Russia’s war against the West escalates

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 30 September 2022

The war in Europe is entering its most dangerous phase yet. Over the past week, we saw 300,000 Russian soldiers mobilised, scam referenda in Russian-occupied territories, and apparent bombings of the Nord Stream pipelines.

It is a European war, not just one against Ukraine. Ukraine is the battlefield, but Russia’s war is with all of Europe and its Western allies.

The war is not new, either.

For Ukraine, it started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas region. And for the West, Russia has been actively sabotaging its politics and economy for many years.

It is both an escalation and a continuation.

US intelligence reports show Russia spent hundreds of millions of dollars destabilising Western democracies. The beneficiaries included groups and parties that polarise societies.

France’s far-right, for example, received a ‘loan’ from a Kremlin-affiliated bank. The funding helped Marine Le Pen, who was runner-up in the last two presidential elections.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election is well known. The only question is whether Russia’s preferred candidate, Donald Trump, was complicit.

Russia also backed many environmental pressure groups in Western countries. These then opposed fracking in Europe. That way, Russia helped maintain the continent’s dependence on its gas.

Russia’s secret and not-so-secret interference in Western affairs was highly effective. There has never been a more fractured political landscape: from Brexit to populist parties everywhere to a possibly radical new Italian government.

This pattern of psychological warfare fits the latest developments.

It hardly makes a difference whether the two pipelines exist. Gas was unlikely to flow through them again. Blowing them up was the only value the two pipelines still had. To do so on the same day the Norwegians and Poles opened their own new pipeline increased the shock.

The fake referenda leading to the annexation of Ukrainian territory will justify Russia’s nuclear weapons use. Its new military doctrine justifies the use of nuclear bombs to protect Russia’s “territorial integrity”.

Claiming Ukrainian territory as Russian provides the Kremlin with an excuse to escalate. It does not even need to act on it to create even more fear in the West. The same applies to partial mobilisation. The terror comes with the announcement.

We should let go of the illusion that normality will return once the war in Ukraine is over. Russia’s war on Western democracy preceded its military aggression on Ukraine. It will continue as long as the Russian leadership remains in power.

That is not an optimistic assessment. But a realistic one.

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