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Putin’s Cold, Dark Russian Winter : Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

“A transition from sequential and concentrated actions to continuous and distributed ones, conducted simultaneously in all spheres of confrontation, and also in distant theatres of military operations is occurring.”
General Valeriy Gerasimov
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The War to the East

In their very legalistic way the decision by the German energy regulator to suspend the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline may just be the first real evidence that Berlin is finally thinking strategically. If so it is not a moment too soon.  Europeans urgently need to re-consider any policy that deepens Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Even if that means missing carbon emission targets. It would be strategic illiteracy of the worst kind to put the freedom of Europeans at risk. Simply to meet arbitrary climate change targets, important tough they are.

Igor Kuznecov for NordStream 2 (25.09.2020)

President Putin will always use the power he is given by Europe against Europe. The grand strategic aim of the Kremlin is to force much of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States into a new Russian sphere of influence.

That is why thousands of desperate migrants are being used as human pawns. And forced towards the Belarus border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus threatens to disrupt gas supplies to much of Eastern Europe. Russian nuclear bombers fly down the North Sea into the English Channel. And a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) test scatters debris in the path of the International Space Station (ISS). Whilst some 90,000 troops of Russia’s most capable military units gather on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders. It is the Gerasimov Doctrine in action by which Moscow simultaneously applies ‘strategic maskirovka’ (deception). And ‘desinformatsiya’ (disinformation) together with so-called ‘active measures’ to keep a deeply disjointed and feeble Europe politically and militarily off-balance.

The immediate aim is to prevent Ukraine crossing a Russian ‘red line’ by moving formally to join NATO.

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That was the purpose of President Putin’s September 2021 essay in which he denied Ukraine had ever been an independent state and was thus an integral part of Russia. Therefore, even though President Biden recently told President Zelensky that NATO membership is a long way off. Ukraine’s eventual integration into free Europe must now be a shared Allied strategic aim.

The use of Maskirovka and desinformatsiya is war that is short of war in the grey zone between war and peace. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Phil Breedlove, says that:

Moscow already sees itself at war with the West and that its chosen weapon is disinformation.

It is a purposeful 5D warfare strategy that combines implied destruction with disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and deception and which is driven from the very top of the Russian state through multiple messaging and by ramping up the threat of force.

Appeasing Putin

With winter coming and Europe in some disarray Putin may think he will never have a better opportunity to exploit a sixth ‘D’, energy dependence. Indeed, a hitherto craven Brussels has appeared terrified that Russia, and its puppet Belarus, will cut gas supplies to much of Europe.  Moscow’s clumsy efforts of late to coerce the European Commission into approving Nordstream 2 by hiking gas prices on the spot market demonstrated exactly why Russia will never be a reliable or trusted energy partner.  Had Germany led Europe to even greater reliance on Russian gas (it might still do) it would have tied not just Berlin to Moscow in so many ways, but much of the rest of Europe. One could almost hear the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

Future Of Russia’s Submarine Fleet

The ‘response’ from Brussels thus far has made a mockery of the empty rhetoric of EU sovereignty. Indeed, the EU’s response thus far has been little short of appeasement. Even though Horst Seehofer, the German Minister of the Interior, last week said that the Kremlin was the architect of the current tensions. If the EU cannot summon the diplomatic and economic power to pressure the Kremlin to stop Belarus from turning desperate migrants into pawns. There is little hope Russia can be dissuaded by Europeans from pursuing its grander ambitions. 

Instead of focussing on the minnow Lukashenko and Russia’s Belarus colony, the EU should be directing its ire towards Moscow.

Russian Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Rather, the EU prefers to criticize the Poles for how they are dealing with a desperate situation. Just as Brussels recently criticised Kiev for using drones to retaliate against Russia’s use of artillery that killed Ukrainian soldiers. The threat of EU sanctions, including on airlines flying migrants to Minsk is welcome. But in some respects it helps the Russian cause by creating yet more tension with Turkey.

