Putin boldly stirs up tension in Europe in order to cover his real purpose for years – the resuscitation of the Soviet Union in a new form. Faced with internal problems, falling polls and public confidence, the Kremlin needs success. Belarus has already fallen into a trap, now it’s time for Ukraine – writes Mariusz Marszałkowski, editor of BiznesAlert.pl.
“Substitute” topics in Putin’s arsenal
Ukraine has been struggling with unprecedented pressure from Russia for months. On the one hand, by gathering troops, Russia is putting pressure on Ukraine militarily, on the other hand, there has been a strong economic pressure. Dariusz Materniak mentioned in his text the military aspect of the pressure on Ukraine. They are to achieve many goals at the same time, both in terms of bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine, and bilateral, e.g. in relations with the USA, but also in multilateral relations, e.g. on the plane of the Normandy Four.
The current tensions in Europe, related to the wave of migration as well as the energy and military crisis, need to be analyzed in a broader perspective. These are not independent actions, but a coordinated operation with one main goal. For a long time, Russia has been trying to lay the foundations for the change of the government in Kiev to one that will implement a policy compatible with the Kremlin. So far, it has not been successful on any level, not as part of a democratic change in elections, thanks to promises, among others a reduction in gas prices, and it was also not possible due to military pressure alone. Now we can see correlated actions aimed at changing the government in Kiev or, at the minimum, the main elements of the internal and external policy of the present Ukrainian government.
At present, Moscow’s range of activities is the most powerful since 2014. In addition to the already constant military pressures, now there is both an energy and a humanitarian aspect.
The migration crisis that affects Poland and the Baltic states, contrary to appearances, is not the main work of Lukashenka and, contrary to appearances, it is not Poland and the Balts who are his main goal. Observing Russia’s actions in previous years and the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, it can be said with a high degree of probability that Russia’s overriding goal is to open a “second front” that would distract the West from the Ukrainian crisis. Russia is aware that a West plunged into a migration crisis, when all media and politicians would focus on messages related to a wave of refugees similar to that of 2015, would be much less responsive to a possible military conflict initiated by Russia. This was the case, among others. in 2015, when Russia was preparing for an armed entry into Syria. The West, preoccupied with dealing with thousands of migrants, has failed to notice the growing Russian military presence in the country.
Russia, by fueling negative moods related either to the wave of migrants or to the issue of pandemic restrictions, is trying to destabilize the situation throughout Europe. Authorities in countries where societies are polarized and preoccupied with topics that directly affect them may have less determination to follow and engage in problems that affect or may affect Ukraine.
Energy as the key to dissatisfaction
However, the migration and covid crisis are not the only tools that the Russians use in their fight against Ukraine. Energy weapons also have a powerful influence. Observing the Russians’ actions, their policy towards gas supplies to Europe may have a different goal than we think. In common understanding, the reduction of gas transmission through the territory of Ukraine and Poland is intended to force Europe to quickly launch Nord Stream 2, which, for the time being, is blocked by EU regulations in the form of the gas directive. This, of course, may be of importance, but when observing Russia’s foreign policy strategically, this action seems to have a different main goal. This goal is to provoke protests and the outbreak of the anti-government “Maidan” in Ukraine. This anti-government Maidan could then be used as a casus belli and to legitimize the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine.
The diagram presented in this way looks like this. For several months, the Russians have not sent the assumed volumes via Ukraine to Western Europe. In addition, they do not replenish their gas storage facilities located, among others in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. As a result of this action, the gas price on the European market has been consistently increasing for several months, reaching historical records. This, of course, hits all participants of the gas market, but Ukraine may be one of the most affected countries. Despite the relatively high own production, amounting to approximately 17 billion cubic meters annually, Ukraine has to import approximately 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually. Since 2015, Ukraine has not purchased gas directly from Gazprom, but buys gas in the west based on prices on the German stock exchange. Therefore, the currently high prices mainly hit the Ukrainian Naftogaz, which, unlike other gas entities in Europe, does not base its contracts on long-term contracts.
Consequently, it is this company that is today one of the most exposed to high gas prices. Moreover, due to the requirements of international financial institutions, including The International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, awaiting the liberalization of other branches of the Ukrainian economy, also in terms of energy, these prices may have an impact on Ukrainian society. Another aspect that the Russians use is power coal. Most of the power coal mines in Ukraine remained in the territory of Donbas occupied by pro-Russian forces. As a result, a large part of Ukrainian coal-fired CHP plants has to rely on imported coal supplies.
So far, Russia has been the natural direction of imports. At the end of October, Moscow decided to impose an embargo on the supply of steam coal to Ukraine. Coal imported from Russia was used as fuel in several Ukrainian power plants, mainly those located in the east of the country. Due to the lack of sufficient fuel to ensure the continuous operation of the power plant, the Ukrainian concern Ukrenergo reports that its stores contain 2.5 times less fuel than is required to ensure the operation of all 23 power units in its possession. Currently, according to the data from November 21, only 3 units of the combined heat and power plants are in operation. The remaining 20 are standing due to a lack of coal. The situation is additionally saved by the launched nuclear units and private heating plants belonging to Renat Akhmetov, but things may take a tragic turn when the frosts come.
Centenergo’s situation is all the more difficult as the concern has ordered 700,000 sq m. tons of coal from Kazakhstan. This one, however, will not reach Ukraine because of … transports blocked by Russia. Russia has suspended freight connections with coal to Ukraine, explaining that it is a heavy load on its rail networks. As a result, coal shipments intended for Ukraine cannot leave Kazakhstan. This is a big blow to Kiev, as Kazakh coal is not only the lowest price, but is also one of the most suitable in terms of quality for combustion in boilers in Ukrainian power plants. For this reason, the Ukrainians decided to purchase additional raw material from Poland, the USA and Colombia. Moreover, Ukrainians were forced to purchase electricity from Belarus. Given the political realities and the fact that Ukraine has joined Western sanctions against its northern neighbor, the current energy situation on the Dnieper is particularly dangerous.
The Russians are hitting Ukraine not only by reducing or even suspending coal supplies, but also by introducing embargoes, e.g. on fuels or electricity. For this reason, Ukraine has to limit the sale of certain types of fuel at gas stations.
How will the West react?
All these steps, related to operating in other sections and media and information offensives, are expected to increase dissatisfaction and frustration among the Ukrainian society. Politicians and President Volodymyr Zelensky himself are to blame for the poor state of preparedness for the crisis. The Russians hope that the public anger will be so great that the Ukrainians themselves will decide to overthrow the current government. Then the Russians, under the pretext of protecting their minority, may want to enter Ukraine by force, as they did in 2014. Before the entry itself, Russia may use provocations and subversive actions to provide grounds for an offensive.
The Kremlin is also examining the reaction of the West, mainly the United States, by raising tensions. So far, given that a similar flare-up of the military situation also took place in the spring of this year, the West is not behaving properly. Putin is taking advantage of the weakness of Western leaders to raise the stakes. Russia can only be stopped by a strong and decisive reaction from the USA, Great Britain, Germany or France. Can the leaders of these countries afford it? This is not known.
Gazprom gives Moldova 48 hours to pay for gas, otherwise it will suspend deliveries