The Russia-Ukraine conflict is having a dramatic impact on the living standards of the European population. In addition, the U.S. is exploiting the geopolitical situation to decouple Europe from Russia and tie it more closely to itself. Research suggests that the standard of living in Europe is falling sharply, primarily as a result of price inflation in production and consumption, Economic sanctions from Europe against Russia, and because of interrupted supply chains leading to shortages in critical goods. Although the origins of these phenomena have been visible in their infancy prior to the commencement of military action on February 24, 2022, they have since not only dramatically intensified, but are increasing in an accelerating manner.
True, some of the price increases were already in response to the lockdown in spring 2020, and difficulties in sourcing through global supply chains were also already described as problems for the economy at that time. However, the new drastic sanctions against the Russian economy, primarily from the European Union, with the goal of weakening the country, have sped up the dynamics of price escalation, supply problems, and uncertainty unprecedentedly. The unanimous opinion of analysts is thus that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is exacerbating existing problems. This will lead, if the current trend continues, to an ever greater separation of the European economy and society from Russia, driving Europe ever more strongly into the arms of the USA.
Has the EU Strategic Autonomy?
In numerous communications, decisions and discussions, the leadership of the European Union has insisted that Europe needs more „Strategic Autonomy“ to make the Union more capable of acting independently vis-à-vis partners as well as competitors. For example, a study by the European Parliamentary Research Service published in September 2020, asserts that “EU leaders themselves recognized that the EU needs to be able to act autonomously”, and that “the ability to decide autonomously goes hand in hand with the ability to implement decisions”. The study also predicted that a stronger strategic autonomy is “expected to strengthen EU multilateral action, reduce dependence on external actors, and make the EU less vulnerable in areas such as energy, disinformation and digital economy.”
Also, public information of the EU Commission speaks about the fact that the expression „strategic autonomy“ refers to the „EU’s ability to chart its own course in line with its interests and values.” Measured against their own aspirations, in the event of crises that threaten Europe’s social strength and economic power, as is clearly the case with the issues of natural gas supply, supply chain stability, energy and food prices, the EU institutions should be able to take decisions on the basis that most clearly reflect the interests of European citizens. But do they?
Josep Borrell, the chief representative for EU foreign policy, rejected any criticism of the European Union’s course at a key summit of EU foreign ministers on July 18, 2022. Instead, he rather prepared the foreign ministers of the EU member states for a long period of difficulties, by saying that it will take some time until the sanctions show their full impact on the Russian economy. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who leads opposition group against the sanctions, declared a few days before the summit that Brussels is doing more harm to Europe’s economy than to Moscow’s, and that Brussels had “shot itself in the lungs”, whereas Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said it would be fatal to roll back the sanctions, because “it is our credibility that is at stake.”
An independent decision by the European Union in its own interest would be of great importance, especially in the energy sector. After all, the USA has its own energy resources and is completely independent in this respect. U.S. natural gas production reached a record high in 2021. Annual natural gas production in the U.S. has exceeded annual natural gas consumption in the U.S. since 2017. Production increases in the sector generally contributed to a decline in natural gas prices through 2020. Also, as of 2019, total annual U.S. energy production was greater than total annual consumption for the first time since 1957. Oil, natural gas, and coal accounted for about 79% of total U.S. primary energy production in 2021.
The EU is in a completely different situation and must therefore make its own decisions. Even if it is geostrategically opportune from the US perspective to contain Russia as a rival, the EU is not in a position to do so and should prefer a moderate energy policy. Commentators close to the EU, such as Georgi Gotev, say that the EU should develop its own resources, such as nuclear and renewable energy. If Russia withheld its supplies, we would have a „winter we will never forget,“ says Gotev, while pointing out that a „zero-gas“ policy by the EU would be something “for the next generation of Europeans.”
