Cold and famine: the Kremlin’s strategy for the near future

For almost five months now, the Kremlin has been trying to defeat Ukraine militarily, but thanks to two important factors – the effective actions of the Ukrainian defense forces and the support of Ukraine from Western partners – he has so far failed to succeed. In addition, a third factor is constantly pressing on him – the sanctions imposed on Russia. Consequently, being unable to influence the first factor, he actively tries to neutralize the other two. He does this by provoking large-scale gas and food crises, which, according to his plan, should become such problems for Ukraine’s Western partners, because of which they will forget about her and which will force them to lift the sanctions stranglehold on Russia.

Failed Efforts

For almost the fifth month now, Russia has been unsuccessfully trying to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield. Ukraine unexpectedly turned out to be a tough nut to crack for her. It cannot be cracked by brute military force alone. Moreover, with the supply of Western weapons, which apart from being used quite effectively, this nut is gradually becoming not only stronger, but also delivering painful retaliatory blows. The regular destruction by Western long-range artillery of Russian ammunition depots, command posts, and air defense systems observed over the past month is a vivid confirmation of this. And this drives Kremlin crazy. In response, he launches rocket attacks on Ukrainian cities, resulting in widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and numerous civilian casualties. Despite this, instead of sowing panic among the Ukrainian population, and suppressing its will to resist, Russia continues to receive stiff resistance at the front. In addition, Western sanctions hang like a sword of Damocles over the Russian economy and, despite all the bravado of the Kremlin and its propaganda, do not bode well for Russia.

Understanding that one of the keys to Ukraine’s successful resistance is, of course, the military and financial assistance of the West, one of the main tasks for the Kremlin today – along with the continuation of the offensive at the front and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities – is to deprive Ukraine of this assistance. Another important task is lifting or at least weakening Western sanctions pressure. He has one recipe for this, and this is what he is very good at – creating problems for the West. Now there are two main directions in which the Kremlin will work to solve these two problems for itself.

The gas front

The first is the creation of a gas crisis in Europe. Gas blackmail is the main and favorite instrument of the Kremlin’s influence on Europe. According to his plan, the gas crisis should split the EU and direct its attention and resources exclusively to solving the internal problems it created while helping Ukraine should fade into the background.

To do this, the Kremlin wants to drag out the war in Ukraine until winter and open a “second front” in Europe, that is, to unleash gas terror against it. It can be assumed that during this period the Kremlin will be especially aggressive both on the military front in Ukraine and on the gas front in Europe. In all likelihood, Putin understands that this winter is his last chance, because further neither his gas nor oil blackmail will work. Therefore, he will be forced to stake his all. 

How successfully Europe will be able to get through this winter depends on many factors: from the number of reserves in gas storage facilities to air temperature. The Kremlin, on the other hand, aims to neutralize all positive factors. And it is possible that it will succeed, because over the past two decades, the EU, with the participation of Russian lobbyists, has adjusted its economy to a gas infrastructure in which supplies from Russia play a key role. Understanding this, the Kremlin will put maximum pressure on Europe to achieve its energy collapse, and as a result, a pan-European crisis. Under such conditions, he hopes that facing the threat of being frozen, Europe will force Ukraine to sign a capitulation, and he will somehow be able to get out of this problem later.

Sanctions in exchange for bread

The second important direction for the Kremlin, the work which should influence Western support for Ukraine and at the same time ease the sanctions pressure on Russia, is the creation of a global food crisis. At first, this argument was carefully concealed by the Kremlin: in words, it expressed deep concern, declared its readiness to ensure the continuity of the transportation of grain cargo, and so on. Now, these external displays of decency are rejected. One of the mouthpieces of Russian propaganda, Margarita Simonyan, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum said that the West will eventually be forced to lift the sanctions imposed on Russia amid the threat of global famine. According to her, she heard several times from people in Moscow: “All our hope is for hunger.” “This means that now the famine will begin, and they will lift the sanctions and will be friends with us because they will understand that it is impossible not to be friends with us,” she said.

To implement this strategy, Russia is now purposefully destroying Ukrainian agricultural infrastructure and stealing Ukrainian grain and agricultural equipment. Its war against Ukraine has significantly influenced the global food supply chains. Products that Ukraine, due to hostilities and blockade of its ports, cannot supply to the world market, cause a chain reaction: developed countries increase stocks, and many countries restrict trade amid uncertainty. As a result, this leads to even higher prices and the risk of famine in poorer countries.

To solve the problem created by Russia, Ukraine has already established new logistics routes for the supply of grain to the world market by cargo, rail, and river transport. However, without unblocking Ukrainian Black Sea ports it will take years to export current grain stocks in addition to new crops using the above routes.

Is there a way out?

In general, the current goals of the Kremlin are obvious: to provoke famine and cold and achieve the desired results for itself in the form of Ukraine which is deprived of Western support and weakened or lifted sanctions stranglehold on Russia. Is there anything to counter this?

If Europe acts together, it will be able to resist the Kremlin’s gas blackmail. Yes, it will be difficult, but it’s worth it because by standing up, the Europeans will be able to forever deprive the Kremlin of its gas lever of pressure on them. In addition, a concerted energy security mechanism could be created in Europe to help accelerate the transition to cleaner energy.

As for global food security, the unblocking of Ukrainian ports is one of the key components of its provision. Ukraine is making significant efforts to resume food supplies to the world market. In particular, together with its partners, it is working on the creation of a humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea under the auspices of the UN, which would take over the operation of sea routes for the export of Ukrainian agricultural goods. At the same time, Russia’s plans to use this corridor to attack Odesa and southern Ukraine should not be ruled out. Therefore, effective safety guarantees are required to restore navigation. Such guarantees should be provided by supplying Ukraine with appropriate weapons to protect the coastline from threats from the sea. The strong position of the Ukrainian Defense Forces in the Black Sea region will ensure national and regional security, restore safe navigation and ensure the food supplies to world markets.

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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July 2022
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