It would be “crazy” for Russia to invade Ukraine – but that scenario is “not impossible,” said Sweden’s former Prime Minister Carl Bildt.
“A major invasion may not be the most likely, but it is not impossible” given that Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously used military force against Ukraine, said Bildt, who is now co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It would be insane,” he told CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Thursday, pointing out that there will be media broadcasts of explosions and images of refugees fleeing in the event of an invasion.
The impact on Russia’s economy and society would be very significant, and people would likely mobilize resources to help Ukraine, he predicted.
“We would enter a truly unknown territory in terms of war and peace in Europe and security,” Bildt said.
Ukrainian soldiers from the 25th Air Attack Battalion are seen stationed in Avdiivka, Ukraine on January 24, 2022.
Wolfgang Schwan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
“One could hope that the reality of what could happen is beginning to sink into the decision-making circles, small as they are, in the Kremlin,” he added.
There are growing fears of war between Russia and Ukraine as Moscow has strengthened its military presence at the border between the two countries in recent months. Talks with the United States and other Western powers have not made much progress, and Washington has called for a diplomatic way forward.
The Kremlin has denied that it plans to invade Ukraine, in a repeat of its illegal annexation and occupation of Crimea in 2014.
The stalemate has put Russian assets under pressure. As of Thursday, the MOEX Russia index had fallen more than 11% since the beginning of the year.
Europe’s gas supplies at risk?
Nord Stream 2 – a controversial pipeline that can transport 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe each year – has often been erected as a possible lever for Russia.
But the former Swedish prime minister is not hopeful.
He told CNBC that he does not believe the project can be used in negotiations because it is likely to be operational only in the later part of 2022.
“I do not think it is usable as a bargaining chip,” he said, adding that he is more concerned about Nord Stream 1, which has the same transport capacity.
If Nord Stream 1 is cut, Germany will be in a critical situation, he said.
Europe is dependent on Russia for about 43% of its gas imports, according to Eurostat.
Bildt said there are two scenarios where Europe’s gas supplies will be threatened.
The first is if there are fighting and an invasion in Ukraine. “It would be quite difficult to see that – while the tanks are rolling and firing on the ground – the pipes will supply gas only meters below them,” he said.
The gas flow could also be cut if Russia wants to retaliate against heavy Western sanctions. “The only powerful, really dangerous thing they can do is cut back on gas supply,” he said.
It would have a detrimental effect on Europe, and discussions are still ongoing on how to deal with this possibility, he added.
The Biden administration said this week that it is exploring ways to secure energy for allies in Europe if Russia reduces its oil and gas exports.
However, a senior administration official pointed out that the Russian economy needs revenue “at least as much as Europe needs its energy supply.”
“This is not an asymmetric advantage for Putin. It is a mutual dependence,” the official said.
– CNBC’s Amanda Macias and Silvia Amaro contributed to this report.