Europe is wrapped around Putin’s little finger
23 September 2021 •
If Vladimir Putin has one defining characteristic, it is his pathological intolerance of those who seek to oppose his relentless quest for power and influence. Russian voters will hardly have been surprised that the president’s United Russia party emerged victorious from the ballot last weekend, winning two thirds of the 450 seats in the country’s parliament. The contest, as is so often the case, was marred by reports of ballot boxes being stuffed with false slips as well as forced voting, while leading opposition candidates were banned from standing or, in the case of the prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, confined to a prison cell.
Mr Putin’s obsessive pursuit of his adversaries, moreover, extends well beyond Russian borders, as demonstrated by the conclusions reached this week by two decisions relating to Kremlin-inspired attacks on Russian dissidents based in Britain.
A ruling issued by the European Court of Human Rights concluded that Moscow was responsible for the murder in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, the dissident former Russian intelligence agent who died after drinking tea laced with polonium-210 at a London hotel. The court concluded there was a prima facie case that the murder was carried out by two Russian agents who “had been acting on the direction or control of the Russian authorities”.
The judgment coincided with British counter-terrorism police charging a third Russian intelligence officer, Maj Gen Denis Sergeev, with involvement in the attempted murder of the former Russian spy Col Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018. The existence of a third Russian intelligence officer – first revealed by The Daily Telegraph – who oversaw the plot to murder Mr Skripal with the nerve agent Novichok highlighted the sophistication of the assassination attempt by Russia’s GRU intelligence operation to silence one of Mr Putin’s fiercest critics.
Mr Putin’s well-documented history of tyrannical behaviour during his two decades in power has made it abundantly clear that he is singularly unsuited to hold any position that affords him any form of global responsibility. Yet, thanks to the increasing influence Moscow is able to exert over Europe’s energy market, he now finds himself able to hold his European neighbours to ransom over their energy requirements.
Mr Putin may argue that he is not entirely to blame for the recent dramatic increases in global gas prices, which will result in households throughout Europe – especially Britain – facing higher energy bills this winter. A combination of factors, such as a sharp post-pandemic rise in demand in Asia, low gas storage stocks and a reduction in output from renewables such as wind, have certainly contributed to the astonishing 280 per cent increase in wholesale gas prices in Europe so far this year.
Yet, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) made clear this week, the Kremlin is also contributing to Europe’s deepening fuel crisis by slowing down its normal flow of gas supplies to mainland Europe, with storage levels lower than normal heading into the winter months.
In a rare public rebuke, the IEA pointed out that Russian exports to Europe were lower than in 2019, and called on Moscow to “demonstrate its credentials as a reliable supplier” and “do more to increase gas availability to Europe”.
It is unlikely that assisting Europe in its hour of need will feature prominently in Mr Putin’s priorities as he assesses the potentially devastating impact that the energy crisis could have on Britain and the European Union’s economic recovery from the pandemic. Instead, the indications suggest that the Kremlin has been deliberately planning for just such an eventuality.
Concerns about Mr Putin’s attempts to exert undue influence over the rest of Europe have been steadily growing since construction began five years ago on the £8 billion Nord Stream 2 subsea pipeline that runs from the Baltic to Germany. The project, which was completed this month, has been the focus of great controversy over claims it will further increase European dependence on Russian energy, which already accounts for about one third of its requirements. The project is also seen as a deliberate ploy by the Kremlin to isolate Ukraine, which is set to lose out on billions of dollars in gas transit fees.
Washington has long regarded the Nord Stream 2 project as a blatant attempt by Moscow to establish a controlling interest over Europe’s energy needs, one that, once established, can be exploited to ransom European capitals into acceding to Moscow’s demands.
These concerns have finally persuaded the EU to take a more sober assessment of Mr Putin’s motives in developing Nord Stream 2, which has created hesitancy in Brussels about giving its approval to the new pipeline. The problem Europe now faces is that, as the crisis over gas prices has highlighted, European leaders have woken up too late to the insidious threat Mr Putin poses to Europe’s energy needs.