Russia’s strategy is easy to see: to cause disorder and maintain fear in Europe, creating divisions in the European union.
Vladimir Putin paved the way for Xi Jinping by ensuring lifelong power for himself. The revised Constitution of 2020 effectively gives him the authority to continue as President of Russia until 2036 – a post that he has occupied since 1999.
At the same time, the ordeal that Alexeï Navalny is going through, together with massive fraud during the general election of last September, have eradicated any opposition. With his hands free on the domestic front, the new Czar intends to take advantage of the turbulence in Western democracies to put on a spectacular turn of speed with regard to his ambitions in Europe.
Weakened by Brexit, the EU is immobilized because of the establishment of the new German coalition, and by the French presidential election campaign. It is tearing itself apart over governance of the Euro and the single market, over compliance with the rule of law and democratic values, over immigration and the right to asylum, and over border control. In the western part of the continent, there is discordant communication and the denial of strategic risks. In the eastern part, action is being taken and advances are being made on all fronts.
First of all, the Russian empire is being re-created. Just like Bachar el-Assad, Alexander Lukashenko is paying a high price for having had Vladimir Putin save his regime after the rigged elections of August 2020. In September, he had to sign an integration program that is turning Belarus into a Russian protectorate. At present, the flow of immigrants into Lithuania and Poland is being piloted from Moscow, because refugees now transit through it. At the same time, Russia has amassed 114,000 men on the Ukrainian border, with the obvious threat of a new invasion of the Donbas region. In the short term, its aim is to maintain tension and chaos in order to stop Kiev from underpinning any stability or development. In the medium term, there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin, who is always invoking the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, is aiming to integrate Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence as soon as it is sufficiently weakened and isolated.
Secondly, there are displays of military force. Russia is continuing to renovate at top speed its nuclear and space arsenal of weapons. The latest demonstration of this was the destruction of the Kosmos 1948 satellite by the Nudol anti-satellite system, which involved the dispersal of 1,500 pieces of debris, as well as endangering the international space station and its cosmonauts.
In present-day Russia there is no semblance of the cumbersome and inflexible nature of the Soviet Union; it has total mastery over how to carry out a hybrid war. From the economic standpoint, it orchestrated the explosion of gas prices by reducing gas supply, thereby exasperating European consumers because of the consequent aggravation of the energy problem. This was all aimed at exerting pressure that would speed up the certification and opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is to guarantee EU dependency on Russian gas. From a technological standpoint, it is increasing the number of cyber-attacks, including attacks on hospitals and health authorities right in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and creating confusion among the general public largely through fake news on the social media. From the political standpoint, it is strengthening and financing populist movements, so as to fragment and paralyze democracies.
Russia’s strategy is easy to see: to cause disorder and maintain fear in Europe, creating divisions in the European Union and cutting it off from the USA and the UK. It is gambling on the impotence of Europeans, tetanized by threats of the deployment of armed force. It has to be said that Russia gets results, even though it could easily be held in check.
However, Russia’s power grabs can barely conceal its weaknesses. The population is decreasing by 500,000 every year, to which must be added 900;000 deaths from the Covid virus.
The economy is basically dependent on income from hydrocarbons and raw materials (65% of exports), but this is bound to disappear because it cannot manage to diversify.
Russia is only strong because Europeans are inconsistent and pusillanimous. When up against Moscow’s geopolitical strategy that makes immigrants into weapons of mass destabilization for democracies, they are divided in their reactions. Germany gave in and engaged in direct discussions with Lukashenko over the reception of immigrants, and will only react with minimum sanctions. One can only hope that Putin’s activism will end up by making the EU really wake up. The Germans must be pushed into breaking with their traditional non-confrontational commercialism and face up to their responsibilities in defense of the continent. Europeans must bring their interests into line, with regard to external border control and response to the hybrid war being waged by the démocratures (a démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship).
By means of the “Strategic Compass”, this must be the priority of the French presidency of the EU.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 22nd November 2021)