Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas has slowed efforts to sanction Russian energy and runs the risk of driving a wedge into the trans-Atlantic unified front that has performed impressively in sanctioning Russia and aiding Ukraine. Europe has been trying to wean itself off of Russian energy for years now, but progress have been at a snail’s pace and uncertain. Mostly because Europe has found it next to impossible to locate a replacement source for its blanket energy needs. Today, the German government confirmed it will continue to buy Russian natural gas, oil and coal despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing mountain of sanctions on Moscow. In a statement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country and the remainder of Europe are too reliant on Russian energy imports for the continent to cut trade links, even in the short term. This is why Germany made it a point to exempt energy from the sanctions the West has placed on Russia. Natural gas, oil and coal from Russia are the lifeblood of German and European industrial output, heating and electricity output. If Russia chooses to put the screws to European energy exports, Western unity could splinter.
The Pentagon confirmed today something many of us in the fields of geopolitics and defense have noticed over the past few days. With progress slowing to a crawl on the ground, Russia is relying more on long-range fires. These include artillery, multiple-launch rocket fire, cruise missiles, and close air support, which is being used in an effort to weaken Ukrainian defensive positions and strong points of resistance. Other terms used are softening the enemy or preparing the battlefield. The good news is that the reliance on long-range fires signals that Russia is not ready to resume the pushes towards numerous Ukrainian cities and other objectives. The bad news is that at some point, the advances will commence again.
The number of Ukrainian refugees is now approaching 1.8 million at last count and the number is anticipated to exceed 2 million within the next 24 hours. Europe is on the verge of a major refugee crisis, the likes of which have not been seen in decades.
-The war in Ukraine has the potential to unleash the largest refugee crisis Europe has faced since World War II. The European Union estimates as many as four million Ukrainians could potentially flee their homeland between now and the end of the war. Even then, assuming a Russian victory, that number could increase considerably. EU rules and restrictions on refugees are being lifted and Brussel promises that EU member-states will welcome Ukrainians with open arms. Eastern European countries are absorbing the first wave of refugees. As of 7 AM, 1 March, 2022, EST Poland had taken in 377,000 refugees. Hungary had taken 89,561, Moldova 65,391, Slovakia 54,304 and Romania 38,461. These numbers are undoubtedly obsolete by now, yet the vast scale of the exodus is apparent. It’s only going to become worse as time goes on. Despite the EU’s assurances, the potential for a once-in-a-century refugee crisis exists.
-The Ukrainian military intelligence believes Russia is preparing a pretext that will justify the introduction of Belarusian troops into the conflict. The role of the Belarussian military in this conflict is one of those points which pundits and journalists have been batting around since the shooting started. Belarus has a role to play in this war, one undoubtedly orchestrated by Vladimir Putin. When the time is right, the exact role will become known. According to intelligence estimates by the Ukrainians there are 300 Belarussian tanks and accompanying infantry massed at the Ukrainian border. Minsk has played the role of good cop to Moscow’s bad cop, even orchestrating the first round of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. That will change at some point, however.
-Parting thought for the evening. Tonight, US President Joe Biden will give his State of the Union address in Washington. He will tout his goal for the US and all of its allies to be on the same page regarding economic sanctions. The sanctions now impacting Russia have been fierce and there are additional salvoes being prepared for delivery. But what happens if economic sanctions alone cannot do the job? The US and its allies have put all their eggs in a single basket. If it is not enough, what will be the next step?
Concerns of a new refugee crisis are rising in Europe after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Six years after the 2015 migrant crisis that came dangerously close to splintering the EU, the continent is faced with the prospect of another one not far off. European leaders are keen to avoid a repeat of 2015, although the stars appear to be lining up in a similar fashion now. The Syrian Civil War was the impetus for the large influx of asylum-seeking refugees to Europe. With Taliban control of Afghanistan now complete and atrocities already beginning there, anxiety is growing on the continent. The message European governments want to convey to fleeing Afghans who have Europe in mind is: if you are determined to leave, go to neighboring countries, don’t attempt to come here. This applies to all Afghans except for those who helped Western military forces during the 20-year war.
