Red or Dead: the Russian Levers in Central Europe

It’s time that those living in Central Europe woke up to Russia’s new tactics for projecting its interests abroad – especially since the press is generally unwilling to connect the dots.
The Bear has adopted what has come to be called the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, moving away from visions of large-scale warfare to reflect a world of smaller-scale military and economic conflicts. In addition to using such obvious economic levers as gas and oil to influence the policies and behaviour of countries like the Czech Republic, we are now also seeing a return to – and the further development of – some classic Cold War-era techniques.
Foremost among these is the tactical support of non-governmental and non-profit organisations whose aims align with those of Moscow. The Czech BIS (secret service) warned in its 2007 annual report that Russian intelligence services attempted to influence politicians and the media to increase public opposition to a planned US radar base. More recently, NATO’s secretary general has issued a warning about Russian support for the anti-fracking movement across Europe.
Russia itself remains sensitive to Western support for NGO’s in Central/Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for similar reasons – after all, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland apparently claimedsome $5 Billion had been sent to help the Ukrainian opposition before the regime change. It should therefore be no surprise to see Moscow employing similar tactics around the region, albeit on a more limited scale.
The question is how much of this effort will go towards actual destabilisation rather than just influencing policy. A destabilised country is less able to confront geopolitical threats because its attention is occupied by internal disputes, and particularly for smaller countries, their limited governmental bandwidth may take some time to recover. From Jobbik in Hungary to the French National Front, Vladimir Putin has already won many admirers on the European right – it would be a relatively small step for Moscow to start supporting the far right in places like the Czech Republic, where demonstrations (and sometimes violence) from such groups are already well on the way to becoming commonplace. A resulting uptick in anti-Roma sentiment in the general population was noted by the BIS in 2013. A revitalised radical right, supported from the East, could only lead to a further deterioration in the social situation.
At the same time, new technologies can also be exploited to create instability. In Bulgaria this year, two major financial institutions were forced to seek government protection after text messages, e-mails and phone calls were used to trigger runs on the country’s third and fourth-largest banks. While there is no proof (beyond the coincidence of its following the dropping of support for the South Stream pipeline) that this project was sponsored by a foreign government, it highlights a weakness that might in future be exploited by a tech-savvy opponent with access to an effective local network.
In the realms of cyberspace, it is well known that the Kremlin has form in encouraging both state and nominally independent players to agitate for its interests – just this month it managed to penetrate Ukrainian government servers and Ukrainian embassies across Europe, according to the Financial Times. We’re clearly not just talking about distributed denial of service attacks any more, but rather deliberate penetration by specially prepared malware, intended either to embarass the target and/or pilfer sensitive information. In the post-Snowden world, it would be naive to expect the US to have a monopoly on such behaviour.
Back in the real world, corruption opens many doors. Where there is a willingness to accept ‘lobbying fees’ from special interest groups without enquiring too closely as to the source of the money, there will obviously be space for foreign governments to attempt to manipulate not only local but also national policy. This risk too has been highlighted by the Czech BIS, for example in its annual report from November last year.
Lastly, there is the question of ‘protecting Russian interests’, which has not only been used as cover for the very obvious interventions in Georgia and the Crimea, but which also provides a means for pressuring national governments in any country with a sizeable Russian minority. According to the last census, there were over 17,000 Russians and 53,000 Ukrainians (ethnicity unknown) living in the Czech Republic in 2011. The sizeable contingent of Russians in Karlovy Vary is a cliché, but there are also well established communities in places like Prague and Plzeň. These offer a very convenient excuse for meddling under the guise of ‘concern’ – especially since expatriate umbrella organisations are also suspected by the BIS of having being thoroughly infiltrated by Russian agents. It also remains to be seen how many of these long-term and permanent residents will attempt to gain dual Czech citizenship, and thus voting rights, now that this has become possible. Certainly, there were a lot of Russians and Belarussians present when I went to take my own language and civics exams for the same purpose.
In summary, then, Russian influence over the economy, public/international policy and social framework is not only growing, it is crucial to how Russia now sees international relations as being shaped. It is no longer enough to think of this in theoretical terms: it’s time to open our eyes and recognise what is already happening. Unless we do so, it might not be possible to stop it.

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