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Russia-EU confrontation: the worst is yet to come

“The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HEGEL

Russia hopes to focus all its resources of influence within the European Union (EU) to change the course of the war in Ukraine, block sanctions and cause trouble and change in as many EU countries as possible. Unfortunately for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his sympathisers in the EU, the prospects are not good. This is not just about the outlook for the course of the war in Ukraine. It’s also about the “soft power” resources that the EU and NATO have yet to unleash.

Let’s consider four areas of policy in which the EU or its member states are beginning at least to feel out their policy options for countering Russia – and in which there are clear, feasible and potentially acceptable steps that can be taken. These are the questions of:

  • visas for Russians;
  • measures and counter-measures in the “gas war”;
  • what to do about Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the EU’s Fifth-Columnist-in-Chief; and
  • stability in the volatile Western Balkans.


Poland has recently become the fifth EU member state to end the practice of issuing visas to Russian citizens. In this, it joins Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Denmark. The logic of this step is simple. Since Russia started the war and since killings and destruction in Ukraine are on the rise, it is not clear why Russian citizens should enjoy the privilege of travelling to, and receiving hospitality in, EU countries.

This is so logical, indeed, that it’s well-nigh certain that this initiative will gain additional followers. Two qualifications should be noted, however.

The first is that certain countries especially dependent on tourism, some of them quite large – such as Italy, Spain and Greece – will probably oppose such a ban, fearing their tourism industries will suffer. This is unlikely to apply to all countries indefinitely, however. Against the background of the mind-shattering losses that the European economy is suffering from the war and of the blatant power game the Kremlin is playing with crude oil, gas, fuels, metals and other raw materials, the “tourism argument” is simply bound to wear thin sooner or later.

The second, and more sensitive, point is that a total visa ban would inevitably affect the EU’s ability to grant asylum to opponents of Putin’s regime. This is true in a sense: when confrontation is at its height, it is possible that some new dissidents could suffer and become collateral damage in the bigger battle. But it is unlikely that all or even most of Putin’s opponents would suffer from a visa ban. EU countries could certainly find a workable solution that ensured that they didn’t – and would have every reason to do so.

In short, the countdown to introducing an EU visa ban for Russian citizens has begun. It may never cover all EU member states, but the current list of five is likely to expand.

One final point is that a visa ban would be a relatively well-targeted sanction – and could be quite an effective one. So far, war-related sanctions have not directly and specifically affected those citizens of Russia who have supported Putin’s war. Possible future visa restrictions would affect only the 30% of the population, living mainly in large cities, that hold the passports needed for foreign travel. The other 70% have never left Russia and most likely won’t want to in the near future. While 30% is a relatively small percentage, it includes the social stratum of the privileged and those who are decision-makers or opinion-formers within the ruling elite. They might feel the pain – and get the point  

The gas war

The gas war between the EU and Russia is in full swing. Last week Germany announced that its gas storage facilities were full at the target 80 per cent, attesting to the failure of the previous Kremlin strategy of delivering lower gas volumes and thus denying German gas companies enough gas ahead of the gas year and the heating season, which begins on October 1st.

Thereupon, Moscow changed tactics and shifted its focus to direct price bullying, brutal interference, including sabotage and destabilisation, engaging proxy NGOs and parties it had sponsored for years.

Consider what has been happening in Germany.

There, Moscow’s propaganda campaign aims to catalyse social discontent over possible imminent natural gas shortages, which will result in austerity measures and a poorer quality of life. Several extremist international environmental organizations, like Ende Gelande and Extinction Rebellion, which joined hands with other local partners of the climate movement, have been used by Russian propaganda as “useful idiots” in the Kremlin’s attempt to undermine energy security and crisis measures in Germany.

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In Hamburg, the same toxic mix of movements tried to block bridges leading to the port, in protest against the construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals along the German coast, forcing the police to intervene.

So, overall, it’s not exactly a subtle or convoluted strategy: on the one hand, there are protests in favour of greater Russian gas imports (on the Kremlin’s terms); on the other, there’s a protest against the LNG imports that could solve the gas problem (but would compete with Mr Putin’s gas and stymie his strategy). Simple as that!

The Kremlin is trying hard, then – doing its best to stir up discontent, force a change in foreign policy, and maybe even topple the coalition government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz. And, sure as God made little green activists, what’s happening in Germany now will be happening soon elsewhere. But the interesting (and hopeful) thing is this: it doesn’t seem to be working. As to the coalition being torn apart, Germany’s Greens, who are in government, are distancing themselves from extremist climate actions. And those demonstrations weren’t anything to write home about either: in some cases numbers topped 6,000, but that’s hardly enough to qualify as a “mass” turnout – much less to underwrite Vladimir Putin’s ambitions of destabilisation and regime change. Mr Scholz and his colleagues, in other words, seem to be holding the line.

