How the West came together

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Washington: On Monday, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in the middle of defending his capital Kyiv, tweeted that he spoke to Japan’s Prime Minister to thank Tokyo for its “strong support to Ukraine in countering aggression”.

“A truly global anti-war coalition works!”

Right before that, Zelenskiy thanked Romania for its “significant contribution to the defence capabilities of our country” and supporting Ukraine’s application to the European Union (EU). He added, “We feel the political and defence support of our partners.”

Zelenskiy’s tweets are just a slice of the thank you notes that Ukraine is sending out to the world as it battles Russia. But the striking thing is not the message of gratitude from a country now facing a military onslaught and a humanitarian crisis, but the fact that a global coalition indeed appears to have emerged, within less than a week of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Two elements of this coalition have been striking — in terms of actors, the US has provided clear leadership to enable the creation of this unity, but in recent weeks, Europe has stepped up, even outpacing the US on some of the restrictive measures against Russia; and in terms of actions, the coalition has sent out a powerful political message of solidarity with Ukraine; unveiled an unprecedented set of financial sanctions against Russia, crippling its markets and sending its currency in free fall; and boosted Ukraine’s defence.

First, the role of the US has been critical in building the coalition. The fact that US President Joe Biden, right after taking over, made mending partnerships with US allies and friends a priority — after the Donald Trump years when many of these partnerships had frayed and the US had come across as unreliable — set the foundations for sustained dialogue especially with the US’s transatlantic allies. Over the past three months, the US’s decision to share its intelligence on Russia’s aggressive plans in public, and brief its allies in even greater detail in private, deepened this collaboration; it also created space to put ideas on the table and work through it, depending on how politically comfortable each of the actors were at that stage.

This happened at political level — where Biden spoke to his counterparts in G-7, NATO and European Union, Secretary of State Antony J Blinken had regular exchanges with his counterparts, and defence secretary Lloyd Austin was often in Europe. It also happened down the chain at the technical level. As a senior administration official, while briefing reporters on the US’s decision to roll out sanctions against the Central Bank of Russia, put it on Monday, a great deal of trust and solidarity was needed to act against a central bank of an economy of the size of Russia. “Since November, we have been coordinating with our allies over calls, video conferences and visits.” This coordination is what enabled a response as wide-ranging, by a coalition as wide, in a time span so short against Russia. Other officials acknowledge that this has not been easy, but Putin may well have made the mistake of underestimating this unity.

The Russian invasion has also been what many see as a turning point in Europe, most starkly reflected in Germany’s position. In Washington, through January and early February, Berlin was seen as the one big stumbling block in creating a unified platform against Russia, both due to its energy and economic dependence as well as a historical reluctance to provide lethal assistance to countries in conflict situations. But the mood in Germany seems to have dramatically transformed, with Chancellor Olaz Scholz halting the certification of Nordstream-2 gas pipeline, but even more significantly, boosting defence spending, sending weapons to Ukraine, and saying that it was Germany’s “historic responsibility” to ensure that Vladimir Putin did not turn the clock back.

But it is not just Germany — from western to eastern Europe, from Scandinavia to south Europe, countries are rallying around, shocked to see the return of a bloody era that they had thought they had bid farewell to. This has translated into both European countries of G-7 coordinating with the UK and the US in imposing sanctions on Russia’s central bank, other Russian financial institutions, and Russian elite figures but also the EU independently taking a set of harsh restrictive measures. It has also resulted in a much stronger NATO, with countries in the continent suddenly rediscovering its value and feeling reassured that Article 5 — the provision which treats an attack on one member as an attack on all members and leads to collective defence — provides them a protective cover. Those who are not NATO members, such as Finland, are suddenly reconsidering their position.

This core unity of the western alliance — which many analysts see as the strongest since the 9/11 attacks — is supplementing Ukraine’s resistance on the ground and both are then feeding on each other. It has also, at the United Nations back in New York, created a strong momentum, making it difficult for other countries to express outright support for Russian actions. The fact that the war is being beamed live on social media feeds has deepened the mood of hostility against Russia, at a popular level, on the ground in American and European cities, thus making it even more important for the governments to be seen in tune with the popular mood with its actions. And the fact that the most powerful media and social media companies continue to western owned and operated mean that in the information war, the West continues to retain a huge advantage over Russia.

There remain a bunch of imponderables. Will this unity stay through a prolonged conflict? What happens when the economic sanctions against Russia begin having an impact in domestic economies in the US and Europe? How will the West respond to Russia’s escalatory tactics from now on, after having deployed perhaps the strongest financial tools in its arsenal? What happens the political mood in Central Europe when refugee flows from Ukraine become a domestic political issue? But it would be naive to make any long-term predictions based on the first week of a conflict, it is certain that for now, the US-led western bloc is back. And for that, Washington, London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin can send a thank you note to Moscow.


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