The Irish Times view on war in Ukraine and the West’s response: The challenge of staying united

The longer the war continues, the tougher it will be to maintain a common approach

Concluding a memorable address on the Ukraine war, delivered in Poland at the weekend, US president Joe Biden veered from his script for a moment to condemn Vladimir Putin's "brutality", adding: "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power". That that off-the-cuff line was the sole focus of attention in the aftermath of the speech says less about the Ukraine crisis than it does about the long shadow that the disastrous "regime change" in Iraq casts over US politics.

Removing Putin from power is not one of Washington’s goals, US officials were keen to stress as they moved quickly to tamp down the controversy set off by Biden’s remark. He was only verbalising what every western leader must think: that a leader who ordered a criminal war against a neighbour, leading to large-scale civilian deaths, while violently suppressing dissent at home, should be in jail, not in power.

Unfortunately, the remark will feed into one of the false narratives preferred by Putin: that the real aim of western policy towards Russia is to remove him from office.

For European capitals, however, the real fear is that the remark could signal an emerging gap over how to resolve the crisis. Until now, Western unity in the face of Putin’s aggression has been remarkably solid. Through coordinated military aid, a humane welcome for refugees and the rapid adoption of far-reaching sanctions against Russia, western powers showed a capacity for decisive joint action that many – perhaps including Putin himself – thought impossible.


Rapturously received

But the longer the war continues and the more evident the global economic fallout becomes, the more difficult it will be to maintain that common approach. It was telling that Biden's speech was rapturously received in Warsaw, which understandably seeks the strongest possible response to Putin, yet provoked unease in Paris and Berlin. If Biden's comment implied that the US would no longer deal with Putin – and, critically, that there was nothing Putin could now do short of stepping down to ensure the removal of US sanctions against Russia – then that would constrain Ukrainian negotiators in their attempts to negotiate a settlement. What incentive would there be for Putin to withdraw his troops if all sanctions were to remain in place anyway? That's an understandable concern. And yet French president Emmanuel Macron risks going too far when he claims, as he did in admonishing Biden, that "we can't escalate either in words or actions" if a ceasefire is to be achieved.

In fact, escalation – in the form of sanctions or lethal aid, for example – is more, not less, likely to bring to the table a Russian leader who is certain to be influenced more by the hard reality he faces on the ground in Ukraine than any reassuring pledges he may receive from the West.