Why Putin wants escalation with the West

The Ukrainian position is that since Nord Stream 2 is not compliant with EU rules, it should not be certified, the CEO of Ukraine’s gas and oil state company Naftogaz Yuriy Vitrenko told a conference in Brussels on Wednesday (1 December) organised by EURACTIV Bulgaria. [EPA-EFE/PAVEL BEDNYAKOV / KREMLIN POOL / SPUTNIK]

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals in the escalating conflict with Ukraine is to force Europe and the US to open the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the former head of the Bulgarian State Intelligence Agency Dimo Gyaurov commented in an interview with Nova TV. Meanwhile, EURACTIV’s partner Europe Elects estimates that opinion polling is another reason.

“Even in a limited conflict, the first thing Russia will do is turn off the tap of the gas pipeline through Ukraine. This will try to force Europe and the USA to open Nord Stream 2. This is one of the indirect goals of President Putin’s actions,” Gyaurov said.

According to him, Putin pursues several goals and “will probably reduce his understanding of success to one of them.”

The Ukrainian position is that since Nord Stream 2 is not compliant with EU rules, it should not be certified, the CEO of Ukraine’s gas and oil state company Naftogaz, Yuriy Vitrenko, told a conference in Brussels on Wednesday (1 December) organised by EURACTIV Bulgaria.

The certification of the controversial pipeline project is not expected before the end of the first half of 2022.

For the EU, the fate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is linked to any potential conflict with Russia over Ukraine, with Brussels having hinted that it may be willing to side with the US on the way forward.

Germany is ready to discuss halting the pipeline should Russia attack Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last week, responding to increasing domestic and international pressure to kill the project.

Gyaurov reminded that Europe is dependent on Russia and Russian gas supplies. He also commented on Russia’s calls last week for NATO to withdraw from Bulgaria and Romania.

“I accept the words about the withdrawal of NATO units from Bulgaria and Romania as a provocation. Because there are no NATO units in Bulgaria, if it was up to him, he would expel the Russian ambassador.”

“This is a direct provocation not only to Bulgaria and Romania but to the whole of Europe, to NATO countries. We have not witnessed such insolence for a long time,” Gyaurov said.

According to Gyaurov, Bulgaria does not need to respond to Russia’s statements by inviting NATO forces to its territory.

“We are a member state. (…) We have signed an agreement that, if necessary, without our invitation, if NATO’s forces are needed here, they can be redeployed,” he said.

Ukraine's Deputy PM: Unlikely Russian troops will 'simply' withdraw from our borders

Russia’s military pressure at Ukraine’s borders, targeted to destabilise the country and undermine its economy, is an illustration of the ‘new normal’ Vladimir Putin is trying to impose on world affairs, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told EURACTIV.

Putin’s polling

For Europe Elects, while it is likely that many factors determine the actions of the Russian President, it is not unlikely that opinion polling is part of it.

Europe Elects notes that Russia is an authoritarian regime where elections are fraudulent, unfree, and unfair. The overall political environment also influences polling. For example, when voters see opposition figures being shot or poisoned, they may think twice if they share their genuine political opinion with a polling company, either via phone or online.

Moreover, some polling firms are closely aligned with or under the control of the Putin administration. A notable exception is the Levada Centre, which the Russian government labelled a foreign agent under the Foreign Agent Law in 2017. However, given the repressive political environment, the critical takeaway is that public opinion polling in Russia may not always present reality.

However, the Levada Centre may offer some interesting insights. Putin came to power on 9 August 1999. Just days after, the Second Chechen War intensified. By January 2000, Putin’s approval rating had risen from 33% to 84%, as per the recordings by Levada. Russia eventually won the war.

A high oil price contributed to Russia’s economic stability after the disastrous socioeconomic effects of the uncontrolled liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s. Putin’s approval rating remained stable between 65 and 88% until 2008. It peaked in September of that year – notably just one month after the Russo-Georgian War.

From then, Putin’s approval ratings continuously declined until they hit a new low in November 2013 with then 61%. Four months later, Crimea was under Russian control, and Putin’s approval ratings had jumped above the 80% again.

In May 2020, Putin’s approval ratings slipped to the lowest since 1999 (59%). Before the escalation, they remained in the lower sixties.

The trend is clear: when Russia goes to war, Putin’s approval ratings climb. If Putin keeps power, this means stability for the caste around him and the system that profits from the current situation. There may be the consideration in the Russian elite that (threatening to) go to war is an effective tool to distract from problems inside the country.

The mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic and 6% inflation in 2021 gives the Russian elite reason to worry about public unrest. Furthermore, as the threat of revolt against authoritarian mismanagement has been demonstrated in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine during the Maidan Revolution, this is another reason for Moscow to worry.

(Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg, Europe Elects)

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