A disunited, politically paralyzed, and anti-democratic Europe would erode the ability of NATO to defend and uphold transatlantic norms, values, and institutions, seriously undermining and ultimately questioning the future of the alliance.
Russia has put Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) in its crosshairs, launching disinformation and cyber-attacks, issuing threats, and securing political allies and economic partners – through whom deeper penetration of the region is enabled via corruption. Lurking behind it all is the fear of an outright military strike, or a covert invasion, as happened in Georgia and Ukraine. CEE countries and their peoples have begun to push back, and the United States and its allies have started to enhance NATO preparedness. Yet these modest efforts are consistently undermined by the European Union (EU), whose elite continues to push policies more suitable for Paris than Bratislava. What NATO and the EU need to appreciate is that CEE countries seek prosperity over and above security because they can control the first more easily than the second. Russia remains influential through trade, energy resources, and investments and the EU is likewise a lure for the economic benefits it offers. Fear of Russian aggression may nudge NATO members to increase defense spending, but CEE countries will continue to balance their economic relationships with both Russia and the EU, often playing one off the other. The difference is that Russia entices CEE countries with economic benefits while the EU threatens and punishes them.
Although Russia actively meddles in the politics of CEE nations, it flexes its military muscles mostly at the Baltics and Poland. The energy windfall Russia experienced in the 2000s allowed Moscow to modernize its conventional and nuclear forces. Acutely aware of its conventional inferiority to the United States, Moscow has become increasingly reliant on its nu clear arsenal and has prioritized its modernization. This has allowed Russia to hold an advantage in stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which would likely be used for deterrence; these weapons are frequently deployed in military exercises. Russia’s military doctrine stresses a preference to “escalate to de-escalate,” meaning it will escalate a regional conflict with the threat of nuclear weapons and subsequently de-escalate to prevail. Putin demonstrated this in threatening the use of nuclear weapons over the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Moreover, Moscow has intentionally misled and remained ambiguous over when and where the use of nuclear weapons—strategic or tactical—is appropriate or justified. This ambiguity, combined with Putin’s sabre rattling, makes it hard for NATO to gauge Russia’s intentions.
Russia has also overhauled its conventional forces, yielding fewer but more professionalized units, swapping conscripts in favor of noncommissioned officers, streamlining command-and-control systems, cutting top-heavy officer ranks and increasing education and training. It has made great strides in mobilization, the success of which was seen in the Ukraine crisis, where it took Russia a matter of days to mobilize 40,000 troops, a feat that took three weeks in 1999 during the Chechnya conflict.
Russia’s military doctrine stresses a preference to “escalate to de-escalate,” meaning it will escalate a regional conflict with the threat of nuclear weapons and subsequently de-escalate to prevail.
Russia’s largest expenditures, however, have been for rearmament. Instead of trying to achieve conventional parity with the United States, Russia has smartly invested in strategic capabilities that undermine NATO’s traditional military edge. These reforms, combined with Russia’s maturing anti-access/area denial (A 2/AD) bubble covering much of the Baltics and Poland, compound the advantage Russia enjoys due to the absence of a meaningful NATO forward presence in these areas.
In the past, NATO was able to justify a lower presence due to assurances through combat readiness, but European nations no longer have the same readiness as before and Russia’s long-range anti-air missile systems and highly mobile, short-range air-defense assets would make it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for NATO forces to enter a theater once a conflict has started. This imbalance of forces would favor a Russian victory. Indeed, NATO needs to prepare for a situation in which it is unable to access nations on Russia’s border, allowing Moscow to create facts on the ground that would be extremely difficult and costly to reverse.
NATO needs to prepare for a situation in which it is unable to access nations on Russia’s border, allowing Moscow to create facts on the ground that would be extremely difficult and costly to reverse.
Russia has continued to demonstrate a willingness to use force to achieve its objectives, which necessitates a significantly strengthened US posture on the European continent, complemented by prepositioned equipment, and a counter to Russia’s integrated air-defense systems. The United States’ European Reassurance Initiative (ER I)—providing a rotational brigade in Eastern Europe among other supports—is the most substantial force increase since the end of the Cold War, but does not fix the imbalance of forces and will not deter Russian aggression. Ultimately, maintaining a Europe “whole and free” will require much more in resources and attention.
Russia has proven it has little desire to comply with international norms, and it will continue to be a perennially challenging actor to incorporate into the world order. A sober realization that the United States and Russia are in a competition is the first step. The United States must remain consistently and firmly committed, demonstrating rhetorically and tangibly its commitment to defend its NATO allies. While CEE is where Russia exerts the most influence, Moscow’s ultimate objective is to undermine European unity, which means it will continually probe for weaknesses, and the scope of where it will interfere will not be confined.