We need to talk about Viktor

Meanwhile natural gas continues to give Moscow some hope that it can reward the few remaining “friendly” EU countries with additional natural gas flows. Prominent among these friends is Hungary. The idea is pretty blatant: let the country’s strongman Viktor Orban act as broker of Russian natural gas, allowing him to “bail out” neighbours in crisis – and thus prove the correctness of his servile policy towards Mr Putin.

This line of confrontation between the EU and Russia will also intensify, especially on the eve of the heating season. There is no doubt that the lack of a unified European response opens up niches that Mr Putin can exploit, pitting one member state against another. Notably bizarre is the situation of Bulgaria, which acts as a transit country on the route conveying Russian gas to Mr Orban’s Hungary, without directly receiving a molecule of the stuff itself.

So what to do? Well, obviously, in this respect, the European Commission (EC) deserves criticism for excluding transmission routes for Gazprom gas from sanctions, thus allowing Moscow’s foul play. And of course it would be possible (and perhaps acceptable and necessary for the time being) to let Gazprom continue to provide essential volumes of gas, ensuring supply security. But there should be a restriction on the provision of extra gas volumes in ways that discriminate among EU member states (especially, by the way, as the prospect of Hungary getting extra gas is in flat contradiction to EU policy for to cuts in consumption by 15%). And until it is feasible to apply a total ban on Russian gas imports – which should probably be the ultimate aim unless and until the political and military situation changes radically –member states could agree to limit transit of, and trade in, Russian gas within the EU to safe levels, which could be reduced over time.

The Western Balkans

The expulsion of the Russian ambassador to Montenegro, and especially the crisis in relations between Kosovo and Serbia, have once again drawn attention to the Kremlin’s destabilising actions in the Western Balkans and its attempts to open a “second front” in Europe, diverting EU and NATO’s attention away from Ukraine.

This is not the first time Podgorica has expelled Russian diplomats. Since the beginning of the war, five of them have been declared personae non gratae. During the same period, North Macedonia has expelled even more Russian diplomats – eleven of them, to be precise – with the country’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, accusing Russia of interfering in its internal affairs, undermining the EU accession process and directly funding opposition parties. Incidentally, this had also been the claim of the former government of Kiril Petkov in Bulgaria, which became “former” earlier this year, when Russia overthrew it.

It’s much the same story with the Kosovo-Serbia conflict. There the Kremlin is openly inciting Serbia to radical military action, while the EU is trying to avert a crisis through its mediation mission. Similarly, observers are looking with alarm at the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where Russia is openly encouraging the Serb entity within BiH, the Republika Srpska, in its separatist aspirations.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that one of the most prominent assets of Russia’s aggressive policy in the Balkans is its ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, who just days ago broke the ‘news’, via Russian government controlled site, that Moscow intends to build a military base in Serbia. Which was, to say the least, most irregular and shows just how low the conduct of Russian foreign policy has sunk and how desperate Moscow is. It is not the job of an ambassador to engage in manipulative action, involving a high-level strategic decision such as the opening of a military base in his host country. Such news is, in civilised diplomatic practice, made public at the level on which the decision in question has been taken – that is, the highest state level.

For that reason, among others, Mr Botsan-Kharchenko’s statement was an outright provocation. It was no surprise, therefore, that Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic contradicted that statement almost instantly. But Moscow’s arm-twisting will continue, leaving little room for manoeuvre to those in Belgrade who advocate a “middle path” or “third way”, between the West and Russia, and adhere to Kremlin’s agenda in the West Balkans.

The Kremlin is looking for all possible ways to escalate ethnic and inter-state tensions in the Western Balkans and thereby further destabilise the whole of Europe. A “third way” sounds a nice idea but, in practice, with Russia so coercive and aggressive, the Balkan countries have no room for non-alignment or for any halfway-house policy options in dealing with it.

The ultimate test

In conclusion, for Russia – or at any rate for the Putin regime – losing the war in Ukraine would pose an existential threat. Henceforth, the Kremlin will be quite prepared to torch an unwavering Europe as it strives to win, and will try to inflict maximum damage if a win is not an option.

The confrontation between the EU and Russia, therefore, is set to enter an even more brutal phase, in which there will be no room for half-tones in the EU’s policy towards Russia.

This will mean a most challenging situation for Russophile leaders like Viktor Orban, Aleksandar Vucic – and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and for the EU and NATO to address such challenges.

But it will also mean the ultimate test for the leaders of the EU and of some of its bigger and more westerly states. Let’s hope they pass that test. For this is a fight that Europe can’t afford to lose. Though, as we’ve suggested above, it’s also a fight that, if it takes the right steps, Europe can win.

Meanwhile, it will be a bumpy ride. So fasten your seat-belts.

Ilian Vassilev

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