By Janusz Bugajski, for CEPA
Moscow’s strategy toward Europe is reminiscent of carving a hunted game. It exploits and exacerbates the vulnerabilities of targeted states, and widens any lingering disputes between them. The Kremlin has targeted at least four portions of the continent: Anglo-Saxon Europe, Western Europe, Central Europe and the Orthodox Balkans—with the remainder of Europe’s east to be directly devoured by Russia.
A primary focus of subversion dating back to Soviet times is to drive a permanent wedge between the continental European states and the “Anglo-Saxon” countries—the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Moscow views the former as more malleable, corruptible and exploitable, and the latter as more likely to challenge Russia’s revisionism.
After a brief interlude following the election of Donald Trump, the Kremlin has refocused its sights on promoting transatlantic rifts. Its propaganda depicts the United States as a hegemon that limits the sovereignty of all European states and pushes them into conflicts along Russia’s borders, including the one with Ukraine. In this schema, Britain is depicted as an American puppet that has now been untethered from the continent following its Brexit decision.
The second carving strategy is to expand fissures between Western Europeans and Central Europeans and to foster various bilateral disputes. Former Soviet satellites, particularly Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are depicted as nationalistic and incurably Russophobic, thus preventing rapprochement between Brussels and Moscow and blocking business opportunities in Russia for Western European companies.
In addition, EU skepticism is encouraged in all targeted countries, based on nationalism, populism and conservatism. Kremlin propaganda outlets castigate the degenerate nature of European liberalism, the lack of national sovereignty, recurring financial crises in the Eurozone, failed multiculturalism, uncontrolled immigration and an inability to combat jihadist terrorism. In contrast, Russia is depicted as a Christian bastion against Muslim extremism. All these themes help Moscow influence a “fifth column” of movements and parties inside the EU that include radicals of diverse political persuasions.
A third Kremlin carving maneuver encourages a neutral bloc to emerge across Central Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia lie at the epicenter of Russia’s campaign to subvert NATO states from within, with Poland increasingly in Russia’s crosshairs. Having failed to keep these countries outside the Alliance, Putin’s officials calculate that politicians and governments can be bought or blackmailed to serve Kremlin designs, transforming Central Europe into a zone increasingly alienated from Washington.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico are depicted as sympathetic leaders who can be enticed to distance themselves from NATO. Ministers in several countries, including Poland, are also probed for their susceptibility to Russian financial overtures. Following the Czech Republic’s 21 October elections, Andrej Babiš—a Moscow-friendly businessman and leader of the ANO party—could become the next Czech prime minister and draw the country closer into a Kremlin orbit. Moscow also endeavors to pull Slovenia and Croatia away from Western institutions through energy contracts and opaque investments, thus completing a long wedge of influence between Ukraine and the Adriatic that could disable NATO operations in the event of war.
Moscow also favors links between the Central European wedge and traditionally neutral Austria. It views the “Slavkov Triangle” association between the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia as a useful tool to undermine the Visegrad Group and help lift sanctions against Moscow. This strategy also contributes to isolating Poland from other Central European states. Bilateral disputes are exploited throughout the region to undermine state integrity, including the position of the Polish minority in Lithuania, whose leader reportedly maintains close relations with officials in Moscow and has campaigned for territorial autonomy.
A fourth carving opportunity for the Kremlin is in the Balkans, where its goal is to create an Orthodox bloc and shield the region from American influence. Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria are earmarked as the core of this portion of Europe. Greek governments have a long tradition of pro-Moscow sentiments. Bulgaria is perpetually prone to Russian influence through numerous political and economic entanglements. And Serbia values Russia as a counterpoint to EU and U.S. pressure in rejecting the independence of Kosova. Moscow miscalculated by failing to overthrow Montenegro’s government, reinforcing its determination to join NATO. Nonetheless, it continues to target both Macedonia and Montenegro through its broad arsenal of subversion.
Moscow is now fixated on keeping Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosova outside of NATO so it can deepen its political, economic and informational inroads. The Central European and Balkan wedges will also contribute to isolating Romania, which— much like Poland and the three Baltic countries—is resolutely anti-Kremlin and pro-Washington.
The last portion of the European carcass are the former republics of the Soviet Union that Moscow either intends to absorb into its economic and security structures, or transform into permanently neutral satrapies. These include Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. With Europe preoccupied with its internal divisions and its unsettled relations with the United States, the Kremlin calculates that it can achieve most of its objectives without resorting to any significant military actions.
By Janusz Bugajski, for CEPA
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC and host of the “New Bugajski Hour” television show broadcast in the Balkans. Bugajski has authored 20 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations and is a columnist for several media outlets. His recent books include Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks (co-authored with Margarita Assenova, 2016); Conflict Zones: North Caucasus and Western Balkans Compared (2014), Return of the Balkans: Challenges to European Integration and U.S. Disengagement (2013), Georgian Lessons: Conflicting Russian and Western Interests in the Wider Europe (2010), Dismantling the West: Russia’s Atlantic Agenda (2009), America’s New European Allies (2009); and Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions (2008).