BRUSSELS -- Russia's formal diplomatic contacts with European powers may be in the deep freeze, but an opportunistic Kremlin has found ways to turn up the heat by exploiting a series of regional crises.
Beset at home by a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, President Vladimir Putin has stepped up foreign manoeuvres, seizing tactical victories where he can and forcing his European counterparts to acknowledge his influence.
"Russia's policy is certainly founded on the opportunities that present themselves," a senior European diplomat and Russia specialist told AFP.
"But in so far as it concerns its near neighbourhood, particularly the former Soviet republics, there's a real will to take the situation in hand and progressively regain control."
When France feuds with its former colonies in Africa, Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries are there to offer Paris's prickly partners an alternative Russian source of military support.
And when Russia wants to exert pressure against NATO in what it sees as its own backyard, it flexes its military muscles on the borders of pro-Western Ukraine, which is still fighting a Kremlin-backed revolt.
Even in outer space, traditionally a domain where Russia has been proud to co-operate with international partners, last week's Russian anti-satellite missile test provoked howls of protest.
A toxic partner
Kremlin watchers see no grand conspiracy behind the provocations but say the Russian leader is using what levers he has at his disposal to probe the weak links and contradictions in Europe's strategy.
Russia's isolation has left Putin with little choice but to follow the logic of confrontation, Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told AFP.
"The Kremlin is seen as a toxic partner," he explained. "So it is left with no other choice than to scare the West to force it to negotiate."
"For that it creates negotiating topics -- the Ukrainian crisis, the refugee crisis on the EU border, [natural] gas prices," he said.
Ukraine's army has been locked in a simmering conflict with pro-Russian separatists in two breakaway regions bordering Russia since 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Kyiv and its Western allies accuse Russia of sending troops and arms across the border to support the separatists -- claims Moscow denies.
But Russia was outraged when Ukrainian opposition protests ousted the pro-Kremlin president in 2014, seeing a Western plot to expand European Union (EU) and NATO influence into the former Soviet sphere.
So last year when Brussels denounced a crackdown on opposition protests in Belarus and refused to recognise Lukashenka's disputed re-election, Putin stood by his autocratic ally.
When Lukashenka retaliated against Brussels by funnelling Middle Eastern refugees to the frontier, provoking a stand-off with EU member Poland, Putin backed him.
"Why would Russia stop Lukashenka?" demanded an exasperated Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. "Lukashenka found his way to escape the crisis of his relations with Europe.
"From Russia's point of view, its ally is fighting for survival."
That irritation shone through last Thursday (November 18), when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov demanded Europe stop "considering Russia the culprit behind all problems".
Western countries last week raised alarm over Russian military activity near Ukraine, and Washington said it has "real concerns" over what it called "unusual" activity.
"We don't know what President Putin's intentions are. But we do know what's happened in the past," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday.
"We know the playbook of trying to cite some illusory provocation from Ukraine or any other country and using that as an excuse for what Russia plans to do all along."
Peskov Sunday slammed the United States for driving "hysteria" over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Now, outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel has had to call Lukashenka to calm the situation and the European Commission (EC) has entered "technical talks" with a regime it does not recognise on repatriating the migrants. The EC is the EU's executive body.
At a meeting of European foreign ministers on November 15, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, "I don't believe Lukashenka is doing what he is doing without strong support from Russia," according to Euronews.com.
The ministers were working on a document, soon to be unveiled, that will guide a more united EU foreign policy through the years to come.
The first draft, seen by AFP, foresees Russian interference in EU interests and against the stability of the Balkans, eastern Europe, Libya, Syria and the eastern Mediterranean.
The degraded relationship with Russia "is particularly severe in many of these theatres", a text discussed by the ministers says.
"It interferes actively through hybrid tactics, compromising the stability of countries and their democratic processes. This also has direct implications for our own security."
The EU foreign ministers are drawing up more sanctions on the Wagner Group, Borrell said.
"There is consensus to move forward in order to take restrictive measures against this group," he said.
The sanction proposals will be drafted by EU analysts and discussed further when foreign ministers meet again in December, he said.