Despite this hopeless prospect of achieving short-term fossil fuel independence, the European Union did not seek a compromise with the Russian Federation when it presented its natural gas strategy on July 20 this year. In her speech, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen instead called for an immediate 15% reduction in natural gas consumption in Europe. According to reports, private households and public buildings may even be forced to turn down their heating systems. Deutsche Bank even wrote in a press release that German households could use wood to heat their homes this winter, as gas supplies remain scarce because Russia is cutting back on gas deliveries to Europe. In a particularly long and cold winter, the means of heating buildings alone would be drastically reduced, with all the social consequences.
Democracy versus Autocracy
The presidency of Joe Biden has tried since the beginning of its term to draw European countries into a geopolitical bloc. For the Biden cabinet, the world is divided on one side into a democratic bloc, to which the U.S. and its allies in Europe and elsewhere belong, and on the other side into an autocratic bloc, to which Russia, China, and their allied states mainly belong. This became particularly clear after Biden’s speech at the 2021 Munich Security Conference, where Biden told the world that the primary challenge of international politics is ideological – democracy versus autocracy, while he targeted China as the main adversary in the dispute. The Chinese press judged that Biden “still uses the outdated Cold War framework to define the 21st century major power relations between China and the US”.
To advance the „renewal of democracy in the United States and around the world,“ the Biden Administration on December 9 and 10, 2021 held the first of two Democracy Summits, bringing together government, civil society, and private sector leaders to address „the greatest threats facing democracies today through collective action.“ At least since the outbreak of military actions in Ukraine on February 24, it has been proven that democracy-autocracy view of the world does not hold. After all, even some weighty voices from the circles of American scholars and politicians point to the fact that the West bears a significant share of the blame for the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. John Mearsheimer, for example, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and graduate from the West Point military academy, pointed out that the West bears the main responsibility for the Ukraine crisis, believing that NATO’s reckless expansion has provoked Russia. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stated Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to end the war.
Most of the international community has no interest in taking one side or the other in a new Cold War. In reality, Russia is not isolated, but continues to play an important role in multilateral forums such as the BRICS, the SCO, and the G20. Russia even receives sympathy for the fact that its concerns, voiced over the years, that NATO expansion and deployment of military equipment near Russia’s borders affect Russia’s existential security interests have been completely ignored by the West, especially by the United States. Shortly before the outbreak of the military conflict, Russia had submitted two draft treaties to the U.S. and NATO to serve as a basis for security negotiations. Neither the form nor the content of the treaties were taken seriously by NATO and the U.S., which instead brushed them aside. Europeans could have looked at these facts independently and defended their own interests because, after all, Russia and Ukraine are inevitably their neighbors. American interests and geopolitical views should not blindly be adopted by Europe, but should be seen from the point of view of their own future perspective.
American Weapons and Energy
Europe is, however, already supporting one of the main U.S. demands, namely a sixth wave of NATO enlargement by admitting Sweden and Finland into the military alliance. Europe, led by Germany, is also investing a significant portion of its reallocated defense spending in the purchase of U.S. weapons systems, such as Boeing’s helicopters and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning fighter jet. The steady increase in Europe’s defense spending and growing militarization will deepen the rifts between Europe and Russia, and increase dependence on American military technology and logistics.
The demands of the Americans and the British to punish the Russian economy as much as possible through draconian sanctions are being adopted by the EU leadership and several European governments without questioning the dramatic consequences that cutting off Russian gas and oil supplies would have on the living standards of European citizens themselves. The stronger the separation from Russia, and the more drastic these measures are, the more dependent Europe becomes on the U.S. itself. For example: The U.S. has long continually promoted American liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a way for Europe to diversify and secure its energy supply as the U.S. seeks to make Europe independent of Russian gas imports.
