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Note: The bitter taste of victory
Vilnius previews how the war will end, and identity politics hit Brussels
On Wednesday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky headed into NATO’s Vilnius summit fuming at an “unprecedented and absurd” decision not even to provide his country with a roadmap to membership. Yet, on Thursday, he left content with the same “umbrella of security guarantees” he’d condemned a day earlier.
This episode tells us everything about why, how and when the war in Ukraine will end.
With explicit backing from Germany and whispered encouragement from other NATO members, the US government is happy to keep providing massive and increasing military and intelligence support to Zelensky. However, an extension of NATO’s article five (“an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”) guarantee to a country with as-yet undetermined borders of uncertain status needs reflection.
For now, Ukraine will have to make do with becoming a European Israel. Bordered by a permanently hostile power, post-war Ukraine will benefit from the guarantees set out in the Kyiv Security Compact and from multi-year bilateral agreements to provide weaponry, technology, intelligence, and training. Israel may not be a NATO member but, at $146 billion, it is the cumulatively largest recipient of US external assistance since the second world war. Ukraine could do worse but its expectations have grown through immense suffering. Already radicalised a decade ago by Russia’s campaign to kill an association agreement with the EU, the annexation of Crimea, and the invasion of Donbas, Ukrainians demand nothing less than a restoration of their pre-2014 borders and “normal” European statehood. To Zelensky and 83-86% of Ukrainians, that means full membership of the EU and NATO. However attractive the Israel option may be, it’s not the norm of European statehood.
Nevertheless, as Zelensky’s Vilnius volte-face revealed, Washington’s word is law as long as Ukraine is so reliant on external support. That will change over time as Ukraine rebuilds and mimics Israel by becoming a country on a permanent war footing. But, for now, Zelensky is cursed to be a passenger in the US electoral cycle in an age when the Republican Party has turned towards isolationism and authoritarianism. Republican foreign-policy hawks claim they still call the shots in Washington but, as Jonathan Last wrote this week in his Triad newsletter for The Bulwark, three stop-the-war candidates for the presidency in 2025 – Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy – “currently own 75 per cent of the support in the Republican primary”.
Ukraine and Zelensky have turned into a plaything in America’s cultural civil war and, as a result, support for Kyiv among Republican voters - and especially among the activist base - is sinking fast. An Ipsos/Reuters poll of voters conducted on 26-27 June found 81% of Democrats - and just 56% of Republicans - in favour of supplying weapons. Asked whether Ukraine was “none of our business, and we should not interfere”, 31% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans agreed. Last week, out of 222 Republicans in the House of Representatives, 70 voted for an amendment that would have ended immediately all military aid to Ukraine.
Zelensky and NATO’s European members are racing against the US political clock – specifically the Republican Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary elections in January and February and “Super Tuesday” (5 March), a string of 14 primaries that will decide the race. If, as always looked likely, Trump is the nominee, then everyone except the Kremlin needs a settlement long before the general election campaign gets going. Using tried-and-tested “Track Two” diplomacy via surrogates, White House feelers have already gone out to Kyiv and Moscow around a blueprint written by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan for a post-counteroffensive ceasefire and negotiations. For president Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, a successful end to the war in time for the next NATO summit in Washington on 9-11 July would be just what the spin doctors ordered.
Persuading Zelensky, his military and his people to accept a settlement short of full recapture of all territory lost since 2014 will not be easy. In truth, they have won already. Accepting a crushing strategic victory over full restitution will be painful but Vilnius and the pure exercise of American power, however, show how it will be done.
You’d think they’d be high-fiving across Brussels’ European Quarter. For the first time, the European Commission has found a woman – a professor of economics at one of the world’s top universities with a global reputation in the field of industrial organisation – to fill the role of chief competition economist in its directorate-general for competition.
An expert in digital markets, she has warned against the threat to competition from the development of dominant platforms and advocated enforced interconnection between tech giants and new entrants. A critic of the laissez-faire Chicago School of competition economists, she argues that later work better accounts for the impact of product differentiation, rapid innovation, and networking.
Yet, the French political class lost its collective mind when it was revealed that Fiona Scott Morton would take the job. Among her offences are a year’s service more than a decade ago as chief economist at the antitrust division of the US justice department, having consulted for Amazon and Apple, and – worst of all – being American.
Public outrage came from the French foreign minister, the minister for digital transition and telecommunications, the state secretary for European affairs, and the leader of the nominally liberal Renew Europe group in the European Parliament. Understated as always, those heels of the political horseshoe - Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen - used a social-media platform owned by a right-wing naturalised American to claim the appointment was another example of American colonisation.
In his report for Libération, veteran Brussels reporter/activist Jean Quatremer wondered whether this was a trade-off cooked up by the "very Americanophile” chief of staff to Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, to buy US support for her bid for the NATO secretary-generalship next year.
It isn’t. It’s nothing but identity politics. Scott Morton’s economic analysis isn’t defined by where she’s from. It may be a shocking innovation at the commission but hiring brilliant foreigners is routine elsewhere. Athanasios Orphanides spent years at the highest level inside the US Federal Reserve before heading the Cypriot central bank and joining the European Central Bank’s governing council. The northeastern English accent of Fiona Hill, a national security official under three US presidents, became famous during Trump’s first impeachment hearings. Today, Ireland’s governor at the ECB - Gabriel Makhlouf - is a Cairo-born son of Greek and Lebanese parents with a British passport who used to run the New Zealand Treasury. His deputy is a Greek hired from the Bank of England.
The commission should have the confidence to hire the best, wherever they’re from. I remember none of these attacks of the vapours in May when Luigi Di Maio (the worst) was appointed EU Special Representative for the Gulf region.