There is also the potential for a dangerous and rapid escalation of tensions. Particularly if Belarussian border guards trigger an armed confrontation close to the strategically-vital Suwalki Corridor. Which not only links the EU and NATO to the Baltic States, but Russia with its armed enclave Kaliningrad. It is all too easy to see Russia moving to resolve a “humanitarian crisis” in or near Kaliningrad by engineering such a confrontation.

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Russian and Belarussian Special Forces have been observed carrying out reconnaissance missions to time the responses of Latvian security forces to attempted incursions by migrants. Such actions have not gone unnoticed in Kiev. One only has to look at a map to see how relatively easy it would be for Russian forces to the north in Belarus and the east to attack the Ukrainian capital. It is almost as though Russia’s recent Zapad 21 military exercise never ended. And Russia is undertaking a dress rehearsal for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine…or not.

Chess or Poker?

Will President Putin invade Ukraine? Naturally, Moscow denies it has any intention to attack Ukraine. But then the Gerasimov Doctrine might mean Russia does not have to. The threat of force might well be enough to coerce a Ukraine that is profoundly uncertain about the real strength of support from its European ‘partners’. However, Putin has been building up Russia’s military capacity around Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders for many months. Russia now has almost all the military pieces in place so that should Putin decide to act he could.  What better way for President Putin to subjugate Ukraine, humiliate the EU, divide NATO. And thus assure his legacy as a ‘great’ Russian who ‘saved’ Ukraine from ‘Western incursions’?

Fall Of Afghanistan w/ US Army Intelligence Officer & Middle East Expert Michael Pregent

It is also entirely in President Putin’s gift to end the tensions now if he so wished. There is still little chance he will. President Putin sees himself as a grand master of grand strategic chess when in fact his real game is stud poker.  The tragedy for the people of Eastern Europe is that Russia’s apparent strength is primarily due to Western European weakness and incompetence. Which has turned the reality of Russian weakness into an illusion of strength. The Nordstream 2 decision may just be the first sign that Europe is prepared to raise the stakes. 

Power and Strategy

Even if Moscow does takes its foot off Kiev’s throat for the moment it is unlikely to mark a new dawn in either Russia-Ukraine or Russia-West relations. The current crisis is a clash of wills. Putin is calling Europe’s bluff and seeking to demonstrate an Atlantic Alliance divided.

Have Europe’s political leaders the collective courage and will to counter Russia?

Europe’s growing energy dependence on Russia is leading Moscow to believe it now has Europeans just where it wants them and the ‘weapon’ to potentially decouple the US from its European Allies. Not surprisingly, the US Administration is deeply concerned. And both Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin have made plain those concerns.

Deterring Russia from its strategic direction of travel will require Europeans and their North American allies to collectively apply counter-pressure.

That will only be possible if the Allies adopt their own active measures in the form of a counter 5D warfare strategy. With the main effort centred on NATO. In short, the Kremlin needs to be made to understand it will pay a heavy price if it continues with such aggression. Right now, that means facing down Russia, politically, economically and militarily. Over the medium term such deterrence will require effective counter-messaging, information operations, offensive cyber operations, Moreover, a new Allied balance between military power projection and people/information protection, resiliency, robustness. And redundancy in defence, and an EU-NATO strategic partnership that can generate a range of incentives and constraints on Russian policy.

Sinking of the Kursk & Russia’s Soul

Russia will only be stopped when it is stopped and the Nordstream 2 decision might, just might, suggest European leaders now recognise that.  If not, then what is happening today will just be the beginning of repeated Moscow-generated confrontations. Ones that will demand of European leaders both the political will and the means to deter Russia. Something that for too long they have been reluctant to do. To do that they will all need to grow up strategically. In addition, stop rendering Europe and Europeans so systemically vulnerable to Russian energy. The American economist J.K. Galbraith once famously said that power is as power does. President Putin needs to understand that power, like gas, can flow two ways. Nordstream 2?  Scrap it!

Written by Lieut. General Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French 

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Lieut. General (Ret.) Ben Hodges is Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

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Professor Julian Lindley-French is Chairman of The Alphen Group