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How Putin’s yearning for dominance over Eastern Europe has intensified

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

By Konrad Szumiński

Guest Feature

Credit: Presidential Executive Office of Russia, Wikimedia Commons

With former British Joint Command Chief, General Richard Barrons indicating that the Ukraine War could last “for decades”, it is evident that Putin’s special military operation has set course towards an exhausted stalemate. According to purported U.S intelligence reported by Reuters in April, Russia faces “189,500-223,000 total casualties”, which are larger than Ukraine’s purported losses of “124,500-131,000 total casualties”. There is a considerable difference between casualties killed in action, where Russia has suffered approximately double that of the defending force.

As Ukraine holds an advantage over land forces, with double the number of tanks and 1,000 APCs (armoured personnel carriers) at its disposal, Russia’s most significant advantage is in fighter jets and air defence. This has resulted in President Zelenskyy calling for a “jets coalition” from NATO countries to confront Russia in the skies. The general analysis of the conflict is that with continued Western investment, only amounting to 0.02% of the GDP of NATO members, Ukraine will be able to withstand Russian offensives, drawing a potential diplomatic line that corresponds with the areas annexed by Russia in 2014. Thus, Vladimir Putin, having faced a severe military rebellion in June, is expected by his inner circle to restore parity in the stand-off between Russia and NATO.

In a widely reported video released on the 21st of July, Putin falsely claimed that Poland is planning to invade Belarus and annex Ukrainian territory which it has historic ties to. After inventing this claim, the Russian President openly threatened Poland, adding that Russia would respond with “all means at its disposal.” This is no extraordinary event, the Kremlin has never shied away from its wish to destabilise Poland, which in the Russia-NATO conflict, is centre stage. It is always worth remembering the words of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski (2005-2010) in Tbilisi in 2008:

"We know very well: today – Georgia, tomorrow – Ukraine, the day after tomorrow – the Baltic countries and then, perhaps, the time will come for my country – Poland,"

This is, in the eyes of former Eastern Bloc countries and Soviet Republics, Vladimir Putin’s long-term master plan - to re-establish an Iron grip over Eastern Europe, which shows the significance of Ukraine’s resistance.

In light of the struggles and the losses in Ukraine, which in turn has rallied and strengthened the Eastern front of the NATO alliance, the Kremlin has responded by sending its formidable mercenary force, Wagner Group, to Belarus and also, following Russia’s Navy Day on the 30th July, 30 ships and airships began military exercises in the Baltic Sea.

Wagner Group in Belarus

The presence of Wagner in Belarus following the foiled revolt is a reminder of the Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics against NATO’s Eastern flank. The situation on the Polish-Belorussian border has escalated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Throughout most of 2022, it was believed that Belarus attempted to weaken the border by transporting migrants and directing them from border towns towards the Polish mainland. In response, Poland sent approximately 7,000 soldiers to guard the border and, alongside their Lithuanian allies, built a border wall in the autumn of last year.

This month, after the presence of Wagner fighters on Belorussian soil was confirmed, two Belorussian helicopters entered Polish airspace at “low altitudes”, evading radar systems. This has raised concerns about whether it was a deliberate provocation, or it was a tactic to allow potential Wagner operatives to enter Poland. Furthermore, Polish PM, Mateusz Morawiecki has indicated a similar concern for operatives entering Poland as “illegal immigrants”, in the new stage of hybrid war that has been staged on NATO’s eastern flank. As tensions continue to rise, Wagner has begun active military drills in Belarus, settling doubts about their presence.

There are two clarifications here: Firstly, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belorussian leader, is a puppet of the Kremlin and would not make a move if it weren’t for the directive of the Russian President. Secondly, despite the revolt against Putin by Wagner’s leader, Yevgenny Prigozhin, in late June, the PMC is said to also be acting on Moscow’s directive. Therefore, the Kremlin is clearly waging a hybrid war against NATO’s eastern flank countries; Poland, Lithuania and the Baltics are on high alert.

Aggression on the Baltic Sea

Following the accession of Finland to NATO and Sweden’s application being given the green light at the alliance’s summit in Vilnius, the Baltic Sea has become a NATO stronghold. This is of particular concern to Russia, as its heavily armed foothold in Krolewiec has been surrounded. In response, 30 Russian naval ships and 30 airships have begun military exercises in the sea, with a force amounting to 6,000 men.

It is important to remember that Russian interests in the Baltic are considerable. After all, Russia’s chokehold on the European Union was applied through the Nord Stream pipelines which ran through the sea. Furthermore, apart from its importance for the Russian energy sector, it was a crucial trading market for Russian imports into Europe. Above all, the heavily armed Krolewiec exclave, with tactical nuclear weapons in storage facilities, as well as a military foothold to launch Russian naval capabilities right onto Europe’s doorstep, is of huge significance. Thus, the suggestion by Ulrike Franke, Senior fellow of the ECFR, that the Baltic has become a “NATO lake”, is alarming for the Kremlin. If Putin’s Russia yearns to have Eastern Europe engulfed in their sphere of influence once again, then the Baltic Sea is a crucial key for this ambition.

And by any stretch of the imagination, NATO naval capabilities outmatch that of the Russian side. According to statista, NATO has 2,150 ships compared to Russia’s 600. In terms of aircraft, Russia’s 4,200 cannot compare to the collective 20,600 aircraft of 30 NATO countries. It is also an observed fact that NATO capabilities are modern and developing, thanks in large part to the investment of the United States in its military development. Conversely, Russia, as has been exposed horribly in Ukraine, relies on a military that is stuck in the 20th century, having had their Soviet T model tank force wrecked, not only by the delivery of mainly British tank-destroying rocket launchers, but also, by the delivery of British Challengers and German Leopards to oust Russia’s land capability. There are no signals that Russia's naval capabilities are any different.

It must always be remembered, historically, Russia’s military capabilities have always been poorer than their Western adversaries. The gravest threat of Russia’s war machine is its Siberian reserve units and their capability to produce; both of which Russian leaders and generals have no qualms about sending into the “meat-grinder”, crushing its adversary specifically by incurring huge losses. Thus, the military drills in the Baltic, whilst being fully monitored closely, are not going to threaten NATO and Europe. Its pestering presence in Belarus is graver.

This has been seen with recent developments over the Suwałki Gap; a narrow land corridor located between Poland and Lithuania, bordered by Russia and Belarus. It holds strategic significance as it represents the only land link between the Baltic States and the rest of NATO, thus forming a potential vulnerability in the event of a military conflict. The gap's geographical location makes it crucial for the defence and reinforcement of the Baltic States. On the flip side, it is a corridor between Belarus and the Krolewiec/Kaliningrad exclave and is therefore of strategic interest for the Kremlin. Given historical concerns and contemporary geopolitical tensions, NATO countries, particularly Poland and Lithuania, consider the security of the Suwałki Gap a critical point of focus. The region's vulnerability has led to increased military presence and exercises in the area, underscoring its role as a potential flashpoint between NATO and Russia. It is parallel to the tension between Germany and Poland in the 1930s about German access to the exclave, which fell into Russian hands after the Second World War.

As tensions rise, NATO leaders, particularly US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, have assured that the alliance is prepared and ready to respond to Russian threats and defend every inch of its territory.


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