"Russia's new policy, Putin's next target will be in Europe"

First he came to Georgia, then Ukraine, and the next target of Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely not be an ex Soviet state, says Mikheil Saakashvili.

Source: Tanjug
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(Tanjug/AP, file)
(Tanjug/AP, file)

The former Georgian president thinks it could instead be a non-NATO European country, like Sweden or Finland.

As Saakashvili writes in his opinion piece published in Foreign Policy, recently "reports emerged that a new Kremlin policy will require all international naval ships to give Russia 45 days' notice before entering the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic waters north of Siberia."

Every vessel on the route, where Russia has invested heavily in sophisticated military infrastructure, will also be required to have a Russian maritime pilot on board, he continues.

"Ships found in violation of these restrictions may be forcibly halted, detained, or—in unspecified 'extreme' circumstances - 'eliminated'," he stated.

"Kremlin's latest threat has gone largely unnoticed, perhaps because it’s no surprise. Russian officials justify the new naval restrictions with a familiar explanation, claiming that 'the more active naval operations in the Arctic of various foreign countries' require such a response," wrote Saakashvili.

He added that this is the same tactic that Putin has been using for years in order to "justify his military adventurism."

"From Georgia in 2008, to Ukraine in 2014, to Syria in 2015, Putin has always laid the blame for Russian aggression squarely at the West's feet," he said, while "Kremlin-backed media outlets amplify this message as evidence of Russophobia."

Many wonder what Putin gains from pushing this narrative. In violating international norms, he has become a global pariah. US and European sanctions have dealt serious blows to Russia's already dismal economy—raising the question of why would Putin pay such a staggering price to carve out a few more pieces of territory," Saakashvili wrote.

He then argued those who attempt to answer this question miss the point:

"Crimea, eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, or anywhere else Putin considers Russia’s backyard, territorial gain has never been an end in itself. Putin’s goal today is the same as when he invaded my country in 2008: to tighten his grip on the levers of power in Russia."

"Putin is both predictable and logical," contained the former Georgian leader. "Invading a weaker neighbor delivers a cheaper and faster ratings boost than, say, improving Russia’s dystopian health care system. It's no coincidence that Putin’s approval rating peaked in 2015, after the annexation of Crimea. Later that year, as the Russian economy foundered, the intervention in Syria served to shore up patriotism."

"To be sure, these steps earned Putin harsh criticism from Washington and Brussels. But condemnation from outside Russia only boosts his popularity within," Saakashvili said, adding that "the standard US and European response - a diplomatic expression of deep concern' - sounds more like a tired cliche."

"But the status quo cannot hold. If we have learned anything from the past two decades, a new crisis is on the horizon. According to a March 7 poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Russian voters' trust in Putin has fallen to 32 percent—the lowest level since 2006," the article continues.

Saakashvili claims that it is not even a question whether Putin will attack, but only where.

True, Saakashvili doesn't expect Russian tanks to role into Helsinki or Stockholm "unopposed."

"But it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island, like Sweden’s Gotland, considering the strategic capabilities Russia has built on its northern flank. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra? NATO wouldn't, but Putin would—because the stakes are higher for him," wrote Saakashvili.

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