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Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine threatens the existing system of international relations and creates the preconditions for regional conflicts in Europe. In Ukraine, Putin has tested and created a new tool for blurring borders and separating the territories of neighboring countries by creating so-called “gray zones” or “gray enclaves”, the classic examples of which are the “DNR” and “LNR”(“Donetsk and Luhansk People Republics”).
In 2014, the Russian Federation used the tactics of “biting off small pieces” from Ukraine, de facto occupying a significant part of the Ukrainian Donbas. Russia has applied similar schemes in other countries. For example, immediately after the collapse of the USSR, armed conflicts began in Moldova and Georgia: in 1992 in Transnistria and Abkhazia, and this was largely due to the indirect influence of Russia, which in every possible way supported the separatist movements in the post-Soviet space, spreading its influence through them.
But in Ukraine, Russia is testing and scaling up a technology that is extremely dangerous for Europe to form “gray zones” of instability, which, like cancerous metastases, tend to expand and appear in other countries, even those not adjacent to Russia. This tactic is part of the toolkit of the so-called hybrid aggression – a complex, predominantly non-military confrontation with an asymmetrically stronger or numerically stronger enemy, a direct military clash with which is undesirable.
Putin sees the West as such an adversary, which he considers a civilizational enemy. At the moment, for the first time since 1991, Russia poses a direct threat to Europe by creating “gray zones” in Ukraine, where the issue of the continued existence of Western civilization is being decided.
By invading Ukraine on February 24, Putin opened a geopolitical Pandora’s Box, setting off a chain of irreversible processes within the system of international relations. An attempt to occupy a sovereign state is a denial of the principles of the inviolability of borders that were formed after the Second World War, which means the leveling of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, which made it possible to effectively eliminate the prerequisites for the emergence of interstate conflicts in post-war Europe. Putin has disrupted the stability of the existing system of international relations and created global geopolitical turbulence.
The analysis of the mechanism of hybrid aggression, tested by Putin in Ukraine, makes it possible to understand what an unprecedented threat Europe is facing. At the initial level, this hybrid strategy is based on separatist sentiments, which are especially strong in the Balkans, if we talk about the European continent. To reinforce such tendencies, the Kremlin uses its agents of influence and funding so that the proxies sponsored by it not only declare themselves as potentially independent players but also weaken and destabilize the country as much as possible, posing a threat to its integrity and sovereignty.
The tactics of such aggression are quite flexible: if in the case of the Ukrainian Donbas, Russia tried to consolidate its political, economic, and military presence as much as possible, then, for example, in the case of Serbia, which is currently destabilizing the Balkans, unquestioning implementation of the Kremlin’s political instructions is sufficient.
Russian influence can be indirect: it is not necessary to use military force, as happened in 2014 in the Donbas. In the case of Europe, it is enough to have agents of influence who will undermine the socio-political situation within a country or region. The Kremlin’s goal is to destabilize and deplete the object of the hybrid attack, demoralize the population, and create unbearable conditions for life with parallel rampant crime, corruption, etc. As a rule, Russia does not need such “gray zones” as territorial acquisitions. They serve as an instrument of influence. It is precisely the game of separatism that can turn into the presence of Russia anywhere on the continent, and at the moment, seeing that the military arsenal of the Russian Federation is incomparable with NATO, Putin begins to actively apply the tactics of creating “gray zones” in Europe, starting with Ukraine.
Hybrid aggression is carried out mainly by non-military methods, but it cannot exist without a strong army. Therefore, Ukraine is a bulwark of defense of the eastern borders of Europe. And the outcome of this confrontation depends on the full support of Kyiv, the Ukrainian army, which defends not only its country but the whole of Europe from Russian aggression. Ukraine needs Western weapons capable of exhausting and weakening the Russian army that threatens Europe.
Mykola Volkivskyi is an international public figure, fellow of the Lane Kirkland Scholarship, Founder of the Foundation for the Development of Ukraine in Poland, and the IGR in Kyiv.