The Ukraine War: Cracks in Unexpected Places

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, cracks are forming in unexpected places. The US is mad at Ukraine, Europe is mad at the US and Europeans are mad at each other.

The cracks are neither wide nor structural. But they are there, and they are unexpected. The first crack in the US relationship with Ukraine formed around frustration and concern over unrelenting demands for arms from Ukraine.

As the war devours weapons and artillery, the hunger for them continues and the demand for more advanced weapons grows. Western nations committed to arming Ukraine are struggling to keep up as their own arsenals become depleted. The New York Times reports that there is a "mad scramble to supply Ukraine with what it needs while also replenishing NATO stockpiles."

And yet, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba complained on November 28 that "We also have to face one fact: There are countries in the world who have what Ukraine needs but who are not going to sell it in sufficient quantities for political reasons." He criticized western nations "who have stuff in stocks but who are not willing to share it."

Loss of patience over the unending demand was first made public in June when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to Biden’s news that the US had just authorized $1 billion for more military assistance with complaints about what he was not getting. Biden, reportedly, "lost his temper." "Raising his voice," Biden told Zelensky to "show a little more gratitude."

Two months later, Thomas Friedman reported in The New York Times that "privately, U.S. officials are a lot more concerned about Ukraine’s leadership than they are letting on," adding that "There is deep mistrust between the White House and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine – considerably more than has been reported."

The crack widened in November when Ukraine stubbornly rejected the results of analysis that showed that the missile that landed in Poland was fired, not by Russia, but by Ukrainian air defense systems firing at Russian missiles, though no one blamed Ukraine. Zelensky provocatively called the missile strike a "Russian attack on collective security in the Euro-Atlantic," alluding to Article five. He called it "a significant escalation."

Though Zelensky attempted to arrange phone calls with Biden, the crack was on display when Biden spurned those calls. "This is getting ridiculous," one NATO country’s diplomat in Kiev told the Financial Times. "The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile."

When the US finally did talk to Ukraine, it was not Biden, but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, urging "officials to tread more carefully with how they were speaking about the incident."

But the US is being as much complained about as complaining. Europe has publicly launched a bitter attack on the US. High ranking European officials are furiously accusing the Biden administration of selfishly profiting from the war at the expense of freezing Europeans. "The fact is, if you look at it soberly, the country that is most profiting from this war is the US because they are selling more gas and at higher prices," a senior European official charged.

US led sanctions have deprived Europe of the Russian oil they depend on. That has left Europe optionless, save for asking the US for gas. But the US is charging its European customers four times what it is charging Americans. French President Emmanuel Macron called the gouging "not friendly." Germany’s economy minister has implored the US to start showing "solidarity" by reducing the cost of badly needed gas.

And the crack is real. "America needs to realize," a senior EU official said, "that public opinion is shifting in many EU countries." He was referring both to Europe’s role in the war and its relationship with the US. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EU, reportedly amplified the call for the US to respond to the charges, saying "Americans – our friends – take decisions which have an economic impact on us."

The fight has been noticed in Russia. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on November 28 that "The ‘marriage’ between the US and EU will likely end in ‘an ugly divorce,’ following the obvious ‘economic cheating’" by the US.

Meanwhile, as Europe starves for gas, Russian energy giant Gazprom has announced that it will shut all the Nord Stream gas pipelines and decompress the compressor stations, though they could be restarted at short notice. At the same time, Gazprom announced a huge investment focussed on reorienting its gas distribution away from Europe and toward the east. These are likely not just business decisions but foreign policy ones: Putin has long reserved strategic decisions at Gazprom for himself.

Cracks are also forming not just between Europe and the US but within Europe with the fault line forming mostly along the Polish border.

After the missile fell inside Polish territory, Germany offered to send Poland Eurofighter planes and Patriot air defense missile batteries to protect itself. Initially, Poland said it would accept the offer. But then Poland declared that "it would be best for Poland’s security if Germany handed the equipment to the Ukrainians." Germany rejected the suggestion both because Patriot air defense missiles, being part of NATO’s integrated air defense, requires NATO consent to be used outside NATO area and because it would necessitate sending German soldiers into Ukraine to operate the system. Poland’s move could draw NATO into the war with Russia. Poland’s strategic move highlighted Germany and NATO’s unwillingness to cross red lines in escalating its aid to Ukraine.

Poland again caused cracks with Europe on November 27 when it stymied the EU’s attempt to set a price cap on Russian oil. In a desire to sanction Russian profits but maintain global supply of oil, the G7 had proposed maintaining the flow of Russian oil but at capped prices. The G7 proposed a cap of $65-$70 per barrel. But Poland, Lithuania and Estonia have been pushing for the drastically lower $30 per barrel.

"There is no deal," one diplomat said. "The Poles are completely uncompromising on the price. . . . “Clearly there is growing annoyance with the Polish position.”

If a price cap cannot be agreed upon, that would apparently trigger a much harsher total ban on Russian oil.

On December 1, the EU announced a tentative agreement at $60 per barrel. The agreement needs to be approved by all EU governments. Poland has not yet confirmed it will support the deal, but a G7 official has said that the deal is "very close" and should be finalized by Monday.

Small cracks that may be forming in Ukraine have also been made public for the first time. According to reporting by Kiev Post, in a very public falling out between President Zelensky and the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, Zelensky accused Klitschko of not doing enough to help the residents of Kiev through the power shortages caused by Russian missile strikes. In his nightly address on November 25, Zelensky said "But I know that, unfortunately, not in all cities the local government has done a good job. In particular, there are many complaints in Kyiv." He said that the number of emergency shelters being provided "need to be improved, to put it mildly. Please pay attention. Kyiv residents need more protection." Zelensky went on to accuse Klitschko of not being serious and of lying in his reports. He said no one would forgive him.

Klitschko declined to engage in the argument saying that, instead, he has work to do and that the manipulation "looks, to put it mildly, ugly. Both for Ukrainians and our foreign partners."

Zelensky may have been attempting to shift the spotlight of blame for the suffering onto the regional government. The Kiev Post reports that inspections conducted the next day revealed that Klitschko had not lied when he said that there were 430 emergency warming shelters in Kiev. They found that only 20% of the 530 emergency shelters were closed.

The pressure of the war seems to be creating cracks within Ukraine, within Europe, between Europe and the US and between the US and Ukraine.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.