By Eddie Hobbs
What is Putin’s big Disruption Strategy? To find out I’ve been engaging with geopolitical experts. I don’t dwell here upon the effectiveness of the mounting responses to Putin’s aggression. He faces a coalition of overlapping opponents: the EU, UK, NATO, USA – many countries and multinational corporations. The military strategy of the West may be to fight Russia down to the last Ukrainian, then do a deal; but that strategy presupposes that Ukraine is his main objective. After research, I don’t believe that is so.
Putin has been planning this meticulously for a long time, well over a decade. It is multi-faceted and, he has weaponised economics and finance as part of his plan. His objective is a multi-polar world with Russia the epicentre of the Eurasian sphere.
He seeks the diminution or disintegration of the EU. His chief target is Germany, its weakest link. His most potent weapon is energy supply.
Crippling the EU, he fractures NATO and diminishes the transatlantic alliance, disabling the USA, its economy and potentially its currency. This is a global financial and economic war, the kinetic theatre of which is Ukraine. Disruption to supplies of Russian hydrocarbons and Ukraine harvests will exacerbate inflationary forces. Both recession and stagflation are real risks. Central banks, led by the Fed raising rates to head off inflation add to the uncertainties. This is a climate of asymmetric risks, there is no safe haven.
Putin is a Christian Conservative and authoritarian, but first and foremost he is a Russian nationalist. He despises what he determines to be fascist, but he also hates the extremes of the former USSR.
He is not irrational or insane when you examine the tensions created by the backing of liberal democracy, the EU and NATO up to his front door as he sees it. This is not to excuse the invasion of a democratic neighbour despite its record of corruption and the prevalence of the far right.
Putin’s hero is Peter the Great – he determines Ukraine to be part of greater Russia, and an artificial creation. Ironically his invasion, faced with a skilled and determined opposition, is creating the foundation identity story for the remarkable people of Ukraine.
The truth is Putin doesn’t care whether political opposition in Europe and the USA is hard left or hard right, so long as he can foment instability by financing it.
He already has assisted in establishing what is a hard-right Tory administration in the UK which broke away from the EU.
Russian bankers have financed Marine Le Pen, Russian monies flow into far-right movements like the AfD in Germany and elsewhere including ethnic Russian populations in the Baltics.
Russian banks have financed Trump’s hard-right economic nationalism and Russian digital assets were deployed to support Trump’s candidacy.
Brexit was Putin’s greatest victory in the EU and since then he’s focused on Le Pen in France. Brexit reduced the EU to one nuclear power and isolated the other at its outer orbit. He now hopes on foot of popular support for Le Pen and for the Left, that the French National Assembly elections in June will lead to political paralysis in France, and for the EU.
Putin is placing his chips on the inability of NATO to hold at the centre, he considers Germany Europe’s biggest and strongest economy to be weak at the centre.
Germany’s disastrous policy of reliance on Russian gas, oil and coal led by East German, Angela Merkel, and blinkered by Putin, puts Germany at the epicentre of his plans.
He expects that pragmatic Germans, faced with a horrible winter of rationing of industrial opening hours, autobahn driving, cooking and heating, will weaken in their resolve to remain in the EU and do a deal with the Russian sphere.
He is also banking on Hungary voting no in NATO, just as he banks on weakened subsidies to former East Germany to grow political extremes. This is where the pro-Dexit (German EU Exit) and AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) have their stronghold as does Die Linke with roots through to the Marxist-Leninist ruling party of former East Germany. Both are Russophiles but who may publicly say otherwise. Sinn Féin and Die Linke, together with a host of communist and socialist parties form The Left grouping at the European Parliament.
He further understands the vulnerability of Target 2, (the ECB trade settlement system structured like the USSR Comecon) at the heart of the Eurozone.
Germany leaving the Euro or faced with France, Italy or Spain leaving would mirror the USSR breakup.
It would leave huge unpaid debt of over €1trillion owed by Central Banks across Europe to the Bundesbank and would leave behind inflation-ravaged replacement currencies, fertile ground to stoke old rivalries thought long dead in Europe.
In military terms Putin can move Russian assets along the Suwalki Gap, separating Poland from the Baltics in a line between Northwest Belarus and Kaliningrad, the headquarters of his Baltic Fleet, without breaking treaties.
Military exercises have ramped up in the Kaliningrad Oblast where he over twenty thousand troops and intermediate nuclear missiles. He may be calculating that Poland wouldn’t wait for an Article 5 consensus vote or be delayed by German prevarication.
Poland would be unlikely to stand idly by and watch a repeat of Crimea in the Baltics especially when its historic links to Ukraine and its bloody history with Russia is considered. A failure of consensus over Article 5 would end NATO as a functioning alliance. Poland, in Putin’s calculations, could be left isolated and vulnerable: a scenario in preparation for which he may be blooding his army in Ukraine.
To the Northwest of Kaliningrad lies the strategic island of Gotland part of Sweden but from which the Baltics can be dominated.
Directly north sitting at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia, that separates Sweden from Finland, lies Åland the autonomous, demilitarised islands of Finland part of which belongs to Russia.
Spooked by Putin’s aggression to his south, both Sweden and Finland are moving at speed to get their membership applications to NATO ratified. For Putin this may be part of a trap, giving him an excuse to attack and occupy Gotland and Aland and threaten tactical nuclear strikes if other EU states react.
He will gamble that Germany, faced with the threat of immediate nuclear strikes, will not support an article 5 vote, giving Putin a clear run to cut a deal with Western Europe, destroy the NATO illusion, widen his geopolitical buffers and ultimately damage the USA.
Alternatively, Putin may decide, after satisfying his military objectives in Ukraine, not to further engage in a hot war but to undermine the EU from within by financing and fomenting anti-EU politics across it. There is plenty to choose from among those who openly criticise Russia but quietly support nationalism and cheer on the Kremlin.
He needs to wreck the EU so he can destroy its biggest trading partner, the USA, with its overloaded debt and vulnerable currency as he sees it.
Chief among his targets for support will be Serbia, led by the recently re-elected and Kremlin-leaning, Aleksandar Vučić who is already curtailing press freedoms. Any flare up in the Balkans puts Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina with its Serbian population in the firing line for renewed Serbian aggression.
Of immediate concern is what appears to be false flag operations in Transnistria in eastern Moldova which has raised the alarm for Moldova’s security council who, led by President Maia Sandu, see these incidents as efforts to destabilise the country.
Further afield, Putin has been busy securing alliances with China and India keeping vast markets and trade open, and seeking common ground to see off the unipolar world vision of the USA which believes that its version of liberal democracy and freedom is its chief export, even when it is not desired or delivered by its military in the form of regime change.
The debacle in Afghanistan has emboldened both Russia and China and with India and China no longer at odds, the West is facing a formidable test.