Vladimir Putin has always had a keen eye for opportunities. Now, as he surveys the West, it looks as if he smells blood in the water.
The American president, divisive and unpopular at home, has also proven inept and weak abroad. His administration’s lamentable policy blunders—caving on Nord Stream II (NS2), the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the failure to respond to the systematic Havana syndrome attacks on U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers—have sent signals of appeasement that have been read loud and clear in Moscow.
Europe, for its part, seems distracted and rudderless. The German leadership transition is still being hammered out; the only certainty is that Chancellor Merkel’s successor won’t enter the office carrying the same clout. The French are heading into an election year and will therefore naturally turn inward. The EU, while continuing battle against recalcitrant members who fail to fully profess its reigning orthodoxy, hasn’t found the time to outline a cogent plan for addressing Russia’s hybrid attacks, let alone those from China.
Putin recognizes the moment, and, with temperatures dropping, he’s turning up the heat, manufacturing a series of concurrent crises to divide, pressure, and weaken Europe. He has “weaponized” migrants to destabilize Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. He is using energy warfare to pressure Europe to quickly certify NS2. He is stoking the fires of separatism in the Balkans and threatening to expand and intensify Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.
For the past four months, Belarus has been waging an intense hybrid war against its neighbors, encouraging migrants from Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East to travel to Minsk . . . and then driving them, via buses and the butt of a rifle, to the border with neighboring Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. There, Belarusian authorities beat the migrants, deny them necessities, and at times physically force them to try to breach the border illegally.
Faced with this 24-hour-a-day assault, the eastern European nations have deployed additional border guards and troops and begun erecting walls and fences. Poland alone has deployed 15,000 troops along its border with Belarus.
While Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is a vengeful sociopath, it has been clear for some time that he is no longer master of Minsk. This week Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland clarified, “This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow; the mastermind is President Putin.”
For Putin, it’s a familiar and favorite playbook. Russia has utilized its position in Syria to weaponize an outflow of migrants toward Europe, while also facilitating illegal migrant crossings across Russia’s northern border with Finland and Norway.
Russia knows that nothing has proven more divisive and difficult in Europe than large influxes of migrants. The pollyannaish approach toward migrants that was pervasive in some corners of Europe in 2015 is now long gone, but Putin knows a hardened border offers other opportunities. Moscow will surely use colder temperatures to highlight migrant suffering (which it will cynically blame on the West), thereby unfairly painting European nations as wantonly cruel. That Poland and Brussels are currently at odds over judicial reforms and sovereignty issues makes Putin’s timing all the better. On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister had the gall to suggest Europe pay Belarus to cease the hybrid war on its borders, a classic extortion tactic of a bully.
Further south, Russia is once again massing troops on Ukraine’s border. According to Ukrainian officials, 90,000 Russian troops have assembled along the border and in occupied Donbas. Russia has reportedly been moving “at least a battalion” of tanks nearer the front as well.
Russia’s actions could be in response to Ukraine’s recent use of a Turkish drone, despite constant use of armed drones by Russian and Russian-backed separatist forces. Ukrainian troops have largely eschewed use of drones to avoid further escalation. Moscow’s saber rattling no doubt is intended to pressure Ukraine, already in Russia’s energy crosshairs. Russia may hope that the consistent pattern of troop buildups and drawdowns will desensitize Ukrainian forces before launching a new offensive sometime in the future.
Ukraine has been under attack since 2014. The recent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has given Moscow greater latitude to cut gas transit through Ukraine, starving the nation of key revenue needed, in large part, to defend itself from Russian attacks.
The timing for Russian use of energy warfare could hardly be more auspicious for Putin. In September, gas storage in Europe hit a ten-year low. Only this week did Gazprom begin refilling five gas storage sites in Europe. High gas prices have been a boon to the Kremlin’s treasury, and with winter fast approaching, Russia is seeking to utilize its European energy dominance to push for swift certification of Nord Stream 2, ideally before a new government takes over in Berlin, which may be less amenable to Putin’s pet project.
Finally, in the Balkans, Russia has long supported Republika Srpska as a means to foil Bosnia-Herzegovina’s dreams of fully entering the transatlantic community. The situation recently reached crisis levels, fueled by Milorad Dodik’s moves to break Republika Srpska away from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovin.
The Balkans have long been the soft underbelly of Europe, and Russian agitation has sought to foment instability in the region. Just this week, a British minister stated that in the ongoing crisis, he sees “the hand of Russia at play.”
With the U.S. domestically roiled and helmed by a president either unable or unwilling to project strength, and with a Europe distracted and rudderless, Russia is betting that by generating crises on multiple fronts, it will further divide Europe and weaken the transatlantic alliance.
This fall, the geopolitical temperatures in and around Europe are reaching a boiling point. Unless the West works together to ease the mounting pressure, the transatlantic alliance will be in for a long, hot winter.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review