Earlier this week, as Afghanistan descended into deeper chaos, European Union officials told interior ministers that the key to avoiding a new refugee crisis is to prevent a humanitarian disaster from occurring. Without a large amount of humanitarian aid, Afghans will start moving in large numbers. Meanwhile, Austria has suggested setting up deportation centers in the nations neighboring Afghanistan to speed up the deportation process for those who are denied asylum.
In Southern Europe, Greece has made it very clear it does not want to see a repeat of the 2015 crisis that saw a number of its islands in the Aegean Sea become the entry point to Europe for hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other Arab refugees. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has said Greece won’t accept being the “gateway for irregular flows into the EU,” and that the Greek government considers Turkey to be a safe place for Afghans. Ankara has differing thoughts on that, not surprisingly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned in a speech Thursday that “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
As European Union nations bicker and Brussels attempts to organize itself, Great Britain has declared it will welcome 5,000 Afghan refugees by the end of the year and has plans to resettle 20,000 more over the next three years.
Turkey finds itself in an unenviable position at the moment. The nation is in the midst of a currency crisis that appears set to worsen before it improves. On its southern border Turkey is facing a new influx of refugees as Syrian government forces prepare to retake Idlib. On the international front, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to get Russia, Syria, and Iran to agree to postpone the coming Idlib offensive. To complicate geopolitical matters even more, relations between Ankara and some of its closest allies such as the United States and Germany remain severely strained. This issue is bringing concerns about Turkey’s future role in NATO, and relationship with the European Union.
Right now, the situation in Idlib presents the biggest challenge for the Turkish government. A Syrian offensive in the near future will most likely bring a new wave of refugees to southern Turkey. There is widespread fear that more refugees will only serve to worsen the economic, and infrastructural problems in the area. Beyond this, there is the matter of what to do with the refugees as they arrive. The EU is no longer taking in refugees at the pace it was a few years ago. The welcome mat European powers extended to Syrian refugees in 2015 has become a political liability, and energized right-wing populists movements across the continent.
Those concerns played a large role in Erdogan’s trip to Tehran last week, and his request for a ceasefire. Russia, Iran, and Syria largely dismissed his concerns, though the fact that the Idlib offensive has yet to begin suggests Erdogan may have won a brief reprieve. The Turkish president is now warning European nations that the next wave of refugees will cause a new crisis for the Europe, as well as Turkey.
For the near future, Idlib will take the center stage. When the offensive begins there, Turkey could find its problems becoming worse at home and abroad, with Ankara able to do very little to influence the situation.
The European Commission has begun legal proceedings against three EU member-states who have not taken in refugees as per the 2015 plan to relocate migrants then located in Italy and Greece. The governments of Poland and Hungary have refused to take refugees in. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people, then informed the EU it would not accept any more. The EU plan was intended to relocate 120,000 refugees, but so far less than 20,000 have been moved. The plan was opposed bitterly by some EU members in 2015, yet ended up being pushed through. Not surprisingly, the strongest resistance came from central and eastern European member-states.
The actions announced by Brussels are infringement proceedings. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic will face large fines if they are found in fault, or cuts in EU funding. Whether or not the three nations pay the fines is another matter entirely. Poland especially has been outspoken in defense of its migration policies. Polish government officials have confirmed more than once that it will fight the legal proceedings. It does not appear that Poland is prepared to back down from the EU action. Hungary and the Czechs have also remained staunch in the face of threats and action by Brussels.
This matter has the potential to expand into a major issue as the year goes on. With Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron coming together and expanding their influence in all things EU, Eastern Europe’s defiance could be a challenge for them to confront. Although the nations of Eastern Europe are all EU members, most are aligned more closely Washington than they are to Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. The ‘Old Europe-New Europe’ argument that was sparked by comments by then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 has long simmered below the surface of US-EU relations. Merkel and Macron could decide to use Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic’s reluctance to accept refugees as justification to attempt and reassert the power and influence of Brussels and highlight Washington’s inability to influence matters that are strictly EU in nature.
This is certainly a situation to keep an eye in the future.