As winter approaches, Putin has inordinate leverage over Europe’s energy market


Diane Francis

Nov 26, 2021

Financial Post


Finally, western leaders are waking up to the fact that Vladimir Putin has been waging an undeclared war against Europe and the west since 2014 when it annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

This is because he has escalated his warfare. In August, he weaponized energy exports by throttling back natural gas shipments, creating shortages and enormous price hikes. Also during the summer, Putin’s proxy, Belarus, weaponized migration. Thousands of residents from the Middle East were encouraged to fly to Minsk, then were transported to the border with Poland where they were promised they could easily sneak into the European Union (EU).

This gambit, designed to damage the EU, was impeded by Poland and Lithuanian troops. It gained world headlines as these migrants were caught, like human ping pong balls, between an odious regime in Belarus (likely urged by Russia) pushing them to break fencing and defy soldiers — and the Polish army using tear gas and water cannons to prevent a flood of illegal migrants. Belarus recently backed down and has begun to fly these people back to the Middle East.

In April, Putin amassed about 100,000 troops, tanks and warships near Ukraine’s borders, and has continued this deployment despite requests by the United States and others to de-escalate. This, plus the other crises, have finally led the British and French governments, both nuclear powers, to demand de-escalation.

What the West may finally be admitting is that Putin is a dangerous revanchist who described the demise of the Soviet empire as the greatest “geopolitical catastrophe in history” in a 2005 speech. Ever since, he has set out to reverse history. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union was welcome to most Europeans. Ukraine and other former Soviet republics such as the Baltic states were liberated, as was Poland and the Soviet satellites in eastern and central Europe.

But Putin wants it all back and his “War” against Europe has gone mostly unnoticed because he wages two kinds of warfare. He undertakes “hot wars” or traditional conflicts but these are hidden and involve unidentified armed forces or operatives, who are former Russian military soldiers working as mercenaries. Hot wars against European nation-states included Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, both of which are now partially occupied by Russian “operatives” — territories equivalent in size to the country of Bulgaria, or the State of Colorado.

More commonly, Putin conducts “hybrid warfare” against targets which also include the United States, all NATO members, and former Soviet vassal nations. In these battles, his arsenal includes cyber warfare, political sabotage, disinformation, propaganda, lawsuits, election intervention, diplomatic maneuvers, bombings, poisonings, assassinations, gaslighting, and most dramatically this year, the mobilization of forces capable of invading Ukraine as well as the weaponization of energy and migration.

One of Putin’s most effective “hybrid war” tools is the Wagner Group , a large private army that sprawls across continents. It was heavily involved in the capture of Ukrainian territory, helped Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian civil war, the Libyan civil war, and is actively fighting or cyber-attacking former European colonies across Africa and around the world. The Kremlin denies any links with Wagner.

So far, Putin’s biggest “recapture” occurred in 2020 when Russia took control over Belarus without a single shot fired after its dictator lost re-election, rigged results and faced mass protests in the streets. Its leader, Alexandre Lukashenko, was only able to cling to power with Russian military and financial backing, and now takes orders from the Kremlin.

Now of greater concern, as winter approaches, is the possibility that Russia may invade Ukraine again. The Pentagon has warned that this is possible, given the nature of the increasing military deployment along Ukraine’s borders with Belarus and Russia, as well as the Black Sea. This warning, plus pressure from Washington, has finally drawn out strong remarks — by Britain and France — that Ukraine’s borders must not be breached. The British have sent troops and warships as well and France says it will defend Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Such pushbacks have resulted in a partial climbdown by Putin. The Belarus migration situation has calmed  and Putin’s rhetoric has toned down somewhat. But winter approaches and he has inordinate leverage over Europe’s energy market. The reality is that Putin plays a long game, and tested the limits this year. But he will never end his war and hopefully Europe realizes this and will remain vigilant and fortified.