Confronting the Kremlin’s New Hybrid War in Europe

Project Syndicate, 18.11.2021
Anders Åslund, académico (Stockholm Free World Forum)

With the Kremlin intent on dividing and weakening the European Union, and now probing for vulnerabilities, Western powers must come together and issue a forceful response. History has shown that there must be no accommodation or turning a blind eye to Russian military, political, and economic provocations.

As winter approaches, the Kremlin is instigating trouble in Europe. Its latest machinations include a gas war against Central and Eastern European countries; a migration crisis along Belarus’s borders with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland; a renewed military mobilization on Ukraine’s eastern border; 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. That means acquiring Germany’s approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as fast as possible; disrupting the EU gas market, with a view to returning to Soviet-style long-term contracts, with gas prices tied to oil; and weakening Ukraine and forcing Moldova to abandon its European Association Agreement and join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union instead.

The Kremlin tends to send up trial balloons to see what it can get away with before hitting hard if the opportunity arises. That means the West – the United States, the EU, and the United Kingdom – will need to act fast to head off whatever is coming next. The biggest mistake one can make in responding to Russian provocations is to do nothing, or to react too slowly and too softly. 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 strength and despises compromise and accommodation.”

Fortunately, the West already has many effective tools at its disposal, and with the arrival of a new German government that is likely to be less friendly toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is an opportunity for new strategic thinking.

The gas war should be easy enough to combat. On July 21, the US and Germany issued a joint statement on Nord Stream 2 declaring “their determination to hold Russia to account for its aggression and malign activities by imposing costs via sanctions and other tools.” After four months of Russian escalation, US President Joe Biden’s administration should feel obligated to end its waiver of congressionally approved sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, and the German government should acquiesce to this. That would swiftly put an end to the pipeline. But if the Biden administration does not act, Congress still can, by adding new compulsory sanctions to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022.

Europe currently has insufficient gas stocks because Gazprom has maneuvered to create artificial scarcity. Russia’s state-owned energy giant owns one-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 prohibit Gazprom and other foreign suppliers from owning storage facilities in the EU, and to impose minimum levels of stocks on existing storage capacity. Because the EU is effectively a monopsonist (sole purchaser) of Gazprom’s gas, it should start operating collectively to curtail Gazprom’s monopoly power.

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Though the Biden administration has condoned Nord Stream 2 (while prohibiting the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada), it has otherwise refused to involve itself in the European gas crisis. That must change. The US should move to supply Europe with liquid natural gas now that Europe has built the capacity for receiving LNG shipments.

As for the Belarusian border drama, we are witnessing a new type of hybrid warfare, instigated by Belarus’s illegitimate ruler, Aleksandr Lukashenko. NATO and the EU should recognize the situation as such and offer their full support to Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. The EU Foreign Council was right to sanction all airlines and companies involved in the trafficking of people from the Middle East to the Belarusian border. The US should follow suit by strengthening its own (rather soft) sanctions on Belarus.

Since Biden took office, the US has stood up firmly in defense of Belarus’s southern neighbor, Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the White House in September was a watershed event. Moreover, no fewer than three US cabinet secretaries have already visited Ukraine this year, and on November 10, the US adopted a surprisingly strong US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership. The document commits the US to supporting “Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.”

On top of these promising developments, the Ukrainian government has just appointed its most respected member, Oleksiy Reznikov, as its new defense minister. Fresh from the trenches in Donbas, he will visit Washington soon.

But the EU, NATO, Germany, and France need to act. At least they have all spoken up 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 single most effective thing it can do is to welcome Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine has been standing up to 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 arms, as the US, the UK, Canada, Poland, and Lithuania are already doing.

Finally, there is the Balkan issue. Tensions are rising again in former Yugoslavia because the EU has reneged on its commitment to hold accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. In North Macedonia, a pro-European government has just lost power after making ample concessions to the EU in exchange for nothing.

The EU had better get serious about pursuing the idea of a “Europe whole and free and at peace,” as George H.W. Bush put it in May 1989. By immediately initiating accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, it can help to deter Republika Srpska from flirting with secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The US and the EU hold many valuable cards. But they will have to play them fast and effectively to fend off the latest Russian onslaught.

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