Vladimir Putin is threatening the existence of Ukraine and peace on the European continent. He has transformed his country into a warmongering dictatorship, and he has launched the largest war of aggression in Europe since World War II.
It is important to confront these facts when discussing an appropriate response to Putin’s invasion. Those who believe that his war against Ukraine is merely a regional conflict are deeply mistaken. The Russian attack has the goal of eliminating the identity of an entire country. Furthermore, Putin is laying claim to a right to hold sway over countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have chosen of their own freewill to become members of the European Union or NATO. And he has stoked fears of a nuclear war. In response, the German government has correctly taken a number of decisions that are collectively without precedent in postwar Germany, including massive investments in Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, and weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
The war has thus far been going poorly for Putin. Still, it remains unlikely that Ukraine will win, even if they are destroying Russian tanks and transport vehicles on a daily basis. But it is also becoming clearer with each passing day that Putin cannot win this conflict either. How does the Russian army intend to exert long-term control over a country whose population is so hostile to it? Russia doesn’t have the massive number of soldiers that would be necessary to do the job.
Putin also appears to have underestimated the unity of the West when it comes to the vast sanctions regime that has been imposed. So far, though, those sanctions haven’t caused the regime in Moscow sufficient pain – in part because Germany and others continue to finance the war against Ukraine by purchasing Russian natural gas and oil at a premium price. Oil, in particular, is the key to the regime’s wealth, which is why the German government should no longer exclude the possibility of an embargo.
Nobody, of course, can say with any certainty whether such an oil embargo would bring the war to a more rapid conclusion, but it is nevertheless far more than just a moral necessity. A suspension of oil imports is likely the most effective measure available to Europe to pressure the Russian regime to suspend its invasion. It is already questionable how popular Putin’s war is in the Kremlin.
Such a step would, of course, have significant consequences here in Germany. Oil can be bought elsewhere, but at a higher price. And that fuels inflation. The situation is more problematic, though, when it comes to natural gas, with 55 percent of Germany’s supplies coming from Russia. Should Germany cease purchases of Russian oil, Moscow could suspend gas deliveries in response. That would be poison for the German economy. If Russian natural gas were to be completely cut off, the German economy could be plunged into a recession, with economists projecting a downturn of 3 percent or more under such a scenario. That makes such a step extremely risky.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be enough to simply put on a thick sweater at home. According to a recent survey, support for such a boycott is currently high, but should Germany be hit by a massive recession with rising unemployment, the mood could easily shift. Which would make play into Putin’s hands.
Just how Germany’s politicians managed to make Germany so dependent on energy imports from Russia – from Gerhard Schröder to Angela Merkel – will have to be addressed at some point in the future. For the time being, though, it is clear that it will take years to extract Germany from this Russian embrace. Yet if Putin is to be stopped, immediate action is necessary. The war could very well become more brutal in the coming days and weeks. There are indications that Russia is now applying the strategy it pursued in Syria to Ukraine, including merciless bombardments of civilian residential areas and hospitals. The attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol shows just how barbarous Putin can be.
Which makes it all the more difficult to imagine that the German government will be able to maintain its current refusal to consider an embargo for long. Berlin should urgently develop a plan with its EU partners for a more rapid elimination of Russian oil and gas from its energy mix. One sensible measure would be to shut down the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea – which would force Russia to deliver gas via Ukraine and to refrain from damaging pipelines in the country.
One thing is clear: Berlin must refrain from destroying the German economy. But cutting off money flows to the regime of Vladimir Putin cannot be done without some pain. And that pain is necessary – because it has been a long time since Europe has faced such a grave existential threat as the one emanating from the Putin-led Kremlin and its war against Ukraine.