Western leaders must prepare public for a war economy

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The expression is ugly and its content even uglier, but “Ukraine fatigue” is a real risk in western democracies. Their citizens are repulsed by Vladimir Putin’s war of unprovoked aggression and are full of sympathy for the Ukrainian people. Their leaders have surprised even themselves with the strength of their support for Kyiv. But as things drag on, challenges closer to home could increasingly steal their attention.

It is easy to see how the cost of living crisis, which is compounded by war and snarled-up supply chains, and which is probably already putting a chill on demand, could erode western leaders’ focus on Ukraine.

To let this happen would be an error and a failure. An error, because inflation in the west is to a significant extent made in Moscow. A failure, because it would mean that political leaders had neglected their chief task of preparing the public for the unavoidable hard choices to come.

Western politicians must explain to their voters that the cost of living crisis is likely to worsen, and why. This is the sort of speech they could give:

“My fellow citizens,

“The past few years have been hard. The pandemic brought illness and death, heartache and loneliness, and threats to the livelihoods and businesses of millions among you. Even as we were opening up our economies and thought the worst was behind us, we were hit by rising inflation and more expensive energy.

“Since February 24, we have witnessed the horrors of war revisited upon Europe, decades after we swore ‘never again’. We stand with Ukraine against the unjustified assault by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Our soldiers will not join the battle; we will not enter a third world war unless Russia attacks us. But we will do everything to help Ukraine’s brave people defend themselves, and to weaken Putin’s capacity for unleashing violence in the world.

“If we ourselves are not at war, the consequences of war have long since reached us. The price of freedom in Europe is paid by Ukrainians first and foremost, but also by so many of you, who worry how you are going to keep on your lights and heating, buy healthy meals for your children, or keep your businesses running.

“Let us be clear: the cost of energy has soared because Russia’s dictator has turned oil and gas into weapons. The price of food is going up because he is laying waste to Europe’s most productive farmland. And our sanctions on Russia inevitably involve economic sacrifice from ourselves.

“I wish I could tell you that things will soon get better. But the truth is that they are likely to get worse. Prices of energy, food and commodities could go up further. Our economic growth and our incomes may slow. It is essential that we look this reality in the eye and that we work together to face these coming challenges.

“We cannot deny that higher import prices make our economy poorer. Our central banks cannot save a lost Ukrainian harvest or fix global supply chains by raising the cost of credit. And should Putin cut off more of Russia’s gas supply overnight, we cannot pretend that we would not be harmed.

“Something like a wartime economy is being imposed on us — not of our choosing, but we must not shrink from it. That requires all of us to put the common good first.

“Those with broader shoulders must be prepared to contribute more in taxes. Those most exposed to inflation should expect more help but also accept that help cannot do away with the need to adapt.

“We may have to ration some essential goods. Everyone must be patient with more indebted public finances. And we have to help those countries worse placed than us, or their problems will soon be ours.

“It is tempting to close one’s eyes to what is right and go with what seems comfortable. But the path of least resistance is both wrong and unwise. Backing down against Putin for some short-term respite in commodity prices would only leave us more at his mercy.

“And let us be honest that this crisis forces us to take steps we should have taken long ago for the sake of our grandchildren. The future health of their planet requires an end to fossil energy. Today, our immediate geopolitical security demands the same — starting with Russian fuels.

“It is our duty to invest in an energy system that is both clean and safe from democracies’ enemies. Jobs may be lost and consumption curtailed in the process. But like war, this is a task our generation must carry out for the sake of the next.”

martin.sandbu@ft.com

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