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It is finally time to counter Russian interference

One year after the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West’s unity and support for Kyiv still holds strong. However, Moscow’s other, often more covert, operations and interference have still been allowed to run rampant across the globe, with little done to counteract their damaging impact.

March 8, 2023 - Cameron MacBride - Articles and Commentary

Danish-Swedish politician and provocateur Rasmus Palaudan in Copenhagen in May 2019, during one of his anti-Islamic happenings. Photo: Zakariaa El Mikdam / Shutterstock

Last month, the international community reflected on a full year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The violence, which has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives, torn apart communities, and destroyed crucial infrastructure, looks to continue for the foreseeable future, with no realistic chance for peace in the coming months.

However, even as Ukraine’s European and North American allies announce further support packages in the form of military and economic aid, western nations continue to fail at countering Russian political interference across the continent. Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine has been hard fought across the country’s towns and cities. Nonetheless, their more covert operations are often allowed to go on unchecked and unchallenged, putting Europe and its allies at severe risk of political disruption at the hands of Moscow.

Obstruction on all fronts

The onset of the invasion of Ukraine last February should have represented the final nail in the coffin for Europe’s often lacklustre deterrence against Russian interference, sparking the continent into action against all forms of intrusions. In fact, although support for Ukraine in countering Russia’s military has grown exponentially throughout the last year, action to counter Russian hostility elsewhere has been severely weakened.

As the political landscape has rapidly shifted globally, and the post-Cold War security order has crumbled, so too has Russia sought to expand its meddling in international affairs for its own benefit. Although often selecting from a variety of methods, some more covert than others, Russia’s aim has most often been to bring about disunity in the European political network, and most notably in Europe’s financial, political and military support for Ukraine.

Only recently have we seen first hand the lengths that Russia is willing to go in its attempts to disrupt western unity. With Sweden and Finland both inching ever closer to NATO membership, Moscow has been using every trick in the book to halt their formal accession to the military alliance, or at least delay it as much as possible.

This came to the forefront of the world’s attention after far-right groups gathered in Stockholm to protest Turkey’s unwillingness to sign off on the potential member’s accession. Ankara, refusing to let the two Nordic nations join without first agreeing to near impossible political demands, was further angered after a gathering of far-right protesters burnt copies of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy.

Only after a few days had passed and the initial confusion (and anger from Turkey’s side) had dissipated did it become clear who was behind these events. Russia had provided not only reasonable backing but also clear approval for the highly provocative move, something that was sure to delay Sweden’s accession to NATO, and further strain relations between Turkey and the rest of its NATO allies.

Since the ongoing invasion of Ukraine was launched last year, neighbouring Moldova has consistently been operating in a state of paranoia. Recognising itself early on as one of Moscow’s next potential military objectives as it looks for new ways to rejuvenate its ailing military campaign, Chisinau has seen the target on its back only grow larger as of late.

This concern, however, has now seemingly reached boiling point. This month, both Moldovan and Ukrainian officials announced that they have received clear information that Russia has been planning a violent coup against the government in Chisinau. This coup would seek to depose Moldova’s pro-EU government and replace it with a more Moscow-friendly regime. This change in government would most likely also be used by the Kremlin to transport troops to Ukraine’s western border in an attempt to open up a new military front, stretching Ukrainian forces even thinner.

Moldova’s government now faces more challenging months ahead. With public resources already close to breaking point, and possessing only a small military force that would most likely be unable to resist any Russian attack for long, Chisinau must do all it can to push back against Russian attempts at interference. Such pressures could appear either domestically, from political forces aligned with Moscow, or from any external military challenge appearing in the coming months from Russia itself.

Further south in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Moscow continues to meddle in the politically fragile Balkan nation. The separatist leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has often been viewed as one of Putin’s closest allies in the region, acting as his representative in the Balkans. His political actions, undermining the federal Bosnian state and consistently aggravating tensions between ethnic Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, have been viewed as Putin’s attempt to create difficulties for Bosnia regarding its Euro-Atlantic integration into organisations such as NATO and the EU.

The growing worry is that as Moscow becomes even more desperate in its failing military campaign in Ukraine, it will look to cause disruption and potential conflict somewhere else. Unrest in Bosnia could potentially divert valuable western attention and resources away from Kyiv.

In Moscow’s historical ally Serbia, Russia has recently sought to take advantage of the perceived “brotherly bond” between the two nations. The private military organisation, Wagner Group, which has incredibly close ties to the Kremlin and is often viewed as a more independent arm of the Russian military, has been accused of attempting to recruit sympathetic Serbian citizens to aid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Belgrade has warned that any such moves by its citizens would be considered illegal, and recruitment activities by the Wagner Group would not be authorised.

The recruitment drive has even sparked enough fury in Belgrade that the country has finally begun to walk back its long-held stance of neutrality on the war. The EU has long threatened that eventually Belgrade would have to choose between its close social and historical ties with Russia, and its political ties to the EU. Now, such interference by Russia may be the final straw that finally forces Serbia’s hand to make a choice.

Old dog, same tricks

This is most certainly not a new phenomenon. Moscow has been playing dirty across the continent for years now. Even putting aside the outright military aggression in Ukraine and Georgia back in 2014 and 2008 respectively, Russia’s operations have consistently sought to disrupt elections across the West.

This interference was most prominent throughout the presidential elections in the US in 2016 and 2020, the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016, and the French presidential elections of 2017 and 2022. In these votes, Moscow often had a preferred “side”, and sought to divide respective electorates by any means necessary.

Russia has often sought to go even further. Back in late 2016, as Montenegro continued its Euro-Atlantic integration and closed in on NATO membership, a suspected coup, planned with the explicit backing of Moscow, sought to overthrow the pro-western government and halt Podgorica’s entry to the military organisation.

Although the plan was foiled by the country’s security services, the attempt showed just how far Russia was willing to go, and which available means it was willing to use, to attempt to disrupt the expansion of the organisation that it so often claims to be its adversary. The West has so far been incredibly fortuitous in its often feeble attempts to counter Russian interference operations. It might not always be so lucky.

What Europe can do to better counter Russian interference

Ukraine’s allies are not defenceless against such attacks. All this being said, this is not to say that the security forces and intelligence services of countries such as Germany, the US, the UK and France are not hard at work day in, day out, working to counter Russian misinformation campaigns and potential political disruption.

But the West must look to be more assertive against such threats in future, not only if it wishes to ensure its united opposition to Russia without any unforeseen cracks appearing along the way, but also to ensure that Moscow and other potential adversaries do not feel that they can so easily manipulate and meddle in the affairs of democratic nations.

With the war having now reached the one-year mark, we must reflect and face reality. The West’s resilient stand alongside Ukraine, through numerous means, has been valiant and noble. However, ensuring that Russia is unable to create more issues or distractions further afield, across Europe or otherwise, that would seek to undermine the international support for Ukraine, must be paramount. Europe can no longer seek to put out the disruptive flames of Russian interference only once they appear. Instead, it must take bolder action to prevent them appearing in the first place. We must begin to learn from the simple proverb: prevention is always better than the cure.

Cameron MacBride is a final year MA student, primarily focusing on Russia, Central Europe and the Western Balkans. He is also a freelance journalist and a research intern with the Post-Conflict Research Centre in Sarajevo.

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