Europe is under growing pressure from the East. First, the dictator of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, after a test run of weaponised waves of migrants against the Lithuanian and Latvian borders over the summer, has now sent not just hundreds but thousands of migrants to breach the borders of the European Union. Kuźnica, on the Polish border, was only the first major attempt; many more are likely to follow to coerce the EU into accepting the regime in Minsk as legitimate and lifting the sanctions.
In the meantime, the EU is preparing more severe sanctions in response, while Russia sends its strategic bombers to buzz Europe’s frontiers and paratroopers to make jumps right next to the border. We are no longer in the realm of rhetorical skirmishes between an unhinged dictator and European officialdom – and of slaps on the wrist for misbehaviour.
Well Beyond “Serious Concerns”
Second, the dictator of Russia Vladimir Putin, after a test run of mobilising a large combat force next to Ukraine’s border in spring, has quietly re-assembled enough troops, armour, and real rather than figurative munitions to stage an open invasion farther into the neighbouring country. After initially dismissing it as inconsequential, the Ukrainians are increasingly concerned about this round, and so are the Americans. On 13 November, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that some 100 000 Russian troops were amassed near his country’s border. The Ukrainian Defence Ministry says that units of the Russian 41st Army have remained in Yelnya, a town about 260 kilometres north of the Ukrainian border. An urgent visit by the CIA director to Moscow to warn the Kremlin that its latest military moves are being closely watched, and briefings by US officials to their EU counterparts about the alarming indicators of a potential attack, attest to the seriousness of the situation. This goes well beyond “serious concerns” expressed only through public statements.
Third, energy prices jumped to levels unseen since 2014. Russia is blackmailing the continent by severely limiting gas supplies in an effort to coerce Germany into certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and also force as many countries as possible to accept long-term fixed contracts with Gazprom. Not all elements of this crisis are of Moscow’s making, but Moscow is skilfully capitalising on the spot market crunch to squeeze the EU and, just as importantly, Ukraine. Higher energy prices mean not just social and economic tensions in Europe but also increased revenue for Russia – something that generally tends to bolster its regime’s aggressive self-confidence in international affairs. The notion that energy could be used as a geopolitical weapon against all Europe is no longer just a theory.
These are just a few points that may seem unrelated, but they can be connected into several explanations of what is happening and hypothetical scenarios of what is yet to come. The first, and thus far most plausible, explanation is that Putin is trying to pressure the West into talks and into softening its stance (dropping the sanctions, acknowledging Russia’s exclusive interests in its “near abroad”, and returning to “business as usual”). He has been attempting this ever since the occupation of the Crimea and the launch of war in the Donbas in Ukraine, to little avail. But now the approach is more multipronged and assertive: simultaneously engineering a humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep (“Want to see all those poor folk suffer and die?”) designed to cause internal frictions between and within the member states, and an energy crisis ahead of a winter season (“Do you really want to freeze?”), as well as threatening a major military crisis (“Do you really want another ‘hot’ war?”).
The above modus operandi – creating a severe crisis and then offering to help resolve it – is a classic trick in the Kremlin’s manual of strategic coercion. Less well appreciated is that, given the multiplicity of actors involved and the complex interaction between various moving parts, such crises tend to acquire a momentum of their own. They are fraught with miscalculations, inadvertent or deliberate escalations, accidents, errors of judgement, extreme emotions, and decision-making biases that often conspire to destroy any chance of orderly crisis management and escalation control. Putin probably thinks he can control it all. But there is a growing risk of a scenario in which, despite all the grand bargains struck and levers pulled, he will not be able to rein in the forces he has unleashed – much like the Soviet nuclear engineers tampered with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and caused a runaway reaction, with disastrous consequences. The outcome will be painful to both Russia and the West, leaving their relations in an even worse state than they are now.
NATO’s Known Vulnerable Points
Then there is an explanation according to which the Kremlin has decided that it is ready to go on the final offensive and that the stars have aligned for that: Germany is still without a new government, France will soon enter a presidential campaign season, and the US is distracted by China and unwilling to shift into a higher gear in Europe. Everyone is exhausted by the pandemic, and politicians are nervous about the loud voices of dissent from the irritated citizenry (further irked by the sky-high energy prices). For Russia, this may look like the right time to take the big prize, more of Ukraine, while throwing sand in NATO’s gears by threatening its borders with tens of thousands of migrants, some of them perhaps helpfully armed (and even trained). In this hypothetical scenario, having inserted special-forces elements to operate within, behind, and in concert with the invading crowds, and directing them at NATO’s known vulnerable points, such as the Suwałki corridor (the sole land connection between the Baltic states and the rest of the Alliance), the Kremlin may calculate that it will distract and deter the Alliance just enough to considerably mute its reaction to Russia’s invasion deeper into Ukraine.
The above scenario remains the least likely one, but it is very plausible and would be a nightmare for NATO and its eastern flank, for the EU, and for Ukraine. Though we hope for the best, this is, unfortunately, something we must be seriously and urgently preparing for, instead of simply expecting more of the same. In early 2014, few could have imagined that Russian military forces would attack Ukrainian territory and annex the Crimea. Furthermore, let us not forget that a “little victorious war” has always been an attractive means for Putin to bolster his popularity. In recent years, especially after its terribly mismanaged response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin’s regime desperately needs a “booster jab” of patriotism.
Hope is not a method of contingency planning, and Russia is not a cuddly teddy bear to be hugged during tough times, counting on its kindness to return us to normal. The Kremlin thinks it is already at war (by various means) with the West. Thus, the only way to stop Russian aggression against Europe and to deter it in the future is to bare the teeth of our own beasts. Both NATO and the EU must now show their worth as a synchronised “hard (coercive) power tandem” when facing the harsh winter winds from the East, or else the spring may never come.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).