The onset of sanctions in response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict has given them tremendously powerful leverage to supply the Europeans with their more expensive, but now apparently more reliable LNG. The Nordstream-2 natural gas pipeline, which has always been a thorn in the Americans‘ side, has been nothing more than a brand new industrial ruin since the outbreak of war and will never come on stream under current conditions. The U.S. government and the American energy companies are now rubbing their hands in the face of the Europeans‘ unilateral dependence on energy sources that are under American control. The U.S. can even market the sale of its natural gas as a magnanimous bailout of Europe in the face of its energy shortage.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baebock even speaks openly about a complete end to any energy cooperation with Russia: „Therefore, with all consistency, we are reducing our dependence on Russian energy to zero – forever,“ the minister said at a press conference with her Ukrainian colleague Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv. She also intends to damage Russia in such a way that „it will not be able to get back on its feet economically for years to come.“
Below are some analyses and facts of the already escalating economic impact on the living standards of the European population.
Russia is one of the largest exporters of energy raw materials and suppliers of materials for industrial processing. The sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation by the European Union, particularly under pressure from U.S. foreign policy, have led to a halt in imports and exports and to great uncertainty in the trade and financial sectors. If the sanctions spiral continues, the associated risks for both economies will be high, but above all devastating for the commodity-dependent European economy.
Markus Zipperer from Deka Investment, a large investment company, observes the consequences of the Ukraine war on the economy and stock markets. The mood among companies has cooled sharply, he says, and the “ifo Business Climate Index” has plummeted particularly sharply. Zipperer states that although equities still generate clearly positive returns, „we expect that the uncertainty, especially for the European markets and the unusually high price fluctuations associated with it, could continue for quite some time.“ As a consequence, sentiment in the German economy, the main engine of the European economy, has collapsed.
The ifo Business Climate Index, an important indicator of entrepreneurs‘ expectations for the future, nosedived to 90.8 points in March, down from 98.5 points (seasonally adjusted) in February. This was due to a record collapse in expectations of 13.3 points, which is even more than it fell at the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020 (11.8 points). Companies in Germany are expecting tough times. Clemens Fuest, the President of the ifo Institute located in Munich, Germany, said that in manufacturing, service sector, trade, construction, and particular in logistics, indices saw records drops and business climate worsened notably.
According to a nationwide economic survey for early summer, for which the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) evaluated feedback from more than 25,000 companies, business expectations in the German economy have clouded over significantly in recent months. „This is yet another significant decline compared to the beginning of the year, when it was already apparent that it was going to be a very difficult year for many,“ said DIHK CEO Martin Wansleben. In the construction industry, 44 percent of companies expect the business situation to worsen and only seven percent to improve. In industry, too, the ratio of pessimists (37 percent) to optimists (14 percent) in their own business expectations is worse than average. „We have only ever experienced such a slump in sentiment in industry during the financial crisis and the first freeze in 2020,“ Wansleben explained, adding, „We have to be careful that things don’t start to slide here and we lose core industries.“ The DIHK estimates that around 40,000 German companies have business relations with Russia. An estimated 250,000 jobs depend on exports to Russia.
Growth Outlook Weakens
Germany’s growth outlook is weakening as the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict magnifies existing supply-chain disruptions and inflationary pressures, says Eiko Sievert, Director, Sovereign and Public Sector Ratings at Scope Ratings, the leading European credit rating agency. On the one hand, Russia is only Germany’s 13th largest trading partner with a trade volume of around EUR 60 billion, which accounts for just 2.3% of Germany’s total trade. Therefore, the direct impact on trade resulting from the severe economic sanctions imposed on Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine is manageable. On the other hand, says a Scope analysis, Germany’s export-orientated economy and the reliance of exporters on international suppliers implies that the war in Ukraine will lead to further disruption particularly for the automotive sector given its reliance on vehicle component manufacturers including from Ukraine and Russia.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has brought the vulnerability of a globally interconnected and dependent economy such as Europe’s more into the open. The impact on the living standards of Europeans would be severe if the situation worsened, on the one hand through higher consumer spending as a result of the energy price increase, and on the other hand through economic slowdowns in the national economy, which would lead to stagnation in the labor market and financial pressure in the social systems. Europe is still particularly dependent on fossil fuels, the supply of which is under threat from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Western Europe’s supply of other important raw materials – including aluminium, palladium, coal, wheat – is also affected. The sanctions and counter-sanctions are already putting key German sectors such as the automotive industry or mechanical engineering under pressure via the raw materials side.
