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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Putin is ready to gamble on war with the West

Bosnia may be about to collapse into civil war. Belarus is throwing Middle Eastern refugees at the Polish border. Russia is building up forces on Ukraine’s eastern border.

These events, in a series of flashpoints in eastern Europe, have developed at a frightening rate. Individually, they have complex roots, but we should not be under any illusion: Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is behind them all. 

General Sir Nick Carter, the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, is right to say we need to be prepared for conflict. This sounds shocking, but we have sadly ignored the true nature of Russia’s regime for years, unwilling to face the painful consequences of what that means.

Germany’s decision to suspend, temporarily, approval of Russia’s highly controversial pipeline, NordStream 2, is a start, but unless this decision is permanent, it will be much too little, much too late.

The “weaponisation” of refugees in Belarus is not new. It is just happening on a scale that Western governments are finally noticing. It was used extensively by the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, by Russia on the Norwegian border in 2016 and by Belarus this summer. It is one of the many tools of hybrid conflict practised by Russia and its allies.

Confusion remains about this form of conflict. Hybrid war is not “non-military” conflict. It is the combining of military and non-military tools of state power into a single whole, an idea clearly stated in Russian Military Doctrine. That doctrine argues that the first characteristic of contemporary conflict is the “integrated use of military force, political, economic, informational and other measures of a non-military character, implemented with… special operations forces.” Modern hybrid warfare weaponises and unifies all state tools in the service of conflict.

Putin’s Kremlin has been preparing for conflict ever since he declared the new age of hostility in a 2007 speech in Munich. His words were largely ignored by nervous Western nations, who made the usual excuses about Putin speaking to an internal audience.

In his final decade in power, Putin wants to do three things: first, destroy an independent Ukrainian state; second, shatter Nato and third, cement Russia’s role as an illiberal rival to the West. He will risk war, calculating that Germany’s strategically disastrous energy policy – shutting nuclear power whilst becoming more dependent on Russian coal and gas – will mean that the EU blinks first. The Prime Minster is right to say the EU must choose between gas or Ukraine. Despite Germany’s decision today, the EU will probably chose the former, a consequences of the long-term weakness of European leadership.

Turning to the first of Putin’s three aims, he does not accept a Ukraine separate from Russia. After Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, the Kremlin waged a conflict against Ukraine using non-military tools. These include the use of the Russian Orthodoxy (culture), oligarch influence (economics), corruption and blackmail (the old tools of the KGB), propaganda via Russian TV and media (information operations), control of political parties (politics), all mixed with the occasional assassination and other espionage tools.

He failed, narrowly, to pull Ukraine back into Russia’s strategic orbit. When the corrupt, pro-Russian government collapsed in 2014, Putin ordered the annexation of the Crimea and began the eastern Ukraine war, setting up and arming paramilitary groups, in reality often Russian contract soldiers and security agency personnel.

This summer, in an essay, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, and follow-up interview, Putin implied he does not recognise Ukraine within its current borders. He is signalling his intention. He wants to seize territory along the Black Sea coast to Odessa and into Moldova. Needless to say, in Ukraine there is virtually no support for Putin’s ambitions. Putin’s wars have helped form a modern Ukrainian state, in opposition to Russian authoritarianism.

Thanks to rearmament, paid for by EU fossil fuel addicts, Putin may try this time for a more conventional invasion, but the integrated mix of tactics and tools will still include provocations, cyber-attacks, deception and the array of military and non-military tools. The instigation of ethnic violence – effectively a controlled conflict – in Bosnia and an intensification of the refugee crisis in Belarus may well serve as strategic diversionary operations. But Putin’s main aim is, and will be, Ukraine.

Putin also wants to destroy Nato. Like many KGB conspiracy theorists, he believes that the West destroyed the USSR. He believes that democratic revolutions are Western plots to undermine pro-Russian regimes and Russia itself. He wants revenge; for the USSR, for the loss of the Baltic republics, for the loss of Russia’s eastern Europe empire. Exposing a sclerotic EU and nervous Nato as paper tigers (although he will not attack those Baltic republics which are Nato members) will give him the victory he yearns. He wants revenge for Russia’s humiliation, which he blames entirely on the West.

Third, Putin’s conflict, and the constant war propaganda in Russia, helps to control his own population and to give him the space to reshape Russian state identity in opposition to what he sees as corrupt Western values. External war, real in Ukraine, virtual so far against the West, enables that internal control and the remaking of Russian identity. He must stop democracy working in Kiev to ensure it cannot take root in Moscow.

The images of conflict, of Russian air force jets buzzing US and UK vessels in the Black Sea, of paratroopers landing in Belarus and the repeated threats of nuclear weapon use, are designed to show a rearmed Russia ready to fight the decadent West – as if the USSR had never ended. Russia’s population has had near 20 years of increasingly intense propaganda. 

Polls show many Russians not only expect war with the West, but nuclear conflict too. Putin has prepared his people for years. He is now deciding whether, what and how much to gamble to achieve his three ambitions.

Bob Seely is the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight 

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