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16 January 2022

When Russia invades...

The tragedy of Europe is that Germany is not standing up to Russia, and that the EU is not standing up to Germany. A Russian invasion will see many losers. I expect the EU, apart from Ukraine itself, to be one of the biggest.

When Russian invades, it will inadvertently expose Europe’s internal divisions. I say inadvertently deliberately, because I don’t think this is Vladimir Putin’s primary objective. He is concerned that colour revolutions in Russia’s periphery, as he calls them, might eventually encroach on Russian politics itself. It is absurd, of course, to argue that Nato might invade Russia. This is a Russian strawman. The threat to Russia is much more subtle, but no less real. There is not much the US can offer to alleviate Putin’s paranoia. He wants a political buffer zone, with Ukraine and Belarus definitely in that zone.

What Russia always does, which the EU almost never does, is act according to its own definition of strategic interests. What defines strategy is the willingness to pay a shot-term cost in service of a longer-term objective. European, and German foreign policy in particular, is nonstrategic in the sense that it is focused on short-term gain. If you prioritise car exports, you leave yourself with fewer degrees of freedom to pursue other interests: human rights, climate change, supply security, technological leadership.

When Russia invades, Germany and other European countries might at one point run out of gas. That would depend on how energy enters into this conflict. Germany has left itself in this position because successive governments failed to develop a coherent energy policy. Three nuclear plants went offline at the beginning of 2022, as will the last three at the end of this year. With the Greens in government, I see no chance of a policy reversal. The new coalition has ambitious plans for investment in renewables, but the maths does not add up. The energy transition requires unprecedented investment in modern gas-fired power stations as an interim solution. That means Russian gas for the most part. The Greens might kick up a fuss over Nord Stream 2, but I don’t think they will have the gumption to leave the government over a pipeline, and sacrifice their investment programme for renewable energy sources. The deal is done.

When Russia invades, it will be a matter of smoke and mirrors. Russia has no interest in occupying all of Ukraine. It will never invade a Nato country, and try to occupy it. My fear is that Putin may at one point choose to close the Suwalki gap, the stretch of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border that separates the Russian province of Kalingrad from Belarus. That would give Russia direct land access to the southern Baltic Sea, and drive a wedge through the EU. The Baltic States would at this point be geographically isolated from the EU, surrounded by Russia from all sides. This is the scenario depicted in our hypothetical map above. It might also seek to extend its military control of the Black Sea, cutting through the Ukrainian lands that separate it from Transnistria, a Russian-speaking breakaway province in eastern Moldova.

When Russia invades, Germany will appease. Germany will push for minimal sanctions, and only those that don’t damage German exports. They will veto any proposal to cut Russia off from the Swift payment system, if such a proposal were ever made. Nord Stream 2 is safe because neither the EU nor the Biden administration want to upset the Germans. A Republican majority after the mid-term election this November might change the Americans' policy, but by then the gas will have started to flow.

When Russia invades, the Europeans will huff and puff as they always do, and complain that they are not invited to various diplomatic tables. Sitting at tables is a big thing in Europe. Expect to hear a lot of side issue debates, like majority voting in the Council on foreign policy. What they will not debate is an increase in defence spending.

When Russia invades, nobody will confront it. And nobody will confront the appeasers. Snookered, as the English say, watching from the distance. It is what happens when you leave the strategic thinking to others.

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