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Europe’s oil sanctions and a shifting Russian war narrative to come

Thought Leader: Ian Bremmer
May 31, 2022
Source: Link

Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here and I am back in New York City with a Quick Take to kick off the week. And the big news, a hundred days in just about continues to be, yes, the Russian war in Ukraine. And most importantly, in the last 24 hours, the sixth round of sanctions agreement coming from the Europeans, most importantly, essentially an oil boycott.

Now there’s a lot of back and forth on what exactly this means because the Hungarians, with Viktor Orban, much more aligned with the Russian president and also very dependent on energy from Russia, was extremely obstreperous and basically refused to participate in the deal. So they got an extension and that extension is temporary but undefined.

What that basically means is that the boycott is on oil that’s transferred through ships as opposed to by pipe. And that means that a bunch of the East Europeans will be excluded from it, will still be buying Russian oil. But the reality is, two thirds of all the oil that Europe gets from Russia is already going to be cut out. And if you add to that, what the Germans and the Poles are doing, their pledges to wind down their own pipeline imports by the end of the year, you’re talking about 90% of Russian crude to Europe is now going to be boycotted. That’s a very big deal. That’s a very big cost, billions and billions of dollars, to the Russians every year. Some of that they’ll be able to sell at a discount to other countries around the world. Some of it they won’t because there’s going to be a challenge when most of the ships that they can get the oil out come from Europe and they need to be insured as well. And all of that is under direct sanction. It means the Russians are going to have a very hard time.

And on the back of that, crude prices, and for Brent shooting up to 124 bucks a barrel. Gas prices, which are already record levels in the United States are going to continue to go up. There’s going to be more pressure on Biden to lean into additional forms, additional sources of fossil fuel production, both in the United States, as well as a deal from the Saudis. And of course the progressives in the Democratic Party don’t like that, but Biden doesn’t like even more the fact that his approval rates are down around 40%, the lowest of his administration to date. Not looking great for the midterms.

Anyway, all of that is to be seen in the context of the United States and Europe that for the last three plus months has been trying to increase the costs to the Russians of this invasion and improve the support that the Ukrainians have been getting. That has been the story for the first three months. Increasingly that’s not the story. Increasingly the story is going to be that the Americans and Europeans are doing close to the maximum of what you’re going to see. It’s going to be harder for the Europeans to get to a seventh round of sanctions, and it’s also going to take a lot longer before the gas is cut off, and everything else is pretty marginal. Most of that gas we’re talking about really next year, the year after, not talking about this year. Unless of course it gets blown up through Ukraine or the Russians themselves decide they’re going to do this on their timeline. There’s an economic cost to that.

For the Americans, you already see these missile systems that are being provided. There’s a lot of debate. You provide the systems, but you don’t want long range artillery because you don’t want the Ukrainians to be hitting the Russians inside Russia and then expanding the war more significantly. The Americans are trying to thread the needle here. They want to be seen as doing everything they can to ensure that the Ukrainians can retake their land, but not to expand the war. And the Europeans want to do everything they can to show that they’re punishing the Russians, but not to hurt their own civilians in a way that would lead to backlash domestically, politically. And if you put that, if you combine that with the fact that for the first few months, the Russians have largely been all about military losses, all about sort of not being able to take Kyiv, having to push back, to pull back, not being able to take Kharkiv in the north and having to give up some of those territorial gains.

More recently, we’re starting to see the focus, of course, on the Southeast of Ukraine and the Russians, albeit very slowly, taking more land, about a kilometer every day, as they get closer to occupying all of Luhansk. They’re very close to 100% of that. And the majority of Donetsk. Put together, that’s the Donbas. That is what the Russians claim the war is now all about. They also have this land bridge to Crimea and so having occupied most or all of that, they start probably annexing it. They start integrating it into Russia. Do we then have the potential for a frozen conflict with Ukraine? And also are the Russians able to say, “We’ve outlasted the toughest of what the Americans and the Europeans can do, and now we’re playing our long game where we’re going to squeeze the Ukrainians economically. They won’t get as much support from the West. We’ve killed their economy by 50% in one year when the West contracted the Russians by only 10%. And they can’t export any food, any fertilizer.”

They maintain the blockade, ad infinitum, unless the West is prepared to reduce some of their sanctions, which they’re not willing to do. In other words, Putin has looked on the back foot for the last three months, and certainly he’s not in any way going to be happy about where Russia stands in terms of its global geostrategic positioning, in terms of vis-a-vis NATO and expanded NATO and expanded defense spending and being cut off from the West economically. But the narrow perspective of how the war on Ukraine is going, that narrative for Putin is likely to look a little bit better in coming months than it has for the last three.

And if you saw that Washington Post piece over the weekend that focused on Ukrainian troops not doing so well on the ground in Southeast Ukraine, where of course there are a lot more Russian speakers, a lot more ethnic Russians, they aren’t quite as welcome. And also a number of them deserting. That’s the first really big public story that’s been quite negative for the Ukrainian military that I’ve seen since the war started. You’re going to see more of that too. So the information war is going to be a little bit harder for the Ukrainians to continue to win the way they have.

There’s also just general question of war fatigue. This has dominated not just my feed, but frankly, a lot of the international news in the West. A lot of the coverage in the West has been about Russia-Ukraine. Can that continue? For the Americans, certainly a big question as we get closer to midterms. But even for some of the Europeans, I’m thinking here, those that are a little more removed from the front and also where the economy is going to be an open question for them. Italy, France in particular, a bit of Germany too. That’s something we’re going to have to watch very carefully over the coming weeks and months.

One other thing I would mention is just how little the rest of the world cares about the Western narrative on the war. As I’ve mentioned before, this war matters a hell of a lot more to the rest of the world than Afghanistan or Syria or Libya or Iraq, because of the impact on food prices, on fertilizer prices, because of how many people will starve on the back of this war. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world blames Russia for it. In fact, increasingly I’d say the rest of the world, the developing world, is angrier at the West for the sanctions that they put on than the Russians who invaded Ukraine, which in turn precipitated the sanctions. Some of that is a communications challenge that just needs more work from the West, more outreach from the West, but some of it is a lack of alignment between poorer countries who don’t think the United States care very much about them, except for when it is immediate and expedient.

And that’s something that has been a problem growing for decades now on the back of global inequality, and on the back of climate change, on the back of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine crisis. In that regard, fits nicely for them into that broader narrative. Something I heard a lot when I was at Davos last week from Indian participants, Middle Eastern participants, Brazilian participants, and the rest. In that regard, closer to the China perspective than they are to the United States. It’s something you don’t hear a lot about from Washington. Well, I’m there next week, I’ll be talking a lot about that.

Anyway, that’s it for me. I hope everyone’s doing well. And I’ll talk to you all real soon.

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