There’s a famous saying that no military plan survives its first contact with the enemy. The greatest theorist on war, Carl von Clausewitz, often explained that strategy must be dynamic, constantly changing and rejuvenating itself. In his famous treatise “On War,” he wrote that some generals “consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites.” The West needs to take these lessons to heart in its struggle with Russia and adjust its strategy — which is in danger of failing.
The core of the West’s strategy has been two-pronged: to provide Ukraine with arms, training and money, as well as imposing massive sanctions on Russia. That basic idea still makes sense, but the balance needs to change. It is now clear that the economic war against Russia is not working nearly as well as people thought it would. President Vladimir Putin cares less about what these sanctions do to the Russian people than he does about what they do to the Russian state. And thanks to rising energy prices, Bloomberg News projects the Russian government will make considerably more revenue from oil and gas than it did before the war, around $285 billion this year compared with $236 billion in 2021.
Meanwhile, Europe is facing its worst energy crisis in 50 years.
The basic problem with the economic war against Russia, as I have argued before, is that it is toothless because it exempts energy. The Russian economy is fundamentally an energy economy. Revenue from oil and gas alone make up almost half of the Russian government’s budget. And unfortunately, the solution would not be for the West to stop buying Russian energy altogether because, with less supply in the world’s markets, that would only drive prices even higher. Having developed a dangerous dependence on Russian energy over the past two decades, Europe cannot quickly change that without plunging into a deep and protracted recession.
Look at what is already happening on the continent, where natural gas prices are now 700 percent higher than they were at the beginning of last year. On July 11, Nord Stream 1, the pipeline through which Germany gets most of its Russian gas, is scheduled to close for maintenance. It is possible that Putin will decide to punish the West and Germany by not letting it reopen. If so, Germany — Europe’s largest economy — will almost certainly fall into a recession. Putin’s strategy appears to be to impose costs on the West and play for time, assuming that cracks in the coalition against him will grow as economic pain in these countries grows.
Western countries are still not treating this challenge as a paramount priority. The Netherlands has a huge gas field, but it’s actually slowing production. Germany still will not reverse its self-defeating phaseout of nuclear energy. The Biden administration is still making it harder to finance long-term investments in natural gas and oil. It also cannot seem to find a way to restore the Iran nuclear deal — a move that would bring an enormous influx of new oil supplies onto the world market and almost certainly stabilize the price. I understand that there are valid objections and concerns with all these policies — but the priority has to be to defeat Putin.
Meanwhile, Putin’s real vulnerability is on the military front. The Russian army has expanded its control in the Donbas region of Ukraine, but at great cost. Thousands of Russia’s soldiers have died, its supplies are dwindling, and most important, it is finding it very tough to get recruits. The Economist reports that the government is having a hard time filling the ranks and is offering new recruits triple the median wage.
Russia is suffering heavy losses of weapons that will be difficult to replace, especially when they require sophisticated technology — almost all of which it used to import from the West and its allies. Recently, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo revealed that captured Russian equipment is being found to contain computer chips that were taken out of refrigerators and dishwashers.
Western leaders should recognize that economic sanctions simply will not work in a time frame that makes any sense. They should increase as much of the supply of energy worldwide as they can but also dial back those sanctions that clearly are causing more pain to the West than Russia. Meanwhile, they should amp up military support to Ukraine, erring on the side of taking more risks. Freeing up the blockade around Odessa would be a huge economic win for Ukraine, and a shattering symbolic defeat for Russia.
Winter is coming. Homes in Europe might not have enough heat. Troops in Ukraine will find it harder to dislodge Russians once the snow blankets the land. Time is not on our side.