Don’t try to guess Putin’s next move. Listen
Last week, Dmitry Medvedev, once a liberal hopeful for Russia who has become one of the most hawkish voices against Ukraine, wrote a lengthy message on his Telegram channel in which he urged European citizens to protest against the “stupid” actions of their governments (i.e., sanctions) and punishing them for it (i.e., dismissing them). He suggested that Europeans want closer ties with Russia but are being led astray by stupid politics, while Russia wants cooperation with the peoples of Europe. “Don’t be silent…Russia can hear it,” he wrote. Medvedev concluded by suggesting that it is hot in Russia – a cheap blow to Europe as it enters a winter of energy shortages caused precisely by the lack of Russian supplies.
The message went viral in Italy, even landing on the front pages of La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, the two flagship national newspapers. Both publications accused Medvedev of interfering in the election campaign which is underway ahead of next month’s vote. The Italian left has gone further, suggesting that Russia wants to stoke social tensions. The right, currently leading in polls and often accused of being lenient with the Kremlin, said the elections would be decided by Italians, not Russians. However, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, has linked the sanctions to the cost of living crisis, suggesting a diplomatic solution is needed to protect Italian households and moving away from the position warmongering of Mario Draghi against Russia.
It’s no secret that Russia wants to force an about-face on sanctions by weaponizing energy. The Kremlin thinks the Europeans will eventually throw in the towel, and it is implementing a two-pronged strategy to achieve this. On the one hand, it maintains uncertainty about the gas supply. Russia doesn’t have to shut off flows completely to cause damage – the mere thought of a winter without Russian gas is enough to wreak havoc. Many indicators suggest that Putin is winning in the energy markets. Meanwhile, the other hand is busy stirring up social unrest. That’s what Medvedev’s diatribe was about. President Vladimir Putin has also spoken of the West’s “economic suicide”, and Russian robots have amplified the message through misinformation on social media.
Europe does not pay enough attention to Russian wartime messages. Russian-affiliated accounts are flooding the web with the Kremlin narrative on everything from the reopening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to sanctions. Since the start of the war, Russian diplomats and state media have tweeted far more about Europe’s reliance on Russian gas than their belief that Ukraine sympathizes with the Nazis (the pretense original of the invasion of Russia), according to a study by the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund which tracks Russian disinformation.
The aim, argues Joseph Bodnar, who conducted the research, is to undermine European sanctions and chill public support for Ukraine by portraying it as a drag on living standards. Replicating the Yellow Vest protests in France but across Europe would be “the dream scenario for the Kremlin”, he said.
The European Union took action in February to stifle Russian disinformation by shutting down outlets such as RT – the former Russia Today – and Sputnik. But officials admit that it is difficult to counter all propaganda efforts on the web.
Social unrest is a real possibility this winter – one that European governments should prepare for instead of covering themselves in sugar.
The figures speak for themselves: Germany estimates that average household bills could rise by 500 to 1,000 euros this winter, which could be prudent. Germany’s Federal Network Agency has already warned consumers to put money aside to meet additional charges. For low-income families, this would force an impossible choice between buying food or fuel. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz played down the risks, hinting that Germany has deep pockets to cushion any blows.
But while that may be true for the euro zone’s largest economy, the fiscal picture varies widely across the rest of Europe.
For example, the French chose to cap prices and channel losses through Électricité de France SA, the utility company set to fully nationalize. The International Monetary Fund has warned against such large-scale measures, calling instead for targeted relief for low-income households. But there is an important political calculus here: Macron wants to avoid the 2018 uproar sparked by a diesel tax, and he wants to neutralize Marine Le Pen as a working-class candidate. In this sense, it buys social peace.
The IMF predicts that the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary will face recession if Russia cuts gas supplies. Countries like Bulgaria, one of the first to be shut down by Gazprom in April after refusing to pay in roubles, say it will have to resume talks with Russia. The fear is that Russian gas will come with political clout – and that would undo much of the work the EU has done since the start of the war.
As previous crises have shown, a multi-speed Europe is a union that does not work. The EU is at its best when it acts together and coordinates its action. As the European Central Bank focuses on fighting inflation, European leaders need to think about political stabilizers. The bloc needs a discussion on short-term burden sharing to reduce the pain on household bills and long-term financing to gain energy independence. The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency for the rest of the year, has already said it will put this issue on the table. Everyone should waste no more time. Winter is about to hit like a cold shower.
If Europe fails to provide a comprehensive solution to its citizens facing financial difficulties, the impact on the social fabric of the continent will be enormous. And that will directly feed Russian propagandists. Last week, Emmanuel Macron, while paying tribute to the liberation of Bormes-les-Mimosas from Nazi occupation, suggested that freedom has a price – and it is a price worth paying. But it must be fair too.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Russian dissidents are not in France for the food: Lionel Laurent
• Putin offers Russia a Potemkin future: Clara Ferreira Marques
• Putin would not hesitate to start Chernobyl 2.0 in Ukraine: Andreas Kluth
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Maria Tadeo is Bloomberg Television’s European correspondent based in Brussels where she covers European politics, economics and NATO.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion