multi-week protests by farmers and truckers. A wave of strikes has plagued the crucial airline sector. As these conditions are unfolding in Europe, millions of refugees fleeing similar problems in Africa and the Middle East are likely to start arriving on Europe's borders. With food, fuel, and migration problems mounting, all of Europe's governments will face increased unrest. Many more are likely to fall in the next six to eight months.

Europe Natural Gas
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks about reducing the use of natural gas, July 20, 2022. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Fueled by cheap Russian energy, Germany has been the engine of European economic growth. Not any longer. The Germans have very little oil or gas of their own. They have long relied on Russia for roughly a third of their energy imports, but last month Gazprom's exports of natural gas to Europe fell to their lowest level in decades. The essential NordStream 1 pipeline is operating at 20 percent of capacity and Putin has threatened to reduce flows even further. Meanwhile, Gazprom has declared force majeure on some European customers and some of Germany's largest energy companies will require massive government bailouts to avoid bankruptcy.

Soaring energy costs have made German exports much less competitive while growth in their largest market, China, is falling. German drivers are paying nearly $10 a gallon for gasoline. Germany's Federal Network Regulatory Agency has warned consumers that household energy costs may triple next year. Even German steelmakers, who still need coal and get much of it from Russia, are feeling the pain of sanctions. The net result is German inflation that now exceeds anything seen since 1960, combined with German GDP which is falling, and expected to fall further.

Europe's political leaders clearly sense what is coming. Hungarian President Victor Orban, who won re-election easily in April, now feels threatened by economic unrest. He recently condemned the EU's Russia sanctions policies saying, "I thought we had only shot ourselves in the foot, but now it is clear that the European economy has shot itself in the lungs, and it is gasping for air." Remarkably, Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, agrees with Orban. He has warned that due to energy shortages, Europe will see, "Very, very strong conflict and strife" this winter.

Europe is certainly trying to reduce the economic pain it will feel this winter. High-level emissaries have been dispatched to oil and gas exporters such as Azerbaijan, Qatar and the UAE, but this gambit will likely prove too little, too late. Europe has invested too little in the infrastructure needed for a rapid diversification of energy supplies. Moreover, Russia continues to hold substantial influence over energy exporters such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Libya. The only country with the reserves and technology needed to produce a massive increase in Western energy resources is the United States, but it is seeking to reduce fossil fuel production.

In the past, economic hardship has often strengthened populist political parties hostile to European unity. For example, the recession of 2008 strengthened France's National Front. In 2010, the party's right-wing leader Marine Le Pen became a serious political player for the first time when the Front went from receiving 4.3 percent of the vote in the 2007 presidential election to 12 percent of the vote in the nation's regional elections three years later. Now renamed the National Rally, Le Pen's party just saw its presence in the French Parliament rise from 8 to 89 seats.

The United States needs an economically strong, politically aligned, and socially united Europe. Instead, we now face both a divergence of interests with our European allies and a divergence of interests among the Europeans themselves. As Germans begin storing wood to use for winter fuel, their government has already weakened its economic sanctions on Russia. As the euro sinks to parity with the dollar and budget deficits across the continent soar, Europe's willingness to share military burdens with the U.S. outside of Europe will become increasingly doubtful. Once leading advocates of renewable energy, the EU has now accepted its need for more gas and even coal.

EU, members such as Spain and Portugal, which are not dependent on Russian gas have expressed no interest in sharing the German's self-inflicted pain. Meanwhile, the energy alliance between OPEC and Russia has become much more important for some European leaders, who have rushed to improve relations with Middle East oil producers, regardless of human rights concerns. Most worryingly, the collapsing economies in food- and fuel-starved nations of the Middle East and Africa will ignite massive, illegal migration into Europe on a scale far greater than the previous war-related emigration from Syria and Libya. That migration will strain the welfare systems and social cohesion of many southern European nations. None of this bodes well for the interests of U.S., which is counting on its allies on the continent.

Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political advisor to the U.S. Central Command.David H. Rundell is the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroadsand a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.