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Putin is gambling on Europe’s weakness



More than two years since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this weekend will witness yet another grim milestone: the all but certain re-election of the man most responsible, Vladimir Putin. If he serves out another six-year term as president, he will become the longest-serving Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

Following the initial humiliation of the Russian army at the gates of Kyiv in early 2022, many believed that Putin’s reputation at home and abroad would never recover. In April that year, the then British prime minister, Boris Johnson, made an extraordinary address to the Russian people in their native language. “Your president knows that if you could see what was happening, you would not support his war,” he said.

Yet now, with Putin set to win by a landslide in a carefully rigged poll, all effective internal opposition to him crushed, and gradual Russian advances on the battlefield, few would disagree that Moscow has clawed back the strategic initiative.

Ammunition crises, disagreements among Kyiv’s Western allies, and the failure of Washington to pass a vital military aid package have resulted in the perilous situation in which – as the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, put it – Putin could be close to a breakthrough.

Europe appears to be strikingly complacent about all this. Where once Britain was the most vocal champion of Ukraine’s struggle for survival, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office now seems more interested in criticising Israel’s conduct of its war against Hamas. Consumed by self-doubt, Germany seems to have given up altogether.

Admittedly, Emmanuel Macron would have us believe that he has undergone a Damascene conversion. He was previously concerned that Putin should not be “humiliated”, while he now refuses to rule out Western boots on the ground. But he may not have the credibility to galvanise the continent’s resolve, which remains strongest in Eastern and Central Europe, as evidenced by the Czech initiative to source new ammunition for Ukraine.

As America turns inward and the wider world loses interest, it should be clear to all that this is now Europe’s fight. Having consolidated power at home, Putin will be gambling that we no longer have the stomach for it.

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