German Economics Minister Robert Habeck already openly fears for social peace in Germany in view of the follow-up costs for the war in Ukraine. Especially in the coming fall and winter when heating costs will experience a dramatic increase. This could mean that people’s moral support for Ukraine, which has been high up to now, will not continue. Europe’s governments are therefore planning billions in grants and aid programs. The Federal Ministry of Economics in Germany wants to make EUR 5 billion available for affected companies alone.
Some of the best-known statistical institutes in Germany are the Society for Consumer Research (GfK), the Federal Statistical Office, and the consumer centers. All three have produced dossiers describing the impact of the war in Ukraine. Whether this will show a direct correlation between the outbreak of war and, for example, an additional significant increase in prices, still needs to be researched. However, the most important can be summarized as follows: 1.) the consumer centers warn of high cost payments of private households and high food prices, so that it becomes „economically more difficult“ in Europe. The German consumer centers are associations organized at the state level that are dedicated to consumer protection and provide advisory services on the basis of a government mandate. Their goal is to inform, advise and support consumers in matters of private consumption.
They estimate that household annual bills for 2022 will be significantly higher, so citizens should „put money aside.“ They also cite the ADAC motorists‘ association, which has noted gasoline price jumps of nearly 40%. Such price jumps have „never been seen before in Germany.“ GfK consumer expert Rolf Buerkel explained that despite the easing of corona-related restrictions, the Ukraine war and high inflation are now weighing on consumer sentiment. Although economic expectations had risen again moderately in May, there was still a hefty drop of 50 points compared with the same period in the previous year. In April, the expectations of consumers plunged to their lowest level in almost 20 years and recovered only slightly. In a statement, GfK said that „explosive increases in energy and food prices are eating into households‘ purchasing power and are currently preventing a better development of the income indicator. “
Experts in the UK have also publicly stated that as a result of the increase in consumer prices since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, households in the kingdom are experiencing the biggest drop in their standard of living since the 1950s. They cite Bank of America analysts who predict losses in real income of 3.1% in 2022. At the same time, they warn that inflation could rise above 8% for an extended period, supermarket purchases will become increasingly expensive, heating costs will rise sharply, and travel costs, such as airline tickets, will also increase more significantly.
Explosion of Fuel Prices
Andreas Metz, an expert with the East Committee of the German Economy, said that Europe/Germany hardly buys consumer goods from Russia, but 80-90% raw materials, which are now becoming ever more expensive. Because of the wide use of such raw materials, their increase in price affects almost all areas of the economy. Although companies that have earned their profits mainly from Russian trade may well come to the brink of their existence and must reckon with job losses and loss of value, the largest and most easily measured economic loss factor is the increase in energy prices. The fuel price explosion indeed threatens the livelihoods of small and medium sized companies (SME), and the security of supply and coach traffic. The medium-sized transport and logistics industry is currently struggling to survive due to the continuing fuel price explosion with its devastating effects on the German transport industry. They demand an immediate „crisis summit for medium-sized businesses“ under the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Economics, significant temporary relief in the prices for diesel and liquid natural gas (LNG). Liquidity injections of even up to €400,000 per company were subsequently approved by the European Union Commission.
Martin Bulheller, a representative of the Federal Association of Road Haulage Logistics (BGL) says driver shortage and fuel price increases are the most persistent problem in the trucking industry. The acceleration of price increases after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict came on top of a high price level that had already been reached before. The Chairman of BGL, Dirk Engelhardt, said, according to a report in the March 10 edition of the Deutsche Verkehrszeitung, transport companies would be able to keep up with high fuel prices for a maximum of one week in some cases without noticeable assistance. At € 2.50 per liter of diesel, trucks will come to a standstill with all the consequences, e.g. a supply collapse in Germany, where 70% of all goods transports by truck are carried out by mostly medium-sized companies.
