As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its sixth month, rhetoric from influential media figures in Moscow have continued their apocalyptic threats regarding nuclear weapons, echoed by statements from Duma members and Putin’s inner circle, notably Dmitry Medvedev. Despite this, Putin himself has not said much about WMDs since putting Russian rocket forces on high readiness last February.
The Kremlin has a history of taking advantage of the lack of unity among Western actors and institutions such as the EU and NATO in order to make strategic gains. Knowing Moscow cannot win in a direct military conflict against Western powers, Putin relies on a Deadman’s Switch so to speak to outfox the West.
Yet this switch is not necessarily reflected in nuclear weaponry, as many assume, but rather in the Kremlin’s ability to influence various upcoming elections that will determine the fate of long-term Western support for Ukraine.
Since the devastating Russian offensive in Luhansk, game-changing weapons such as the HIMARS have arrived in Ukraine. The High Mobility Air Rocket System has destroyed numerous fuel storage locations, ammunition depots, and command and control centers, stabilizing the front and instilling fear in Russian forces, who have struggled to effectively intercept the missiles. The Russian military also faces major logistical issues due to the missile strikes, with any forward momentum increasingly relying on the firing of anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 shells a day – a rate that no country could possibly sustain, especially one with such a significant sanction burden. The ultimate result has been frustration and a revolving door of constant leadership change among high-level Russian military staff.
Putin has ordered an operational pause, and even though he plans on annexation of occupied territory, along with further ambitions towards Odessa and Transnistria, he now seems to be pivoting toward a backup plan. Knowing the Russian military does not have sophisticated weaponry outside of nukes to counter Ukraine’s new weapons shipments, Putin will attempt to effect a Western change in leadership to sever Ukraine’s diplomatic and material support. He will accomplish this through several ways: weaponizing Russian gas, exacerbating famine by squeezing wheat shipments, and influencing upcoming elections.
Weaponizing Russian gas to compromise the European Union was foretold by Eastern European nations along with former U.S. President Donald Trump. These warnings were ignored by leadership in countries such as Germany and Italy. It should be noted that Nord Stream 2 was finalized after the Russian annexation of Crimea. There was also an agreement to give the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, a board membership of Gazprom, though he recently turned the offer down.
Despite Russia signing a grain port-opening deal with Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations, it recently shelled the port of Odessa, hitting near a grain silo. This comes as no surprise, as Russia has purposely blockaded wheat during the entirety of the war, knowing it would cause grain deficits in impoverished nations and thus external pressure to bring the war to an end on Russian terms. A potential brutal winter with minimal food allocations across the Middle East and Africa could give rise to new migrations into Europe, and Russian media has been amplifying this possibility in the belief that it could be a political path to sanction relief.
“All of our hope is in the famine” said RT chief and close Putin ally Margarita Simonyan during this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
This is the Kremlin’s way of playing into growing discontent, threatening the West with renewed waves of migration in an echo of previous crises stemming from Syrian refugees and African migrants in the 2010s. This is where the Kremlin looks to play their ultimate card—propping up far right isolationist politicians and breaking up NATO and the EU from the inside. Russia has been heavily invested in Western elections—and no, this is not just a US Democratic Party talking point.
Betting that Western states will eventually get tired and stop supporting Ukraine over the long haul, Putin looks to mold the growing wheat and migrant crisis, along with Western military spending, to prop up far-right politicians with previous ties to the Kremlin. We have already seen this become successful with Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary, which, despite the ongoing Ukraine war, has blocked sanctions against the Russian Orthodox Church and willingly opened ruble accounts for Russian gas purchases. Orban is a known pro-Putin proxy within the EU and NATO, who runs his country in a method that mirrors Putin’s authoritarianism, minus the open assassinations of journalists and critics.
Likewise, Russia heavily invested in France’s past two general elections, gambling on Marine Le Pen and even giving her a €12 million bank loan from a now-sanctioned Russian bank. Le Pen has been known for her far-right stance on migrants and anti-defense spending rhetoric, amplified through Russian media. Macron himself even called out her ties to the Kremlin during this year’s presidential debates.
Russia has also been heavily invested in Orthodox Christian nations such as Greece and Bulgaria, with the former having an outlawed party that was heavily supported by Moscow, Golden Dawn. The Kremlin strategy in the Balkans revolves around Patriarch Kirill, an alleged former KGB officer who has weaponized Orthodox Christianity in the region to create Christians who are more loyal to the Kremlin than their own nations. This ultimately caused a major rift between the Greek Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church. Russian foreign policy has been more successful with regard to Serbia and Bosnian Serbs, who still see the NATO bombings and recognition of Kosovo in the Yugoslav Wars as an injustice. It should be noted Putin describes the recognition of Kosovo as one of the reasons for his meddling in Ukraine, which garnered praise from ultranationalist Serbs. Moscow also looks to fuel Bosnian Serb secession which could fuel another disastrous Balkans conflict if realized.
Russian strategists have also amplified influential American talk show hosts via RT. One RT hosts, Olga Skabeyeva, openly stated on Russia television that they would have better luck on concessions with Trump in 2024. It is no secret why this is true, as Trump is known for his isolationist rhetoric and disdain for the outsize financial burden of US spending under NATO.
So far as Russia is concerned, this is a long-term strategy. As a despot, Putin does not need to worry about election cycles as a despot and is taking advantage of a perceived vulnerability in Western nations, that they change strategy on the basis of who is elected. This strategy aims to keep the EU dependent on Russian energy (thus diversifying buyers of Russian gas), while continuing to exacerbate the global wheat and migrant crisis to influence elections.
Putin has been known to take advantage of treaties and views Western inaction or compromise as weakness. Yet if you confront him with strength, he often has no response. We saw this when Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015 and now with the HIMARS, where Russia has no answer for the missile system. The upcoming autumn and winter will determine how the new Cold War will go, as Russia will apply food insecurity and squeeze European energy supplies to extract concessions regarding the Ukraine war. The moment where Western strength and unity is needed is now, and if Russia is not stopped in Ukraine, the next provocation could directly involve a NATO nation.
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