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The Belarus crisis

Is Putin really to blame?

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Vladimir Putin is unleashing a “hybrid war” on Europe, says Nataliya Vasilyeva in The Daily Telegraph. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, calls it Russia’s “strategy to shatter Europe” on multiple fronts: migrants massing on the EU border, disinformation and using gas supplies to bully Europe’s leaders. “These are not separate events.” Throw in the military build-up on Ukraine’s border – 90,000 troops and 1,200 tanks and missile launchers at the last count – and Russia’s decision to blow up a satellite this week, and you start to see the pattern. Now Putin’s allies in Belarus are threatening to “flood” Europe with migrants, giving Moscow a chance to berate Brussels for its “heartlessness to destitute men, women and children” sleeping rough on the EU’s doorstep.

Putin might enjoy watching the West squirm, but he’s not in any rush to attack, says Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg. Not least because it would scupper his top priority: the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which awaits final approval in Germany. The new network of gas pipes he has built – to Turkey, China and Germany – is meant to seal his alliances and keep open “a German window on Europe”. It’s also a key element of his long-term “Slavic unification” project. Ukraine and Belarus control the flow of gas between Russia and Europe. Once Nord Stream 2 is up and running – bypassing both countries – any leverage local politicians have to resist Putin will be gone. But the Kremlin is biding its time. As his former deputy Dmitry Medvedev wrote last week: “Russia knows how to wait.”

Despite all the fears about “Russian imperialism”, there’s much to suggest that the fuss on Europe’s border is really an “inconvenient embarrassment” to Putin, says Owen Matthews in The Spectator. He regularly rails against the dangers of immigration from the Islamic world. Encouraging thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Kurds to come to Belarus runs contrary to that vision. These migrants have “no chance of getting into Europe”, so what’s to stop them turning east into Russia? And Putin can’t stand Alexander Lukashenko, an “ornery and often recalcitrant” ally who is perfectly capable of embarrassing the Kremlin. Putin has in the past been guilty of “illegal, subversive and outright criminal” acts. But on the Belarus border crisis, even he deserves the benefit of the doubt.