By Kseniya Kirillova, for Jamestown Foundation
Moscow’s attempts to change the policies of other countries in its favor are not limited to military actions in Ukraine. Against the background of the war, the Kremlin is working to win the support of non-Western states in its stand-off with the United States and Europe. And at the same time, it still hopes to split the collective West and identify countries therein that can serve as agents of Russian interests.
It is possible to define three Russian geopolitical strategies. First is an attempt to openly create an anti-Western bloc through a union with China and other Asian and Middle Eastern states. Even prior to the full-scale attack on Ukraine, Russian experts insisted that Russia should create its own technical-economic bloc independent of the West (Globalaffairs.ru, March 1, 2021). Now, Russian commentators no longer conceal that the creation of such a grouping is meant to strengthen the anti-Western inclinations of Russia’s potential allies, exploiting their colonial past (Valdai Club, April 14, 2022). Russia frightens its prospective partners with “the re-birth of colonialism” and seeks to present itself as their greatest defender (Sciencepop.ru, February 10, 2018). Notably, the head of Russia’s foreign ministry, Sergei Lavrov, openly declared recently that “the military operation in Ukraine contributes to the liberation of the world from the postcolonial oppression of the West” (Kommersant, April 30).
The second strategy is an attempt to court the most pro-Russian Western countries and use them as “agents of influence” in international structures. Russian media outlets often refer to Hungary and Serbia in this regard. MGIMO scholars call Hungary “one of the few countries openly supporting Russia” and note that by “being a member of the European Union, but supporting the Russian side in a balanced way, Budapest can continue to benefit from relations with Russia” (Gazeta.ru, March 23).
As concerns Serbia, pro-Kremlin political experts also openly indicate that Moscow should not demonstrate its dissatisfaction with the “multi-vector” policies of President Aleksandar Vučić or block the integration of his country into the European Union. In their opinion, Belgrade’s pro-Russian policy, if it were more uncompromisingly open, might lead to increased pressure on Serbia, whereas “the cunning position of Vučić allows for maintaining and increasing the European split on the issue of energy cooperation with Russia” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11).
According to the Montenegrin political analyst Ljubomir Filipović, Russian influence is really strong in Serbia, and it will be maintained even if the country is fully integrated into the EU. The situation is further complicated by the fact that for the last eight years, Serbian media close to the government spread Kremlin propaganda narratives regarding Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Filipović noted that such an information policy is partially a result of Serbia’s dependence on Russia and China in the Kosovo process and partially due to its dependence on Russian natural gas (Author’s interview May 14).
The consequence of such propaganda is an increase of radical, pro-Russian factions in the Serbian parliament (Regnum, April 13) as well as the support of many Serbs for the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, April 3). It is, thus, perhaps no surprise that in April, for the first time in history, a plurality of Serbs expressed opposition to entry into the European Union (44 percent, versus 34 percent in support). Pollsters have attributed this shift in public sentiment to “EU pressure on Serbia regarding the imposition of sanctions against Russia” (Blic.rs, April 21).
As the aforementioned regional expert Filipović pointed out, Serbian influence in the Balkans is the main source of Russian propaganda in the region, primarily through the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose pro-Russian narratives were noted even by the European Parliament (Europarl.europa.eu, March 9). Also, according to him, one cannot discount the economic dependence of individual Balkan countries on Russian tourists (Author’s interview, May 14). One way or another, Montenegro has not yet imposed sanctions on the property of Russian oligarchs located in the country (Gazeta.ru, March 17).
Other results of Russian influence, detailed by the Montenegrin political scientist, are ongoing attempts to destabilize the Balkans. The minimum objective is to increase these countries’ dependence on the “peacekeeping” efforts of Moscow; while the maximalist goal may be to create a new full-scale crisis that might become a “second front” for the West. For example, after every instance of the Serbian authorities condemning Russia in the international arena, pro-Russian activists have organized mass demonstrations in support of the invasion of Ukraine (1tv.ru, April 15). According to Filipović, Moscow presently lacks the resources to provoke a full-fledged crisis, but the region remains on edge for conflict (Author’s interview, May 14).
The destabilization and weakening of other countries to make them more vulnerable to pressure may be termed Moscow’s third geopolitical strategy. This approach was quite openly proclaimed by pro-Kremlin political scientist Dmitriy Yevstafyev on the Russian political talk show An Evening with Vladimir Solovyev. Namely, he said it is necessary to identify the “weak links of the collective West,” one of which could by Turkey. In his words, “Turkey is a country experiencing colossal internal economic problems,” and the “primary political task of Russia” is to use “methods of geo-economic and political pressure to get Turkey out of Ukraine” (Actualcomment.ru, May 12).
Turkish foreign policy expert Ferit Temur seriously doubts that such a policy could be successful, however. In a May 14 interview with this author, he recalled that Ankara had established and developed defense cooperation with Kyiv long before Russia’s military intervention. Besides, he contended, Russia’s overall military, political and economic influence on Turkey is limited, and attempts at confronting and pressuring a friendly Turkey would most of all damage Russia itself, which is already exposed to serious isolation in the international arena. The Turkish expert posited that the most Moscow might achieve would be to secure Turkey’s neutrality in the war in Ukraine; but it would be simply impossible for Russia to attract a North Atlantic Alliance member in military-political terms.
The pro-Kremlin expert Yevstafyev has referred to Japan as the second “weak link of the West”; but here, too, evidence suggests otherwise. Ukrainian diplomats have already cited the “unlimited” level of backing Kyiv has received from Tokyo, including sanctions on Russia, the acceptance of refugees, and massive support for Ukraine among Japanese society (Zerkalo Nedeli, Mary 19). Nevertheless, the Kremlin will not drop its attempts to destabilize and split the West. These countries can expect Russia to try to manipulate any domestic or intra-Western difficulties to achieve its goals.
By Kseniya Kirillova, for Jamestown Foundation