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Europe braces for a long, uncertain winter

As both sides suffer losses, those in Europe and many across hold their breath on who will give in first

By Hammad Sarfraz |
Design: Ibrahim Yahya
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PUBLISHED October 09, 2022

The world watched with trepidation and horror, as Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over an annexation ceremony at the Kremlin last week. The annexation, which is considered illegal by international law, came on the heels of Ukraine’s significant gain in eastern cities such as Lyman while it also pushed further into Russian-held territory in the south. The annexation, while not recognised by most countries, is still alarming as it is the largest in Europe since the second world war. Putin’s speech has also created more panic, as in a first since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a Russian leader has made explicit nuclear threats. Currently, officials in Washington are gaming out likely scenarios should Putin decide to make good on these threats. Despite sanctions on Russia, it is also evident that while Europe may be likely face a long and uncertain winter, Russia is clearly profiting from the resulting energy crisis. Notwithstanding efforts by United States and Europe to constrain Moscow’s oil revenue, Saudi Arabia and Russia, acting as leaders of the OPEC Plus energy cartel, have also now agreed to a large production cut in a move to raise prices to help pay for the war in Ukraine. The Express Tribune reached out to experts to suss out what can be expected from this ongoing conflict that seems to have reached a stalemate between the two countries.

Sanctions and the energy crisis

The sanctions on Russia, which were arguably supposed to slow down the conflict, have done little to deter Putin. In fact, some argue that they may have even backfired. According to a senior fellow in The Washington Institute's Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Program on Great Power Competition and the Middle East, Dr Anna Borshchevskaya, it may be a while before the sanctions yield its full impact.

Sanctions clearly have caused pain, but they did not stop the fighting. No one expected sanctions to stop the war, really, even President Biden said so in the very beginning of the Russian invasion,” said Dr Borshchevskaya. “Sanctions are meant to work long-term and only as a subset of a broader strategy. It is fair to say that sanctions have caused pain, and over time will especially erode the Russian military industrial complex, if those sanctions remain in place. But they have not in and of themselves stopped the fighting. Furthermore Europe continued to buy Russian energy, even as Russia was sanctioned. This was an important gap that allowed Russia to continue financing the war in the short-term.

As a result of the conflict and the sanctions, energy prices are soaring in Europe and inflation appears to be on the rise. This has resulted in causing the unity with European countries to weaken and European consumers who are already exhausted by the rising cost of energy have begun to lean toward right-wing politicians.

According to Dr Borshchevskaya, “Europe thus far has remained united. The shock of the Russian invasion, the scale of the war and the suffering that it caused has had a significant effect on Europeans. Putin of course is banking on Europe eventually losing its unity over time, he is playing the long game on that. We will need to wait and see how this winter will pan out. But European consumers are not yet at a point of exhaustion.

Similarly, academic and professor of peace and conflict research at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, Dr Ashok Swain, agrees that the sanctions have failed to discourage Putin. “It's very difficult to assess the aim of the sanctions. In both scenarios, if the aim was to prevent the war, or to end it as soon as possible, that has not happened. The sanctions have not yet been able to deter Putin. If we evaluate the overall impact of the sanctions, they have not yielded the desired results or the larger aim,” he said.

However, he suggests that in the long run, this may result in a positive outcome for Europe. “In some sense, this will probably push Europeans to move more towards less dependence on Russian energy and try to find all the energy sources or move more to renewable energy. Also, I think long term consequences will depend on how European leadership is or all European countries are taking this crisis and what kind of steps they wish to take,” he said.

However, he does point out that for the time being, this is most certainly a problem. “It is creating a political crisis. It has propelled populist parties, particularly far right wing populist parties and given them strength in parts of Europe,” he adds. We saw what happened in the election in Sweden and Italy. This uncertain environment that is a product of the conflict will continue to provide momentum to right wing parties. So, those kinds of short term consequences are more problematic than long term consequences. We will have to wait and see the final outcome.

Moreover, he adds that the ongoing conflict has not only caused a recession in Europe, but that it has the potential to upset many parts of the world. Even Russia, he points out, isn’t immune to its consequences. “Its own economy is suffering, food prices are rising there as well,” he says.

As Dr Borshchevskaya explains, “Europe is not the only loser [of the conflict]. Ukrainian and Russia have both suffered heavy losses. Rebuilding Ukraine will be an enormous undertaking. The war frankly has affected everyone one way or the other, the global implications of this war are enormous.

