The New Europe Center decided to fill this gap by analyzing the vulnerabilities of the Russian hybrid war against the European Union. Examples of failures of Russia’s undermining activities are quite visible by now—indeed, they are so many that it is already possible to raise the entire question of the effectiveness of Russia’s interference.
The purpose of the Russian policy is threefold:
- To undermine European unity. Russia supports anti-European political parties such as Liga in Italy, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the National Front, and Unsubmissive France in France, and Golden Dawn in Greece. Russia stirs conflicts among neighbors such as Hungary and Poland with Ukraine.
- To destabilize the EU and NATO. Russia is making democracies in the EU and NATO focus on their own internal problems.
- To be legitimized and assertive in the international arena. Whether through maintaining high-level contacts or by supporting authoritarian tendencies within European countries, Russia aims to prevent itself from being isolated in important international decision-making formats.
The contexts and environments for Russian engagement differ from country to country across Europe. For instance, countries like Poland and Hungary, as the former members of the Warsaw Pact, have stronger social resistance and resilience to Russian influence, but the history shared with Russia has given to Moscow a vast collection of dossiers that contain compromising facts to blackmail and “control” individual politicians and public figures. Germany, which part was under the Soviet control, is also not immune to such pressure. As an example, Matthias Warnig, the CEO of Nord Stream AG, is a former Stasi member.
In France and Italy, the context is different: Russia enjoys wider public support there and uses its own history as a former “superpower.”
Generally, Russian tools of influence can be categorized as follows:
High-level contacts. Putin likes to communicate his agenda by himself: for example, when the Russian leader complained to Merkel about the supposed persecution of Russian journalists in Ukraine, she promised to raise this issue with the Ukrainian president.
Business and economic links. This is a powerful tool that converts those European businesses that cooperate with Russia into lobbyists for continuing cooperation. This instrument works best with the countries whose trade with Russia is relatively high, such as France, Germany, and Italy.
Energy leverage. This leverage is twofold: cooperation and dependency. The dependency can even lead to blackmail: Italy receives 20% of its domestic oil needs and 45% of all the gas it consumes from Russia, leaving it vulnerable to an arbitrary “shut off.” In Hungary, Russia helped to rise Viktor Orban’s ratings in 2011 by enabling him to lower utility prices for Hungarians.
Support for pro-Russian politicians. Russia has consistently worked with various, usually quite marginal political forces in every country. For example, AfD’s Bundestag faction head Alexander Gauland has publicly justified the annexation of Crimea, while members of Die Linke often visit Moscow and Ukraine’s occupied territories in the East. In 2014, France’s National Front received €11 million loans from a Moscow-based lender called the First Czech Russian bank. Jean Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, received a loan of €2 million from a Cypriot fund controlled by former KGB agent Yuri Kudimov. Additionally, Far-right NGOs and associations are natural allies for Russia because they advocate an anti-European agenda. In Poland, Falanga was involved in the burning down of the Hungarian culture center in Zakarpattia, intended as a provocation to damage Hungarian-Ukrainian relations.
Disinformation through media. Russia invests significant resources in its international media campaigns, having spent €387 mn in 2017, which is considerably more than Deutsche Welle’s budget of €328mn. Social networks are also widely used, with Italy being one of the prominent examples of Twitter attacks during the 2016 referendum campaign, the 2018 election campaign, and formation of the new Cabinet in 2018 when thousands of tweets called for President Mattarella’s resignation.
Intelligence and espionage. There have been several cases of Russian intelligence recruiting spies among locals and infiltrating various organizations in Europe. The Hungarian National Front is a good example: its representatives were actually trained by the GRU. In Poland, an Energy Ministry official was charged with spying for Russia, gathering critical information for the Nord Stream II project. Germany has repeatedly accused Russia of cyber attacks on its state institutions.
Russian migrants. Russian-speaking communities are at least 3.5mn in Germany only. They have become agents upon whom Russia can rely for a number of purposes. They are avid consumers of Russian propaganda and can influence both public discourse and voting patterns within their communities. Some locals are also employed in various kinds of street actions, such as protests over the so-called “Lisa case”.
Weaknesses of Russian Instruments
Russia uses instruments that are multi-layered and diverse. At the same time, many of them are vulnerable, often controversial and even self-defeating. The structural vulnerability of Russian instruments can be assigned to the following conventional categories:
No mainstream policy. Russian propaganda is mostly aimed at people, organizations and political parties whose main agenda is to criticize the system: far-right and far-left political movements, supporters of conspiracy theories, and populists. In France, this is a structural failure, since the bulk of French public opinion supports political parties that are not trying to change the system of governance, just to improve it. The picture is similar in other countries that we studied in depth for this report. An exception could be countries that are seen as more conciliatory towards Russia, like Italy and Hungary, even if Russian policy in these countries was intended to cause ruptures when it was about, for instance, the EU.
Contradictory vessels. The two main vessels for Russian information strategy are far-left and far-right parties. In Germany, the AfD is seen as the main party echoing the Russian narrative on a number of issues and it is suspected of having support from Russia. Influential German MP Omid Nouripour noted: “AfD is an extension of Putin’s arm in the German legislature.” And if AfD is populist, a fierce critic of migration and the EU, then Die Linke, on the left, is anti-American with a moderate position on the LGBT agenda and migration. Now, Russia has to deal with recipients that are competing against each other in the political arena, which seriously hampers the effectiveness of Russia’s information strategy.
