Europe Could Face Trouble From Russia on Several Flanks

Putin’s African initiatives reflect his overall strategy of propping up embattled autocrats in exchange for their loyalty.

President Putin at the Kremlin February 21, 2022. Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP

Ukraine might be Europe’s most imminent crisis, yet it is hardly President Putin’s only gambit for the continent. Europe could yet find itself squeezed by Moscow from the east and at the mercy of its whims in the south. Not since the last gasps of Soviet adventurism have the prospects for destabilization been so great. 

Europe’s eastern troubles stem from Moscow’s decade-long “pivot to Asia.” Indeed, the “new world order” that Presidents Putin and Xi announced this month was in fact already proclaimed in 2012. Mr. Putin then extolled a novel “Union of Europe” that would span “from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean,” a “new Asia,” and a “new system of world order.” 

Statements made today are then but formalizations of policies long decided and actions already undertaken. It takes time to make such curious bedfellows. In pivoting to Asia, Moscow tacitly accepted its role as the junior partner in the Sino-Russian entente. Yet Russia, for its part, gains an outsized diplomatic voice by working with Communist China.

Mr. Putin has linked his plan for a Eurasian Economic Union with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. What this linkage means in practice is not fully clear. The relationship has so far ostensibly amounted to rhetorical flourish absent any concrete strategies. Yet for Mr. Putin, the prospect of physical and economic connectivity through Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and to Beijing must surely tickle his imperialist fantasies. 

Knowing that Communist China is, at least for the moment, friendly, Mr. Putin can also use Beijing to limit damage from Western sanctions and gain access to alternative financial systems and markets. Resource-starved Beijing increasingly depends on Russia for natural gas. Amid burgeoning tensions with Europe, Messrs. Putin and Xi have inked oil and gas deals to the tune of $117 billion. 

Construction on the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline is also under way. Once completed, the pipeline will supply Communist China with 50 billion cubic meters of gas a year. The pipeline would use the same gas fields in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula that supply Moscow’s exports to Europe.

That means that Brussels and Beijing could yet find themselves competing for Russian gas. The Yamal-Europe pipeline flowed in reverse for more than 20 days last year. In Mr. Putin’s continued effort to destabilize Europe, the Russian strongman could yet make reverse flows a feature, not a bug.

With Europe facing a possible Sino-Russian bloc and jeopardized energy supplies to its east, it could see weaponized migratory flows to its south. For around the same time that Mr. Putin announced Moscow’s pivot to Asia he began courting partners in Africa. 

Mr. Putin’s African initiatives reflect his overall strategy of propping up embattled autocrats in exchange for their loyalty. President Touadéra of the Central African Republic, Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and coup leaders Colonel Assimi Goïta in Mali and Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba in Burkina Faso all owe their stations to Moscow. 

The day after the military staged a coup in Burkina Faso in January, supporters of Lieutenant Colonel Damiba and his regime took to the streets waving Russian flags. “No, we don’t want no more France,” one demonstrator told Voice of America.

In Africa’s Sahel, Moscow has been engaged in an extensive and protracted disinformation campaign, fanning the flames of anti-French sentiment. As relations between Paris and its former west African colonies have soured, Moscow has cannily capitalized on the mood. 

The French withdrawal from Mali now makes Russia the foremost foreign power in the country. The Wagner Group — a Kremlin-linked paramilitary organization — has 1,000 personnel in Mali. That number is now expected to grow. Wagner has some 7,000 men fighting for Mr. Haftar in Libya. It is deepening its presence in Burkina Faso and has been spotted in 16 other African countries. The Kremlin denies any links to the organization. 

For Europe, Russian influence in the Sahel and along Africa’s Mediterranean coast should be unsettling. The regions are beset by Islamist-linked conflict and demographic pressures that push young men to travel northward to try their luck in Europe. While France hoped African leaders would block the migration, Moscow could welcome its impact on Europe.

Mr. Putin may not like Africa’s Islamists, but if their terrorism is directed against Europe it could be a useful tool for disruption. The Kremlin could turn migrants off and on like a tap — or, as last year happened on the Belarus-Polish border, manufacture a refugee crisis.

With Europe fixated, understandably so, on the threat of war over Ukraine, its Mediterranean underbelly is looking less secure by the day. Its eastern frontier equally so. Regardless of what unfolds in Ukraine, Europe’s Russian troubles will persist.

Aided by China and junior partners such as Iran and Pakistan, Mr. Putin intends to realize the “new world order” he announced a decade ago. The question those who wish to downplay his ambitions must ask is: How much disruption are Europe and the West willing to bear? 

The New York Sun

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