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Putin United the West—but Now Comes the Hard Part

Security will require painful trade-offs Western governments may not be ready to make.

By , a former German defense minister, and , a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.
Members of the German Bundeswehr attend a ceremony to honor the veterans of Germany's Afghanistan mission in Berlin on Oct. 13, 2021.
Members of the German Bundeswehr attend a ceremony to honor the veterans of Germany's Afghanistan mission in Berlin on Oct. 13, 2021.
Members of the German Bundeswehr attend a ceremony to honor the veterans of Germany's Afghanistan mission in Berlin on Oct. 13, 2021. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asked us to co-chair a high-level group to provide recommendations for strengthening the Western alliance in 2020, NATO seemed to many to be more divided than ever—including over the question of how to deal with Russia. As we wrote in our final report, Russia remained Europe’s greatest military threat, continually confronting NATO with “the risk of a fait accompli or with sustained and paralyzing pressure in a crisis situation.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has given violent substance to our concerns, presenting NATO with the gravest security crisis since the height of the Cold War. But the invasion has also given the alliance greater unity and purpose than it has known in decades. After years of complacency, allies are boosting defense spending, sending weapons to Ukraine, rushing reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank, and finally thinking about diversifying their energy supplies.

NATO’s renewed unity has been made possible by the blood and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people, whose defense of their country has not only inspired sympathy but also given tangible evidence that Putin can, in fact, be stopped. But it has also been made possible by fear for Europe’s security. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his speech to the Bundestag last week, “We have set this goal [of higher defense spending] not only because we have made a promise to our friends … [but] for us, for our own security … [and] to protect our freedom.”

When NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asked us to co-chair a high-level group to provide recommendations for strengthening the Western alliance in 2020, NATO seemed to many to be more divided than ever—including over the question of how to deal with Russia. As we wrote in our final report, Russia remained Europe’s greatest military threat, continually confronting NATO with “the risk of a fait accompli or with sustained and paralyzing pressure in a crisis situation.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has given violent substance to our concerns, presenting NATO with the gravest security crisis since the height of the Cold War. But the invasion has also given the alliance greater unity and purpose than it has known in decades. After years of complacency, allies are boosting defense spending, sending weapons to Ukraine, rushing reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank, and finally thinking about diversifying their energy supplies.

NATO’s renewed unity has been made possible by the blood and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people, whose defense of their country has not only inspired sympathy but also given tangible evidence that Putin can, in fact, be stopped. But it has also been made possible by fear for Europe’s security. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his speech to the Bundestag last week, “We have set this goal [of higher defense spending] not only because we have made a promise to our friends … [but] for us, for our own security … [and] to protect our freedom.”

Fear can be a healthy motivator. It focuses society’s attention on what matters most and helps form a consensus around goals that supersede the preoccupations of peacetime. But its effects can also be transient. Dangers that seem engrossing today can quickly fade—or, worse, be reasoned away once their implications become clear.

In all of these cases, the real costs of dealing effectively with the Russian threat still lie ahead.

The greatest threat to the West’s new unity besides Russian tanks or even nuclear weapons is an unwillingness to make the actual sacrifices that will be required for the sake of security. The danger is that, having looked the peril (and evil) of Putin in the face, Western leaders and publics will, after the initial shock and sobriety, shy away from doing the very tangible and costly things that need to be done to stand up to him and prevent him from doing something similar in the future. The lure of appeasement—in essence, a return to the policies pursued in many Western capitals for the past two decades—will be strong.

The biggest example is energy. To stop financing Putin and his wars, the West sooner or later must quit buying Russian oil and gas. And that will hurt—a lot. Europe buys around 3 million barrels of Russian crude a day; the United States, 700,000. Reversing course would mean not just pain at the gas pump but higher inflation and possibly recession at a moment when the U.S. and European economies are just beginning to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

All of this would also carry political costs for Western governments and societies, which increased their consumption of Russian supplies as a bridge to carbon neutrality. In the case of Germany, Russian supplies have enabled the country to transition away from nuclear energy, and Berlin had hoped to use even larger supplies to phase out coal as well, reaching the goal of exclusive reliance on renewable energy sources by 2045. In the U.S. case, a global market flush with plentiful oil and gas has helped offset a reduction of U.S. production that undergirds the Biden administration’s claim to be a global leader in emissions reductions. In both cases, prioritizing security over climate targets could jeopardize support for the parties in power.

Another area where sacrifice will be required is in military spending. Germany’s annual defense budget, to take the most notable example, will soon grow by more than 50 percent—from around $49 billion to $76 billion. Berlin has also set up a $113 billion fund for ramping up weapons purchases. Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, and Denmark have also announced spending increases.

These outlays are welcome news after years of atrophying defense budgets. But funding them will require more debt, higher taxes, or cuts to the generous spending programs Europeans have come to expect over decades of peace. It will also mean more young Europeans going into military service again and serving in front-line positions on NATO’s eastern flank—a very different situation from that of their parents’ generation.

In all of these cases, the point is that the real costs of dealing effectively with the Russian threat still lie ahead. Paying those costs will require significant changes to established spending patterns and a diversion of resources away from preferred political goals—whether social spending, industrial subsidies, or climate targets—in the name of collective security. In short: painful trade-offs will be necessary. And as is always the case in democracies when hard choices emerge, a lot can happen between the cup and the lip. Having done the right thing following Putin’s invasion, Western governments should not find themselves unwilling or unable to follow through on their intentions.

It’s also possible that a U.S. and European boycott of Russian energy could cause so much pain that consumers and companies revolt. However unsettling the images of Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians, their galvanizing effect on the public consciousness could quickly wane amid recession and job losses.

There is no inoculation against either scenario. Democracies are often fickle and can swing from one extreme to another at an astonishing speed. What helps them stay the course is a decision by political leaders to respond to fear by forging a social consensus in support of sacrifice. Ukraine’s daily tribulations render a double service in this regard, because they not only stop Russian tanks but also remind those of us in the West that there are far greater sacrifices ahead for us, too, should we fail to stop aggression while we can.

Sacrificing for security, then, is not an act of altruism but of self-interest. However painful an economic recession with substantial unemployment may be, it is less painful than war. Only a militarily capable and politically strong and cohesive West that is not susceptible to energy blackmail will be able to continue to enjoy the fruits of peace and freedom. This was already true in the past, of course, only many of us failed to prepare accordingly in the mistaken belief that we could accommodate Putin without eventually paying a heavy price.

The Ukraine war really is a wake-up call. But if Putin has finally awakened the West, it’s now up to the West to keep itself awake.

Thomas de Maizière is a former German defense minister, former German interior minister, and current member of the German Bundestag.

A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration.

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