Confronting the Kremlin’s New Hybrid War in Europe by Anders Åslund
With the Kremlin’s intention to divide and weaken the European Union, and now to seek vulnerabilities, the Western powers must unite and issue a strong response. History has shown that one should not put up with or turn a blind eye to Russian military, political and economic provocations.
STOCKHOLM – As winter approaches, the Kremlin wreaks havoc in Europe. His latest machinations include a gas war against the countries of Central and Eastern Europe; a migration crisis along Belarusian borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland; renewed military mobilization on the eastern border of Ukraine; and agitation for Serbian secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Although this campaign has multiple objectives, a common thread runs through it: the Kremlin’s desire to divide and weaken the European Union. This means getting German approval for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as quickly as possible; disrupt the EU gas market, with a view to reverting to Soviet-style long-term contracts, with gas prices tied to oil; and weaken Ukraine and force Moldova to abandon its European Association Agreement and join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union instead.
The Kremlin tends to send out test balls to see what it can do before hitting it hard if the opportunity arises. This means that the West – the US, the EU and the UK – will have to act quickly to deal with anything that follows. The biggest mistake one can make in responding to Russian provocations is to do nothing or to react too slowly and too gently. As Keir Giles of Chatham House argues, the West must recognize “that confrontation with Russia cannot be avoided because it is already happening”. History shows that “Russia respects force and despises compromise and compromise.”
Fortunately, the West already has many effective tools at its disposal, and with the arrival of a new German government that will likely be less friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is an opportunity for new strategic thinking.
The gas war should be easy enough to fight. On July 21, the United States and Germany released a joint statement on Nord Stream 2 declaring “their determination to hold Russia accountable for its aggression and malicious activities by imposing costs through sanctions and other tools. “. After four months of Russian escalation, the administration of US President Joe Biden should feel compelled to end its lifting of congressionally approved sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG, and the German government should agree to it. This would quickly end the pipeline. But if the Biden administration does not act, Congress still can, adding new mandatory penalties to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022.
Europe currently has insufficient gas stocks because Gazprom maneuvered to create an artificial shortage. The Russian state-owned energy giant has a quarter of the gas storage capacity in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and has kept those facilities empty while filling its domestic tanks to the brim. The obvious solution is for the EU to ban Gazprom and other foreign suppliers from owning storage facilities in the EU and to impose minimum stock levels on existing storage capacity. Because the EU is effectively a monopsony (single buyer) of Gazprom’s gas, it should start operating collectively to reduce Gazprom’s monopoly power.
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Although the Biden administration has tolerated Nord Stream 2 (while banning the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada), it has otherwise refused to get involved in the European gas crisis. This must change. The United States is expected to supply Europe with liquid natural gas now that Europe has built the capacity to receive LNG cargoes.
As for the Belarusian border drama, we are witnessing a new type of hybrid war, provoked by the illegitimate ruler of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. NATO and the EU should recognize the situation as such and offer their full support to Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council was right to sanction all airlines and companies involved in smuggling people from the Middle East to the Belarusian border. The United States should follow suit by stepping up its own (rather soft) sanctions against Belarus.
Since Biden took office, the United States has stood up firmly in defense of Belarus’ southern neighbor, Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the White House in September marked a turning point. In addition, no less than three U.S. cabinet secretaries have already visited Ukraine this year, and on November 10, the United States adopted a surprisingly strong U.S.-Ukraine charter on strategic partnership. The document urges the United States to support “Ukraine’s right to decide its own future direction in foreign policy without outside interference, including with regard to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.” .
In addition to these promising developments, the Ukrainian government has just appointed its most respected member, Oleksiy Reznikov, as the new Minister of Defense. Fresh out of the Donbass trenches, he will soon be heading to Washington.
But the EU, NATO, Germany and France must act. At least they have all spoken out against Russian aggression against Ukraine in recent days. Impressively, the UK has committed 600 special forces to Ukraine.
If the new German government is serious about ensuring peace in Europe, the most effective thing it can do is welcome Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine has resisted Russian military aggression for years, serving as a bulwark for the rest of Europe. Germany is not ready to defend itself, so it should help Ukraine do so by supplying it with weapons, as the US, UK, Canada, Poland and Lithuania are already doing. .
Finally, there is the question of the Balkans. Tensions are mounting again in the former Yugoslavia because the EU reneged on its commitment to conduct accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. In North Macedonia, a pro-European government has just lost power after making large concessions to the EU in exchange for nothing.
The EU would do better to seriously pursue the idea of a “whole, free and peaceful Europe”, as George HW Bush said in May 1989. By immediately starting accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, it can help deter Republika Srpska. to flirt with the secession of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The United States and the EU hold many valuable cards. But they will have to play them quickly and efficiently to repel the latest Russian assault.