Cheap energy and raw materials were and are the foundation of the economic model Europe has used to produce its high-value industrial goods. Economists such as Guntram Wolff of the Brueghel economic think tank in Brussels and Achim Warmbach, president of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, see that the price increases as a result of the war are jeopardizing this model for all time to come. For almost all EU countries, Wolff says, it has worked similarly well, but especially in Germany, thus „securing decades of prosperity, growth and employment at largely stable prices.“ This model is now feeling an existential threat, they conclude. Wolff foresees not only sustained inflation, but possibly even shortages and bottlenecks. Wambach speaks of the fact that detachment or decoupling from Russian raw material supplies would be a necessary but painful process.
The sixth wave of sanctions against Russian energy commodities and banks, now adopted by the European Union, also contribute to the increase in prices of commodities and food, leading to losses in living standards. The Russian President Vladimir Putin said that disruptions and price increases were due to Western countries’ erroneous economic and financial policies, as well as their anti-Russia sanctions. He said, Russia offered unhindered grain exports, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports. Increasing the supplies of Russian fertilisers and agricultural produce would also help reduce tensions in the global food market, he added, but that “that will definitely require the lifting of the relevant sanctions.”
The German Wholesale and Foreign Trade Association (BGA) represents around 143,000 German companies. According to an internal member survey, 90% of entrepreneurs support the sanctions despite the enormous additional difficulties. BGA Chairman Dirk Jandura said that these additional burdens are: more difficult procurement channels, restricted trade, massive price increases for wood, steel, natural gas and oil. However, all of this, he said, is painful but necessary and poses „no lasting threat“ to „either our companies or the people of Germany and Europe.“ Many leading representatives of German companies and business associations have also expressed their approval of the sanctions.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR, Europe is also struggling with a wave of refugees, and the private reception of these refugees is causing an additional material and psychological burden on the populations. 1.7 million Ukrainians fled to Poland, Romania is home to more than 450,000 Ukraine refugees, 350,000 more are in Moldova, 265,000 in Hungary and nearly 215,000 in Slovakia. According to UNHCR, some of the people also sought refuge in Russia: 140,000 Ukrainians fled there, and 1,200 others left for Belarus. Other factors also need to be investigated and quantified. For example, the extraordinary borrowing of the states to finance an increased armaments budget. Germany wants to spend € 100 billion in „special assets“ on the army, money that will be lacking elsewhere.
The greatest danger for the future of the European, especially German, economy, and thus implicitly for the standard of living of the populations of the European continent, is the hasty disconnection from Russian exports of natural gas. For example, about 50% of the natural gas consumed in Germany comes from Russia. The consumption of natural gas has long been concerned not only with the production of heat for private households and industry, but the continuous supply of natural gas is indispensable for production in the chemical industry. According to estimates by the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI), prolonged outages would have „massive consequences for all value chains“, since 95% of all industrial products require chemical products in their production process. The VCI represents the interests of around 1,900 companies from the chemical and pharmaceutical industry.
Wolfgang Grosse-Entrup, CEO of VCI, said: „If we cut off the energy and raw material supply for the chemical industry in the short term, we will also paralyze the entire industrial production in Germany as a business location. The social and economic consequences would be enormous.“ These consequences would not only be felt in Europe, through rising living costs or a serious increase in unemployment, but these consequences would affect large parts of the poor countries that depend on imports. For example, nitrogen fertilizer is produced from natural gas. If fertilizer becomes scarce and expensive, we will experience a global famine catastrophe.
