Russia-proofing Europe | The strategist | Popgen Tech
Ukraine enters 2023 with wind in its sails. Against all odds, it repelled Russia’s initial attempt to take Kiev, then recaptured extensive territory around Kharkiv and Kherson and inflicted heavy losses on the invading forces. Talk right after Politics named himself the most powerful person in Europe, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sounded an optimistic note for the winter, predicting that Ukrainians will enjoy “time of peace” by next year.
Yet, as former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski pointed out, it is difficult to imagine a compromise that would allow peace. If Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine to remain ‘unaligned’, he will have to withdraw from all Ukrainian territory, effectively admitting defeat. But it will be a non-starter for him. Similarly, Zelensky is unlikely to consider ceding any Ukrainian territory unless Ukraine is also offered NATO membership. Because these scenarios remain unlikely, there is every reason to expect a protracted conflict.
With the prospect of a Russian military victory receding, Putin has focused on breaking the unity of the Western coalition that supports and supplies Ukraine. He is therefore involved in an ‘omni-conflict’ that extends beyond the battlefield to include a multi-pronged offensive against the European Union.
For example, Russian terrorist tactics in Ukraine, including recent persistent attacks on civilian infrastructure such as power plants, are obviously intended to make life in Ukraine increasingly unbearable and generate another wave of refugees leaving for EU countries. Already 30% of Ukrainians are unemployed, and Zelensky has asked refugees not to return this winter—an ominous sign.
The 14 million Ukrainians who have been displaced this year represent the largest number of refugees in Europe since the end of the Second World War, and the eight million who fled to the EU have already the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ after a warm- act. Europeans’ generosity towards Ukrainian refugees was encouraging. But will it last?
The number of refugees in Poland is so high—8% of the country’s residents were born outside Polish territory—that some commentators now refer to it as a ‘binational country’. This transformation from a country of emigration to one of immigration will have profound consequences. Poland has already spent more than twice as much to host refugees as it has to provide military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It is not alone either. Germany, for its part, has now taken in more than a million Ukrainians.
In addition to weaponizing migration, Putin will also continue to use energy supplies to weaken Western resolve, and food and fertilizer supplies to gain political leverage internationally. A recent analysis by The Economist shows that the price increases provoked by Putin’s energy war could cause more than 100,000 excess deaths in Europe this winter, possibly exceeding the total battlefield deaths so far.
In addition, inflation, a direct result of Putin’s energy war in Europe, is likely to add to political instability around the world by further straining economies already reeling from low growth, labor shortages and the effects of lingering trade disputes.
To deepen the effects of his energy war, Putin will continue to use sabotage and cyber attacks to dismantle critical infrastructure such as pipelines, submarine cables, railways and communication networks. He will also step up his efforts to compete for influence and distract Western policymakers in fraught regions such as the Western Balkans, the Middle East and Africa.
The purpose of all these pranks is more political than economic. Putin believes that his best – and perhaps only – path to victory lies in fragmenting the West. Through social media disinformation and other deception, the Kremlin is using all the tools at its disposal to interfere in European politics and open transatlantic rifts.
Transatlantic unity has been, and will remain, critical to Ukraine’s survival and European security more broadly. But it will come under increasing pressure. In the United States, political forces on both the right and the left complain about their country’s disproportionately large financial commitment to European and Ukrainian security. And there is deep disagreement about what should follow—the endgame—of Ukraine’s battlefield successes.
To confront the Kremlin’s multi-pronged attack, the EU must not only maintain its own unity, but also strengthen its support for Ukraine to demonstrate that Europe is not a free rider, and it must begin to build a shared long-term Russia to formulate policy. This will not be easy, given the low level of trust between member states on the issue.
Western European countries will have to at least abandon the dream of building a European security architecture that includes Russia. At this point, a stable European order can only be achieved in opposition to Putin, rather than in partnership with him. At the same time, frontline countries like Poland would have to accept that even a European security order directed against Russia would have to maintain diplomatic channels for talks on some issues.
Escalation and diplomacy both have important roles to play in maintaining public support for aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, especially in those countries that feel less directly threatened by the Kremlin. The EU needs a comprehensive policy package – addressing everything from energy and migration to critical infrastructure and domestic politics – to defend itself against Putin’s omni-conflict. Europeans have come together in new ways to confront the Covid-19 crisis. Now they must do it again to develop herd immunity against Russian aggression, pressure and shenanigans.