In 2006, President Putin compared America’s apparent insatiable hunger for expanding its influence in the world to “comrade wolf”, an allusion to America dominating smaller nations in an apparently friendly way. Now however, as former Warsaw-Pact states face an incredible assault on their fundamental rights to a free media and fair elections, all under the guise of defending ethnic Russians, it is Putin who is accused as acting as the wolf in sheep’s clothing. While the West worries about its ability to defend its own democratic institutions from Russian interference, Eastern European countries are facing the real and present danger that Russian meddling could entirely destabilise their often fragile political order.
Vladimir Putin’s defining foreign policy objective can be described simply as restoring Russian prestige abroad, and for him this means consolidating the country’s influence in its former territories in Eastern Europe and the caucuses. In 2007, the Kremlin made early use of its foreign subversion infrastructure in a coordinated attack on Estonia. The cyber attack took down critical pieces of government infrastructure, including banking and media services, and was intended to spread misinformation and drive a policy change towards the relocation of a Soviet memorial.
However, a large, singular attack was not deemed effective, and the Kremlin honed its subversion infrastructure over the last decade, coming up against tests in Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia’s success in persuading key policymakers around the world of their victimhood was a sharp wake up call to Russia that they would need sustained subversion in order to establish influence and control over its neighbours, and there was subsequently a surge in funding for the programme and the number of people involved.
Actions in Europe
Leaked documents from Russia’s security services allege that the Kremlin has - since at least 2008 - had a strategic goal of undermining former Warsaw-Pact nations through media manipulation and political interference, with a focus on the nations of former Yugoslavia.
In Macedonia and Montenegro, two nations seeking to join NATO (the latter of whom was admitted last week), Russia’s presence has been particularly pronounced, as it attempts to keep the two countries neutral. While the post-Cold War consensus allowed the establishment of functional political systems in these countries, less attention was paid to the structure of the media, a loophole Russia has been able to exploit.
In Macedonia, following the collapse of the Russian-backed Government, a centre-left coalition with two Albanian parties has been sworn in, and Russia is beginning to step up its interference in the country. Following the investment in cultural ‘friendship’ centres in the country, leaked papers show Russian spies in the Embassy bribing media officials, and attacking the new Government for allegedly wanting to create a ‘Greater Albania’. This has stoked deep ethnic tensions in Macedonia, which boiled over in April 2017 when the then opposition leader, now Prime Minister, was beaten up by a mob of nationalists in the Parliament. Russia has also used its influence to peddle stories of EU and US meddling in the election of the new Government, helping to delegitimise an already unstable coalition.
Scandinavia has seen extensive media subversion too, with the Russian press in Finland perpetuating entirely fictitious stories of ethnic-Russian mothers having their children seized by Finnish authorities. As Sweden mulled joining NATO, Russia spread stories online in the country about the potential negative ramifications of such an action, an indirect way of lobbying the government, by stoking public fear.
All of these tactics have been used to their full destructive force in Ukraine, where a joint military and subversion strategy has successfully destabilised the entire country. State-run news in Russia invented a story about Ukrainian people crucifying a young child, helping commit the wavering Russian public to the state’s actions in Ukraine. Russian TV channels were in overdrive in the country spreading absurd fake stories of NATO mobilising in the country, the barbarism of ethnic Ukrainians, all to legitimise Russian intervention and undermine the Ukrainian Government.
The European response
Eastern European countries are faced with an enormous task in attempting to respond to and defend themselves from Russian subversion of their media and politics. However, they have already made some early attempts.
Following Putin’s crippling attack on Estonia, the country introduced a national education programme to counter Russian subversion, and in partnership with NATO allies, they are distributing their national strategy to similarly affected countries. These nations stress the importance of a unified, national message to counter Russian propaganda – however this comes at the cost of a free, impartial and critical press to hold government to account.
The European level response has thus far been quite weak. While the EU has launched Russian-language media channel East Stratcom to counter propaganda, it is already coming under pressure from a lack of funding and a lack of cohesive messaging from all European nations, who disagree about the exact measures and strategy that should be used.
With Emmanuel Macron’s ascendancy to the French Presidency, and the hard line he has taken on Russia, it is hoped that further actions will be taken to counter Russian media and political subversion in Eastern Europe. In the aftermath of Russia expanding its subversion apparatus to Western countries in the last couple of years, it is imperative that all European countries realise the implications of allowing such subversion to continue: an empowered Russia, at the cost of stability, prosperity, and human rights in Eastern Europe.
Neil Reilly is a research assistant a Bright Blue