The speaker of the Russian Chamber of Deputies, the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, is claiming the following: “Washington is doing everything to ensure that the main burdens of the implementation of sanctions falls on European countries. […] It’s deliberately weakening the economies of the EU states in order to make them even more dependent on the US.” In the view of Volodin, Europe, due to record high prices for energy resources, „will pay an extra of more than 250 billion euros annually,“ excluding the additional costs for the transition of refineries to new grades of oil.
Russian President Putin said in a recent interview with Pavel Zarubin of Rossiya TV: “The Americans lifted their sanctions, but the Europeans did not.” Putin rejected accusations that Russia was responsible for the price increases and shortages of fertilizer, food, and fossil energy. Instead, he identified several factors that were the responsibility of the West itself. These include the green agenda, which means diverting investments from cheap fossil fuels to expensive green energy sources; the massive expansion of money supply and debt in the wake of the banking crisis and the Corona pandemic; the sanctions and the resulting higher prices for fertilizer, of which Russia and Belarus export around 45% for the world market. If fertilizer prices rise or less fertilizer is available, this results in lower yields and higher prices for grain.
In the U.S. itself, analysts also see how Europe, above all Germany, has been subordinating itself to the protecting power, the U.S., since the beginning of the Russian hostilities in Ukraine, and how Washington’s demands for decoupling from Russia, tightening sanctions, and costly rearmament have been met almost unconditionally. For example, Tom McTague, a political author with the long-standing US-magazine The Atlantic, writes: “After years of grumbling about American power, it took only the whiff of a threat from Moscow for Europe to recommit to the old order, thrusting the battered old fasces of imperial authority back into the hands of the emperor in Washington.” He further concludes that “[German Chancellor] Scholz appears to have accepted a united Western front on sanctions, even though they are likely to hit his country the hardest.”
In summary, although some factors affecting the living standards of the European population, namely commodity price inflation and supply shortages, were known before the outbreak of military actions on February 24, 2022, especially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, these factors have been gravely exacerbated by the Ukraine war, through economic sanctions and the drive to decouple from imports of Russian energy. Initial analyses can be outlined on the basis of the latest data from various research institutes and statistical offices. The full extent of the damage to the living standards of the populations cannot yet be estimated, but according to many experts it is increasingly serious. The greatest risk lies in an abrupt cut-off in the supply of Russian natural gas. This would partially cripple European industry. The U.S. pressure on Europe to maintain sanctions despite major losses in Europe will become define U.S.-European relations for some time to come.
Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Europe’s dependence on the United States has grown significantly. Andrey Kortunov, the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), for example, spoke at a recent think tank online conference about how Western countries are increasing their cooperation in the military-technical field against Russia. In addition, Kortunov said, the U.S. is making a major effort to align Europe’s position not only against Russia but also against China. Kortunov predicts that this trend will continue for a few more years, only to give way to a renewed deconstruction of the West. United States Col. Richard Black (ret.), former head of the U.S. Army’s Criminal Law Division at the Pentagon, argues that the fact that the U.S. had the power over Europe to render the Nord stream 2 pipeline project useless shows that Europe no longer has full sovereignty.
In the course of relinquishing its full sovereignty, Europe will, for the time being, unilaterally orient itself to the United States on many central issues – strategy, military, energy, trade, geopolitics. Europe’s relations with Russia will experience continued polarization. However, the economic costs to Europe of such a disengagement from Russia will be so enormous that political compromises will have to be found.
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 Russian Speaker Says West Exhausted Inventory of Tools to Constrain Russia. https://wi.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2022/06/04/2721839/russian-speaker-says-west-exhausted-inventory-of-tools-to-constrain-russia
 Putin Has Made America Great Again. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/02/russia-ukraine-invasion-american-role/622864/
 Schiller Institute Conference: There Can Be No Peace Without the Bankruptcy Reorganization of the Dying Trans-Atlantic Financial System. https://schillerinstitute.com/blog/2022/06/17/conference-there-can-be-no-peace-without-the-bankruptcy-reorganization-of-the-dying-trans-atlantic-financial-system/