Observations of an Expat: Two Step… One Step

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is indulging in that well-known two step, one step diplomatic dance. That is two steps forward. One step back.

Sometimes he throws his fellow Europeans off balance by taking a third step and half a step back, or he may refuse to move from his new position.

He prods and pushes, establishing new boundaries both physical and political. Using strategies developed as a high-flying KGB agent, Putin simply denies everything. It is all Western “balderdash,” he claims.

Belarus is a Russian satellite. Its Soviet-style dictator Alexander Lukashenko would hardly dare breathe without first seeking the approval of his Moscow mentor.

One of Putin’s main aims is to destabilise the EU. And it is no secret that the issue of migrant refugees from the Islamic world is a divisive and destabilising issue. The East European Visegrad 4 (which include Poland) are especially against it. So Lukashenko sent agents off to Syria, Turkey and Iraq to recruit thousands of refugees to press against the Polish border fence.

The world was treated to the sight of the xenophobic Poles using water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades to drive back refugees trying to break through the razor wire to the Promised Land. Western liberalism was exposed as hypocritical. Mission accomplished. Putin’s acolyte is now starting to fly the refugees back to the Middle East.

While the world was focused on Belarus, Putin was massing 100,000 troops on the Russian border. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week warned of a Russian winter offensive to complete the annexation of Eastern Ukraine.

In space, Moscow, shot down a defunct Soviet era signals intelligence satellite with a missile launched from a base 800 miles north of Moscow. Much was made of the danger to the International Space Station, but of even greater importance is that Russia now joins the US, China and India in having the capability to easily destroy electronic satellites which have become an integral part of military operations as well as your car’s GPS system.

All of the above is focused on Europe, but the decisions that drive Putin’s actions depend on a wider global context. And there the deck is currently stacked in favour of the Russian leader.

Key to European defence is the American umbrella—both in terms of nuclear and conventional weapons. The Afghan debacle has left the American public with an acute distaste for foreign adventures.

The one region that appears to escape this new US isolationism is Asia. China—Russia’s current friend of convenience—is helping here by building up its defence forces, launching hypersonic missiles and rattling its sabres in the Taiwan Straits.

Brexit is also playing its part. It has not only economically weakened both Britain and the 27 remaining members of the EU, but it has set the two European military giants—Britain and France at each other’s throats over fishing rights, the primacy of European law and Northern Ireland.

Coronavirus has helped and hindered Russian interests. In Europe nearly 1.1 million people have died and the WHO is predicting a winter wave that will wipe out another 500,000 lives. This is causing labour shortages, inflation, health service emergencies and distracting government from other threats—such as Russia.

Of course, the Russians are also struggling with the pandemic. So far it has cost them more than 250,000 lives. But a conflict with Europe could also have the effect of diverting attention away from health problems towards the cause of Russian nationalism.

A tangential consequence of the pandemic has been a shortage of energy supplies, especially natural gas. Russia supplies Europe with 39 percent of its natural gas and 30 percent of its oil. Its stranglehold on the gas market increased this week with a Russian-Chinese-Iranian deal to jointly exploit 35 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in the Iranian section of the Caspian Sea. And if the planned Nordstream Two gas pipe line through the Baltic goes ahead, Europe’s dependence on Russian gas will increase exponentially.

Russia has proven willing to weaponise gas deliveries. It has three times cut supplies to Ukraine. It recently blocked deliveries to Moldova and the current energy crisis is heavily affected by Russian reluctance to increase supplies to the EU and UK.

German approval of Nordstream Two has been blocked over fears of Russian blackmail if it goes ahead. And even if the German regulators give in, it still has to obtain the final nod from a sceptical European Parliament. All of which could encourage Putin to further squeeze the EU with the risk that it could either alienate Europe or force them into a deal.

Putin does not want a war. War is failure. It costs time and money and the outcome is too unpredictable. He wants to continue taking two, maybe three, steps forward and then a step back or a wait and see halt. The danger is that he takes that fourth step which forces a counter step.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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