Lack of credibility. Russian information strategy relies heavily on fake news. However, when fake news refers to topics like Syria or Ukraine, it does not really affect the public debate in countries like France, aside from some marginal groups—because most people are simply not interested. But when the fake news is about the countries themselves, it usually causes more damage to Russia’s information strategy. On several occasions, mainstream media in key EU countries targeted by the Russian propaganda denounced RT and Sputnik articles that were providing biased coverage of the real situation, whether German, Italian or French media.
The ill-repute of pro-Russian politicians. The story of François Fillon is a good lesson. While campaigning, Fillon was accused of mismanaging funds by paying his wife for a job she never did. The fact is, that most politicians on whom Russian bets have issues with their reputations: Le Pen, for instance, claimed €300,000 for a parliamentary assistant. Clearly, potential financial “benefits” have guided the pro-Russian feelings of some French politicians—and not only. This is a weak spot for Russia. Decent politicians who are true patriots of their country have far fewer chances of being Russia’s favorites.
Lack of public support. Nearly 60% of Germans do not consider Russia as a reliable partner. The same poll conducted in May 2018 shows that most Germans favor sanctions against Russia, with 45% favoring the current level of sanctions and 14% wanting them stronger. Only 36% want to see the sanctions softened. A 2017 Gallup poll shows the approval rates of Putin across the researched countries. In Poland – only 9%, in Germany – 20%, in France 18% approve for Putin’s policy, but in Hungary and Italy a bit more.
Little influence with key political figures. Russian influence on key political figures is either limited or absent. In Poland, for example, there are certain groups of Polish politicians with clearly anti-Ukrainian sentiments, but this has not made them pro-Russian. In Polish political circles, there is a consensus on Russia, and today no serious Polish politician speaks about rapprochement with Moscow.
Maintaining EU sanctions is the key to preventing future subversive activities of Russia in Europe. Restrictive measures are the only meaningful means to demonstrate the European Union’s will to fight destructive external influences. Ukraine needs to uphold these recommendations, which will help keep sanctions in place and prevent any new undermining Russia’s operations.
- Mutual benefit. Most EU countries are pragmatic and business-oriented. Ukraine can become significant for the political classes of these countries if it shows the benefits of cooperation. This could be business proposals, reforming the energy sector, and so on. The logic of mutual benefit provides arguments in favor of supporting Ukraine.
- Cyber cooperation. EU countries recognize their vulnerability to cyber threats from Russia. Ukraine should initiate and support a more active partnership with the EU in this sphere. The basic platform for this could be the NATO-Ukraine Trust Fund on Cyber Defense managed by Romania.
- Messages tailored to audiences. Ukraine’s communication projects in other countries should be timely-limited and targeted: messages that work in Poland won’t work in Italy. In Poland, an article by a Ukrainian government official printed in a publication that opposes the government is likely to have undesirable consequences. In some countries, like Greece and Italy, it’s more important to focus on Ukraine’s successes and not on exposing Russia. At the same time, in communicating with leftists and social democrats, it’s better to focus on human rights violations, the harassment of the press and discrimination against minorities in Russia.
- Exchange of experience. Ukraine should exchange with EU countries its own experience regarding best practices in dealing with Russia’s subversive activities. This should take place on different levels, both in the government and in the NGO sector. Regular study visits from EU countries to Ukraine should be organized for opinion leaders, especially members of the press. Any such groups should include representatives of different countries and not just limit themselves to Western Europe.
- Ongoing high-level dialog. Friendly relations between the top leadership of countries and between senior officials working in specific government agencies are highly important for the effective cooperation pursuing counter-actions to hybrid threats. Many EU countries are worrying for post-election uncertainty in 2019, so official Kyiv must do everything it can to ensure a predictable, democratic process.
- Decentralized communications. Ukraine’s communications campaigns in EU countries should not be limited to their capitals. In many countries, the regions play an equally big role in shaping political discourse. This means that Kyiv should consider the regional dimension in developing a dialog with a given country. In Germany, for instance, particular attention should be paid to its eastern lands, while in Italy, it’s worth to focus on Milan, for many people from northern Italy currently hold important positions in the government.
- The American factor. At talking with EU representatives, it’s a good idea not to compare the EU and the US or to make public references to Washington’s intermediating role in resolving disputes with Europeans. In no way does it mean that Ukraine should stop negotiations to reach its goals with the United States.
- Contact with outliers. Radical right-wing parties are gaining considerable support across the EU. Ukrainian diplomats should maintain appropriate contacts with such politicians, at least for observation purposes.
- Strength in numbers. Since Ukraine has a hard time for providing the help it needs by itself, it would be useful to join with other countries in the region that have also suffered from Russian aggression: Moldova and Georgia.
- Multipliers. Ukraine needs to focus attention on those who promote important ideas, known as multipliers: students, the Ukrainian community abroad, businessmen, artists, and so on. Grassroots diplomacy, such as organizing events at universities, is effective. The public often trusts artists more than politicians and diplomats. The more people know about Ukraine, the less opportunity Russia has to organize anti-Ukrainian operations in EU countries.
Authors: Kateryna Zarembo, Leonid Litra, Sergiy Solodkyy, Snizhana Diachenko, Tetiana Levoniuk