The very fact that the UN failed to prevent this invasion showed that it failed to act in its intended purpose, this war is a blow to the entire liberal rules-based global order. The Middle East and parts of Africa have been perhaps especially impacted by the food and more broadly economic crisis that this war has created, and frankly one that we will only see growing—again, this war affects everyone,” she adds.

Back at home, Dr Swain, explains that Putin wanted to present the sanctions as Russia versus the world, and that he is standing up against the world and that is the reason why the country is being sanctioned. He is effectively using it to shore up sympathy at home,” he adds.

Dr Swain also adds that Russia was prepared to survive the sanctions. “The idea that Russia would succumb under pressure when Europe restricts the purchase of energy has not unfolded as expected. Russia has found alternative markets to sell its oil, gas and other products, he explains.”

Before the intervention in Ukraine, Putin has made arrangements with China and other countries. Many countries in the developing world want to buy oil from Russia – so Russia does not have a shortage of markets to sell its oil. So, Europe’s strategy has not worked in this area,” he says. “At the same time, Russia is increasingly dependent on China – which works well for Beijing’s strategy. Russia is increasingly dependent on China or its goodwill.

Efforts to replace Russian gas

As a result of the sanctions, many countries in Europe have been compelled to scramble for supplies elsewhere. According to Dr Swain, the effectiveness of these efforts varies from country to country. “I think very limited initiatives are being taken mostly aimed at getting through the upcoming winter. For now, there is no policy that shows that the major European powers are collectively looking for an alternative to Russian gas,” he explains.

Most efforts, it seems, have been aimed at short-term solutions. “Long-term solutions and alternatives would require greater coordination and investment. I don't think the leadership is going to take those kinds of political risks at this point. Europe has not banned everything from Russia as yet. They have kept some room – their sanctions are more targeted,” he adds.

Dr Borshchevskaya has similar thoughts on this. “Specifically, the target for 2022 of replacing around 100 bcm of Russia gas may not be realistic, but a smaller target might work. Looking more into the medium-long term, which would give time to develop alternative ways of delivering gas, and a new LNG project built, the plan looks more achievable,” she says. Time is the issue here, it is very difficult to wean Europe off of Russian gas quickly, it may cause economic and social disruptions, but with careful planning long-term possibilities are more realistic.

The annexation and the future of the war

Putin is trying to blackmail the West into creating a pretext for suggesting that the West is supplying weapons to a war on Russian territory—meaning that by declaring these parts of Ukraine as Russian territory he can claim that the West is fighting Russia directly, and has the right to defend its territory, including with nuclear weapons,” said Dr Borshchevskaya. “So it is an effort to scare the West into doing less to help Ukraine, to prevent use of nuclear weapons. While of course it is important to take nuclear threats seriously, it would be irresponsible not to, giving into blackmail also carries its own repercussions. Certainly Ukrainians, who would be the primary target of a tactical Russian nuclear strike, are not giving up fighting.

Similarly, according to Dr Swain, the conflict will potentially endure because the west will not accept the annexations. However, according to him, even if Russia were to withdraw from the territories it has annexed a ‘low intensity conflict’ will still continue for some time.

One of the reasons for this is that Ukraine’s request to join NATO will not be a smooth one. “Turkey has raised issues and it is not a done deal. Ukraine joining NATO with all its baggage will not be all that easy. Europe is in a mess and there are a number of issues including the upcoming winter. The winter will show how Europe will deal with the situation. Different regimes are coming up in Europe. They might not have the same approach towards Russia. Countries like Italy, Sweden and others will not have the same resistance towards Russia.

Dr Swain also adds that he believes Putin wants to continue the conflict for domestic gains. “I think Putin is playing the long game. Putin believes prolonging the conflict will provide him some mileage at home. [Therefore], he will continue to push this red line for his own benefits,” he said. “On the other hand, the West has failed to improve its ties with China. Unless Europe and the US bring China on their side, I dont see Putin under any pressure.”

Dr Borshchevskaya also believes that the end to the conflict is not likely in sight. “The conflict will likely continue and we will probably see more fighting,” she said. “This is still a protracted conflict, so it’s important to continue helping Ukraine.

However, according to her this by no means suggests that Russia is unstoppable. “It simply means that it [Russia] has more resources to bring to bear. The most recent events are significant. For the first time, Ukrainians have conducted a successful counter-offensive, and Putin had to resort to calling for formal partial mobilisation, which he knew would be unpopular domestically.

As Dr Swain explains, Putin himself may have not been fully prepared for the extent of Ukraine’s resistance. “The war in Ukraine is not going as Putin had thought. I don't think he was even prepared that the war would continue this way. He was not prepared for the resistance in Ukraine to stand up to it and put this kind of response,” he says. “He didn't even really take into account that the west would come together despite the differences putting up a common front against Moscow.