To constrain Moscow, there is no substitute for an enhanced forward presence backed by military power. The United States must pursue capabilities that counter Russia’s A2/AD capability, as well as ensure its nuclear deterrence is viable. While Russia has recapitalized its nuclear forces, the US has reduced both its deployed launchers and warhead count. The US should broaden the participation of European allies in the nuclear mission and develop additional capabilities to strengthen the credibility of the alliance’s ability to respond to a limited Russian nuclear strike. The US should also consider how it intends to demonstrate resolve in the face of a nuclear threat.
Most if not all of the CEE countries are highly dependent on Russia for energy. Latvia gets all of its natural gas from Russian sources, for example, and Slovakia gets 97 percent of its gas and 98 percent of its oil from Russia. The phenomenon is actually understated. Russia controls about 22 percent of Bulgaria’s GDP, for example, but the Netherlands is listed as Bulgaria’s single largest investor – because Russia’s LukOil is registered there. There has been some push-back. Estonia, which has a border dispute with Russia and hosts one of the largest Russian minorities in the EU, has reduced reliance on Russian energy, establishing a link with Finland and investing in shale energy. Lithuania opened a maritime liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in 2014, helping the Baltic region reduce its reliance on Russian gas. Lithuania and Poland both began receiving LNG shipments from the United States in 2017, but Russian gas from pipelines remains cheaper, and Moscow is moving ahead with plans for another gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Much more needs to be done to diversify CEE energy sources, but there is hope that former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, is qualified to tackle this.
While CEE is where Russia exerts the most influence, Moscow’s ultimate objective is to undermine European unity, which means it will continually probe for weaknesses.
Russian economic and political influence extends far beyond the energy industry and deeply into the economies of CEE countries through graft, bribery, sweet-heart contracts, and government procurement scandals, all of which buys the Kremlin high-level political influence. The offices designed to fight corruption can be compromised. If the host country resists, its government can be brought down by the exposure of the corruption and malfeasance it is trying to resist. All of this is designed to “capture” all or parts of CEE governments, politically or economically, making it difficult if not impossible for the government in question to resist Moscow’s designs.
The leaders of a growing number of CEE governments are said to fall into the pro-Russian category. At least some of these political leaders may be strategically playing one side off the other, but they are playing with fire, eroding democracy, and undermining Western models of governance.
Russian disinformation operations have been characterized in one Rand Corporation study as a “firehose of falsehood” designed to entertain, confuse, and overwhelm audiences. Yet even this aspect of Russia’s approach to Europe has extended its tentacles deeper into the region. In Hungary, for example, most mainstream media outlets are under the direct control of the government, which prefers Russian narratives and often cite Russian government news sources, and a Hungarian website connected to Russian in telligence has 13,000 Facebook fans. The President of Slovakia, Andrej Kiska, publicly complained this past March: “Slovakia is a target of information war and propaganda, and Slovak security services are doing next to nothing to counter it.” Pro-Russian views in Slovakia are also expressed by the Slovak-Russian Association, led by a former Slovak prime minister. There are some efforts at pushing back.
The leaders of a growing number of CEE governments are said to fall into the pro-Russian category.
Against about 40 websites with thousands of followers spreading Russian propaganda in the Czech Republic, the government opened a Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats in January 2017 and more recently created the National Cyber and Information Security Office.
Russian disinformation operations have been characterized in one Rand Corporation study as a “firehose of falsehood” designed to entertain, confuse, and overwhelm audiences.
A Czech think tank, European Values, produces reports on Russian disinformation, and the Czech Association for International Affairs launched a Czech version of the Ukrainian website StopFake. There are several NGOs in Poland debunking Russian disinformation, and one of them, “Russian Fifth Column in Poland,” has a Facebook page. Warsaw cancelled the license of a radio station that was rebroadcasting Polish-language news created by the Russian government.
In Slovakia, four Facebook pages expose and ridicule Russian disinformation efforts, an annual Forum against Propaganda is held, and the Slovak daily newspaper, Dennik N, prepared an educational manual about disinformation and fake news for teachers and students. Despite having a population that is 26 percent ethnic Russian, Latvia in 2016 shut down the pro-Kremlin news website Sputnik for being a “propaganda tool.” After Slovak state media outlet TASR announced a “content sharing” agreement with Moscow’s media platform Sputnik, public exposure and scrutiny of the deal prompted Bratislava to pull out. In Ukraine, authorities recently began to block or restrict access to leading Russian social networks and search engines.
