COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Russia poses no direct military threat to the European Union but its intervention in Ukraine is a type of ‘hybrid warfare’ the bloc should fight using coordinated energy policy and media to counter “massive propaganda”, Denmark’s foreign minister said on Monday.
Martin Lidegaard has traveled three times to Kiev over a year that has seen the toppling of a Moscow-leaning president and the outbreak of a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern region. The conflict has killed over 3,700 people.
The crisis has prompted the worst standoff between Moscow and Western powers since the Cold War and aroused concern in some countries that share a border or waters with Russia. Sweden spent much of last week hunting for a suspected submarine and scrambled jets to intercept a Russian plane.
“I cannot imagine that Russia would dare to disturb the Baltic countries or Poland or any NATO member,” Lidegaard told Reuters at his Foreign Ministry office when asked whether Denmark saw Russia as a threat.
“It’s also clear that there is a new kind of threat. I wouldn’t call it military, necessarily; it’s a hybrid war where you have massive propaganda, provocations, stimulation of groups inside other countries, which is not warfare but which is something very hostile and close to warfare,” he said.
Russia denies any involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and accuses the West of encouraging the Kiev government in a campaign of repression against the Russian-speaking east.
“Hybrid warfare” has only begun to be used by military analysts to describe a war in which propaganda and provocation play an equal role as guns.
The 28-member EU, which includes former Soviet constituent republics and ex-communist countries as well as nations with traditionally close ties to Moscow such as Germany and Italy, has gradually turned the screws on Russia through increased sanctions.
Lidegaard, a former energy minister who once cycled 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) through Moldova and Ukraine including Crimea, now annexed by Russia, said moving against Moscow under a single EU policy is “not an easy task” but cited a single energy market as one defensive front in Russia’s ‘hybrid war’.
“If we prioritized the energy issue and targeted that both in Europe and in Ukraine, it would be an enormous step forward and a very non-aggressive way to show Russia that the consequences of their politics are expensive,” he said.
Some European leaders have long accused Russia of using energy as a political tool and the prospect of another cut in Russian gas supplies to Europe is rising this winter as Moscow demands billions of dollars in bill payment from Ukraine.
Europe gets a third of its gas from Russia, half of that pumped through pipelines in Ukraine.
Soldiers from NATO member Denmark fought in Afghanistan and most recently sent seven F-16 striker jets to Iraq as part of a wider coalition against Islamic State militants.
Lidegaard said Denmark had no plans to increase its military force in Iraq nor expand it beyond, into Syria. IS militants, a radical offshoot from al Qaeda, hold large swathes of land in both countries.
Their ranks have been swelled over the summer by hundreds of radicalized Western Muslims, including over 100 from Denmark. Lidegaard said 15 Danes are known to have been killed in the conflict.
He described some Danish fighters as young as 16 “not really knowing what they are heading into and regretting it very quickly”.
“It is my clear impression that we have a good cooperation with Turkey on this matter,” he said.
Danish-Turkish relations have been strained in recent weeks over a high-profile case in which a Danish national wanted for the attempted murder of a prominent critic of Islam was released by Turkish authorities during an extradition process.
Media and some politicians have speculated the man, Basil Hassan, had been handed to IS militants as part of a hostage swap for 46 Turkish captives.
“We have no evidence for that but we haven’t got evidence for the opposite either,” Lidegaard said.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; editing by Ralph Boulton