I think Putin’s plan hasn't really materialised. But we also see that despite everything that hasn't stopped the war and on the economic front Russia is not really facing a bigger problem that European countries are facing,” he adds. “Russia doesn't face the energy crisis, and its currency is doing okay. Despite all the resistance and issues arising for Russia, Putin does not show signs of slowing down. So this is going to be a long stretch. The world needs to be prepared for a low intensity conflict in Ukraine and its consequences. The end to the conflict is not in sight. The only risk is that this conflict is one misstep away from spiraling out of control.

In his opinion, more needs to be done by other countries to keep the war from escalating beyond these two countries. “The international community or the world must do everything now to see the war in Ukraine doesn't spiral into a situation that moves beyond the two parties. If other parties get involved, that will be a huge disaster,” he says.

The Brussels question

Many have speculated that the energy crisis may result in causing some Europeans countries to buckle and side with Russia than with Brussels. However, Europe has been steadfast in its disapproval of the war and in standing united against it. As Dr Borshchevskaya explains, “Dependency on Russian energy is a short-term lever of pressure that Putin still has over Europe, the question is to what extent it will lead to disunity and reduced support for Ukraine.

However, as she points out, at this stage the main military support is coming to Ukraine from the US rather than Europe regardless. “This is simply because the Europeans have less to give, it has little to do with energy issues. But so far, Europe has remained united in helping Ukraine,” she says.

Dr Swain also has similar opinions on this. “I think Brussels has very little influence over the conflict. I believe Washington DC has more influence over it. I don’t think Brussels or Europe has a common strategy to confront Russia. So, the confrontation with Russia, and the war in Ukraine is more of a Washington project than Europe,” he says.

Europe’s influence was limited, and remains limited. It all depends on what Washington decides vis-à-vis this conflict,” he adds.

According to him, certain fissures and strains within Europe are already quite evident. “Europe has never been more divided. These divisions have been there before as well – particularly in Eastern Europe. Countries like Hungary and former Soviet areas that are now part of Europe have not been on the same page and are not enthusiastic about taking a stance against Russia.”

The war is changing the dynamic within Europe, as he explains. “During this conflict, we have seen the rise of the far-right in Europe – most recent being Italy and with that we will see greater differences on the approach towards Russia in the future,” he explains. Europe has never had a common stance and it most likely won't have one. Certain countries within Europe will have a common position against Russia along with the US. But overall there will be a huge variation in approach towards Russia within Europe.

Dr Borshchevskaya also adds the caveat, “The European governments in my view could be doing a better job explaining to their public why putting principle over comfort right now is important.”

As European countries are desperately trying to resolve their energy needs, some countries, Italy for instance, have had to resort to considering coal as an option. Thus, derailing some of its climate-related goals. “The short term plans that European countries are adopting, including Italy, Germany and many others show that they were not prepared – particularly not for the energy crisis that has ensued from the conflict and the subsequent sanctions. It's very difficult to tell people in Europe that there is no energy supply – particularly during the winter,” says Dr Swain. “[But] European leaders appear to be in a bind at this point. Rapidly soaring energy costs, inflation and other factors will lead to an emergency situation – that tells us that there was a lack of preparation and alternatives. So they're taking measures like using fossil fuel to compensate for the shortfall – that's the only quick solution. In the long term, they will have to think about other sources of energy and that will take considerable time. So, for now, this situation is going against Europe’s own commitment to climate change.

The Nord stream incident

Major leaks in Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines under the Baltic Sea have also raised questions of suspected sabotage. However, while an investigation seems to be underway, so far it seems unclear as to who may be responsible for it. Kremlin who has termed the incident as ‘terrorism’ asserts that the US was likely to gain from it. However, Washington has denied any involvement and have suggested Russia may be responsible.

However, who remains responsible for it, would also depend on the motive behind the incident itself. According to Dr Borshchevskaya, one likely scenario could be that the Nord stream 2 incident is more about ‘signaling’ than anything else. “Western officials reportedly suspect that Russia carried out this explosion in order to increase pressure on western governments over energy supplies. The Kremlin is used to blackmailing the West. Indeed, the entire rhetoric over use of nuclear weapons coming from the Kremlin has been essentially in the form blackmail since the start of the war but, especially in recent weeks. Nord Stream stopped operating in September, while Nord stream 2 was never launched,” she said. “If indeed the Russian state was behind the attack, it is a threat to other marine energy infrastructure.