Ways to Combat Danger
Overall, according to a Kremlin Watch Report (April 22, 2017) from the European Values think tank, six countries “are at the forefront” in resisting Russian aggression (Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the United Kingdom), five have “significantly shifted their policies” in regards to Russia (the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden), and three (Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria) are called “below-radar supporters of countering Russian aggression.” Hungary and Slovakia, the report claims, are “using the Russian-card for domestic reasons,” and Cyprus, Greece, and Italy are “Kremlin-friendly.” The people, too, have begun to protest Moscow’s behavior and its apparent allies in CEE countries. Large anti-government protests aimed at corruption and Russian influence, and supportive of the EU, occurred in 2017 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovak Republic.
Warsaw cancelled the license of a radio station that was rebroadcasting Polish-language news created by the Russian government.
There are many ways to combat both CEE energy dependence and Russian disinformation: (1) task financial intelligence units of NATO and EU members to track illicit Russian transactions, and share this financial intelligence, (2) prioritize anti-corruption efforts, (3) strengthen the independence of courts and prosecutors, (4) reorient US and EU assistance to CEE countries toward combating Russian influence, (5) monitor diversification in strategic economic sectors, as well as regulatory compliance and transparency, (6) expose the misinformation and Russian ties of disinformation campaigns, (7) ensure the independence of private and public media, and (8) develop and strengthen civic education and media-literacy skills in school curricula.
It would help, as well, for the bureaucrats in Brussels to extend some latitude to EU and NATO member countries based on an understanding of their different cultures and histories. EU policies are increasingly either very unpopular with voters or are antagonistic to government leaders in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovak Republic. This creates an opening for Russian influence. Poland is the poster-child for EU alienation. Despite a public opinion strongly supportive of membership in the EU, a 2017 report from Globsec Policy Institute says “the consensus on membership alone is no longer of great significance. In the last two years, Polish society has shown that it is profoundly divided about the future of Poland in the EU.”
It would help, as well, for the bureaucrats in Brussels to extend some latitude to EU and NATO member countries based on an understanding of their different cultures and histories.
Poland is not the only CEE country to eschew the EU. For example, the Czechs are highly euroskeptic (only 32 percent viewed the EU positively in 2016) yet they reject a pro-Russian orientation despite their President Miloš Zeman, who is openly pro-Russian. Still, the EU is currently pushing a gun-control measure that is highly unpopular in the Czech Republic and Poland. The EU Commission, whose members are not elected, is also pursuing legal or political battles against the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and the Slovak Republic to force them to comply with EU refugee quotas, which are necessitated because the chancellor of Germany unilaterally decided to allow more than 1,000,000 refugees to enter Europe last year, without submitting the issue to member parliaments or a popular vote. The EU is pursuing additional separate cases against Poland over logging in a protected forest and over a proposed law to reform the country’s own judiciary, which the EU claims, without any sense of irony, would threaten the judiciary’s independence – from Warsaw. The independence of Polish courts from Brussels, of course, is not an option. Meanwhile, the benefits of economic integration are scarcely visible in Slovakia, the only one of the Visegrad Four countries to adopt the euro (eight years ago), which still suffers from high unemployment, high food prices, and sluggish wage growth, thus discouraging the Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles from adopting the euro.
What these countries seek is a little more control of their own sovereignty in regards not to the purely economic issues which concern the EU, or the security issues that concern NATO, but in regards to those domestic social and political issues which each member of the EU and NATO should be able to address independently, such as immigration or their own judiciaries.
Why does the behavior of the EU matter in the defense of Europe from Russia? Because, as stated in The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe, an October 2016 study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, “A disunited, politically paralyzed, and anti-democratic Europe would erode the ability of NATO to defend and uphold transatlantic norms, values, and institutions, seriously undermining and ultimately questioning the future of the alliance. The stakes are enormous.”
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2. Spiegel. 2015. “Türken in Deutschland wählten Erdogan-Partei” spiegel.de. 2nd November 2015 (http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/tuerken-in-deutschland-waehlten-erdogan-partei-akp-a-1060661.html).
3. Die Welt. 2016. “Erdogans Agenten bedrohen Deutschtürken” 21st August 2016.
4. RP Online. 2016. “Türken in Deutschland: Die Doppel moral beim Doppelpass” rp-online.de. 7th August 2016 (http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/tuerken-in-deutschland-die-doppelmoral-beim-doppelpass-aid-1.6166430)
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