I was in the hills of northern Italy last week, mostly on vacation, but also curious to see how the war in Ukraine has affected life next door in Europe.
It was not difficult to find the effects.
Not happy with $5 a gallon of gas? Try $8. “It’s painful to fill the tank,” lamented my friend Roberto Pesciani, a retired teacher.
Utility bills? The cost of natural gas is four times higher in Italy than in the United States.
“Heating prices have gone up. Grocery prices are on the rise. Everything goes up,” Pesciani said.
Concerns go beyond inflation. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio recently warned that Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports could spark a global bread war, causing famine in Africa and a new wave of migrants heading for Europe.
“The problem with sanctions against Russia is that they will only work if they also hurt us,” Pesciani observed.
The economic pain is creating political problems for European governments that have joined the US-led sanctions campaign against Russia: “Ukraine fatigue”.
“It’s already there,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs, told me. “Pain [from sanctions] is much higher in Russia than in the West, of course, but our pain tolerance is lower. So the question is which curve is steeper – Russia’s ability to wage war or our ability to endure economic pain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that he will win this competition. The West’s economic sanctions “had no chance of success from the start,” he said in a fiery speech in St. Petersburg on Friday. “We are a strong people and can face any challenge.”
Political anxiety in Italy and its neighbors was reflected in a poll of 10 countries released last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Most Europeans blame Russia for starting the war, but are divided on what to do about it, according to the poll.
In both Germany and France, a majority of around 40% is in what pollsters have called a “peace camp”: they want the war to end as soon as possible, even if that requires Ukrainian concessions to Russia. About 20% are in a “justice camp”: they want to see Russia suffer a decisive defeat, even if it means a longer war.
The Italians are even more accommodating. A majority, 52%, is on the peace side.
Despite this, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi took an overnight train from Poland to Kyiv, the beleaguered Ukrainian capital, last week to show their support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. .
Just a few weeks ago, all three sounded wavering on war. Macron made a very public effort to press Putin into talks and said the West should avoid trying to “humiliate” Russia. Scholz and Draghi made more low-key attempts to see if the Russian leader might consider negotiations.
Putin, determined for military victory, repelled all three. At one point, he even refused to take a phone call from Macron.
So last week, after showing their reluctant constituents that they had tried to make peace, the three Western leaders hardened the line in Kyiv.
Ukraine “must be able to win,” Macron said.
“Ukraine is part of the European family,” Scholz said.
“The Ukrainian people stand for the values of democracy,” Draghi said.
The three failed to deliver what Zelensky wanted most: a quick delivery of new weapons.
But they endorsed Ukraine’s application to join the European Union – a welcome statement to Kyiv if it was almost entirely symbolic.
The main impact, however, was a surprisingly strong signal to Putin that Europe’s united front is not yet falling apart.
The Russian president reacted by immediately cutting off the flow of natural gas to the West, reminding that he can inflict economic suffering on his neighbors whenever he wishes.
Americans, including President Biden, have it easier. We do not depend on Russian natural gas to heat our homes. And domestically, the confrontation with Russia produced an unusual bipartisan consensus: Democrats sided with Biden’s hawkish stance; so are most Republicans, with the exception of the most pro-Trump wing of the GOP.
Even in the United States, however, inflation eroded public support for the war – only less dramatically than in Europe.
In April, an Associated Press poll found that a majority of American voters believe the United States should impose tough sanctions on Russia, even if it means economic hardship for the United States. By May, the majority had changed; 51% said the top priority should be limiting damage to the US economy.
As Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times of London noted last month, the war in Ukraine is being fought on three fronts – and the West is involved on all three. “The first front is the battlefield itself,” he writes. “The second front is economic. The third front is the battle of wills.
The biggest challenge on that third front could come this fall — when demand for heating oil rises, when Putin finds new ways to undermine Western cohesion, and when Biden returns to Congress to ask for billions more in aid.
The stakes will be high. Can the leaders of Europe and the United States rally their people to endure economic sacrifices for the good of Ukraine – or is this a contest only Putin can win?