This week, the EU would decide on the new sanctions against Putin. Even a halt in the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 project cannot be ruled out. But can Europe afford a tough course toward Moscow? These are the risks associated with an exacerbation of the situation.
Recently, a new photo appeared on the Internet, which shows how Alexei Navalny goes down the stairs in the Berlin clinic Charité. He is dressed in gray sweatpants and a black T-shirt, you can see from him that he is still weak, but, anyway, he walks on his own. The 44-year-old Russian opposition figure posted the photo on Saturday, and it received several hundred thousand "likes" over the weekend. Two weeks earlier, the German federal government had announced that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok chemical agent.
The results of the corresponding study have already been confirmed by experts from special laboratories from other countries. Many of them openly accuse the Kremlin of involvement in the assassination attempt on Navalny. They now include the United States. Whether the words will be followed by real action will be decided this week. On Monday, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the EU member states took place, the participants discussed the issue of sanctions, and no later than Friday the heads of state and government will meet to agree on a final decision.
For the first time ever, the prospects of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, on the construction of which Germany has so far firmly insisted, overcoming the active resistance of its EU partners, have been questioned. But what if Berlin really decides to abandon the second Nord Stream? What will happen if the EU decides on tough sanctions? Will there be a threat of real escalation?
Since 2014, a diplomatic "positional war" has been going on between Russia and the EU. After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the EU imposed sanctions against it. Moscow responded to them with counter-sanctions. Thanks to the Minsk agreements, the conflict in eastern Ukraine was "frozen", but not resolved. At the same time, the situation in the border area between Russia and the EU has become aggravated, primarily in the Baltic States, where the two blocs border directly on each other. In the past years, both the West and Russia have begun to build up arms. Russia, in particular, has installed nuclear missiles on its western borders capable of hitting targets in Europe. Under these conditions, can the EU afford a tough political line towards Russia?
Gustav Gressel, an expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that Moscow has certain funds at its disposal. "Moscow can, for example, expel diplomats, harass foreign media outlets, strip their representatives of accreditation and restrict the freedom of action of political foundations." But if we talk not only about such, rather, symbolic gestures, which can be considered the first stage of escalation in the event of diplomatic conflicts, then Russia, in his opinion, is quite vulnerable. Economically, Russia is "more dependent on the EU and Germany than vice versa," Gressel said. The trade war hurts, first of all, Moscow.
For example, Russia supplies Europe with much less exclusive goods that can only be purchased from Russia. For Europe, first of all, titanium spare parts for the aviation industry required for the production of Airbus aircraft are indispensable. However, even Russian gas cannot be called irreplaceable for Europe. Although supplies from Russia cover about 40% of Germany's needs and 43% of the EU's gas needs, if necessary, they can be replaced by other sources (even more expensive): liquefied gas, which can be supplied by sea from the United States.
In which case, the same deliveries are possible from Qatar, Australia, or Malaysia. Germany, however, in the event of abandoning the Nord Stream 2 project, may have to pay several billion euros in compensation, but it will pay these funds not only to the Russian concern Gazprom but also to international companies, which account for half of the shares in the project...
The purely military strength of Russia is more essential. Here the NATO bloc did something: after the "Crimean crisis", the alliance significantly increased its own forces in Eastern Europe. For example, in the Baltic countries, there are only a few thousand soldiers with armored vehicles at their disposal, which are constantly changing in accordance with the principle of rotation. Since 2016, the United States alone has invested several billion dollars in the build-up of military equipment and in the development of logistics on the eastern flank of the alliance, and more recently it has transferred 10,000 more troops to Poland.
In addition, joint NATO maneuvers were intensified and nuclear deterrents deployed, which continue to include American nuclear bombers stationed in Germany. Taking into account all of the above, NATO expert Carlo Masala from the Munich University of the Bundeswehr considers an armed conflict with Russia unlikely.
“The Russians are not ready to self-destruct in order to test the ability of NATO countries for mutual support,” he said in an interview with our newspaper. According to the expert, Moscow is likely to continue to "provoke" NATO and continue the hybrid war, spreading bad information about the West and trying to exert economic pressure and destabilize, first of all, the weak Eastern European countries. "In this aspect, Russia's potential is quite large," Masala says confidently, referring primarily to countries such as Bulgaria or Serbia.
In addition, the risks for NATO and the EU depend, in particular, on the further development of the situation in Belarus, where mass protests have been continuing for several weeks. Local autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, under pressure from the international community, will hardly be able to stay in power without Moscow's support. Putin said in a recent interview that his troops could enter a neighboring country if the situation there gets out of control.
If Lukashenko really loses control and Russian troops appear in Belarus, Europe will have an additional headache, Masala is sure. So far, Lukashenko has tried to maintain a certain equidistance from Russia and the EU, but now everything is different: "But now only the Russians can guarantee the safety of power to him - his fate is now in Putin's hands." The Russian-Belarusian exercises "Slavic Brotherhood" are being held these days. Given the current situation, it is unlikely that Russian troops will leave Belarus in full after their completion.
The expert did not rule out that the Russian presence would soon be expanded, and for a long time: "The sanctions over the assassination attempt on Navalny can further accelerate this process." For NATO and Europe, Belarus is a kind of "buffer zone" with a length of several hundred kilometers, thanks to which, in the event of a conflict with Russia, it will be possible to gain some time. Given the Russian influence, a problematic situation may arise at the so-called "corridor near the city of Suwalki" located on the border of Poland and Lithuania and separating the Kaliningrad region from "big Russia." This site can be considered the site of a possible invasion of European territory, and in theory, Putin could tell Lukashenko to seize it in order to isolate the Baltic states in case of conflict.
NATO is completely unprepared for such a development of events. The alliance is working on scenarios involving the seizure of this EU territory by Russia. But defending the Baltics - even with the best preparation - could be problematic. After the assassination attempt on Navalny, Russia and the West found themselves at a "fork in the road." “We have reached the point at which relations between Russia and the West have acquired a completely new dimension. Previously, they were rather ambivalent, fluctuating between positive and negative, but now they have slipped into real confrontation,” expert Masala said.
At the same time, this week the EU might agree on a new sanctions strategy in relation to Moscow. The EU presidency now belongs to Germany, and if Berlin is in favor of sanctions, it will have to change its attitude to the joint project with Russia, Nord Stream 2, which is estimated at several billion euros. However, the decision must be unanimous, and so far not all EU members support it. Thus, Cyprus is ready to vote for anti-Russian sanctions only if sanctions against Turkey are simultaneously introduced.
Thus, it is still not possible to assert with certainty that the "Navalny case" will lead to the fact that relations between the EU and Russia will once again "breakthrough." However, in the longer term, Berlin and Brussels will still have to do something: the photographs of Navalny being treated in a Berlin clinic are too impressive. Europe must make a decision, even at the cost of further escalation.
Read the original text on Die Welt