The West needs to get serious about Russian troublemaking before its too late.
CHISINAU | Time and again, the West has shown that it has serious problems understanding just what Russia is up to. The indirect aggression that the Kremlin has used for years against former Soviet republics, often under the indifferent nose of Europe, is now being turned against the European Union itself.
From supporting separatist regimes in its former satellites to exploiting minority grievances in Europe, Russia is aiming to weaken the union. In turn, the liberal traditions of Europe and the United States leave them ill-equipped to counter the more nimble moves of an authoritarian and secretive state like Russia, newly buoyed by once-unimaginable oil wealth.
TAKING THE FIGHT TO THE EU
Russian President Vladimir Putin asked a rhetorical question at the EU-Russia summit in October. He wondered if Europe hadnt had enough of separatism in Spain, and why it seemed oblivious to the problems that could emerge in Belgium or Romania, with fractious national tensions of their own, if Kosovo were allowed to declare independence from Serbia.
The irony would not have been lost on Georgia and Moldova, two ex-Soviet republics that have been dealing with Russian-supported separatist enclaves since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow has been supplying these rebel regions with advisers, cheap energy, political support and protection, even cash. The Kremlin has for years run propaganda campaigns meant to legitimize these separatist regions in the eyes of the Russian public while demonizing the governments of Georgia and Moldova. It has financed and helped run elections and referendums in the rebel regions, even establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States elections observation organization as a counterpoint to the Wests primary election monitoring group, the OSCEs Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
Yet despite numerous requests for political support from Georgia and Moldova, the EU has usually turned a blind eye to such Russian mischief, preferring to preserve a - working" relationship with the Kremlin. But in its excessively chary approach and unjustified delicacy toward Moscows aggression toward former Soviet republics, the EU itself is slowly becoming a target of the same methods.
Also at the EU-Russia summit, Putin announced his intention to sponsor an Institute for Freedom and Democracy, possibly based in Brussels. Although some Western newspapers reported that it would be a Russian-European joint effort, a top Putin aide said it would be a purely Russian initiative. After all, Sergey Yastrjembsky told reporters, if the EU can finance democratic initiatives in Russia, then it is time for the Russian Federation to do the same in Europe. He said Russia would spend about 700,000 euros annually on the institute, about the same amount that the EU spends on democracy building in Russia. Yastrjembsky said the institute will focus on subjects like neo-Nazism, migration and ethnic minorities in the European Union, electoral processes, and elections monitoring.
So Russia is going on the offensive, hoping to foster separatist feelings in EU countries, exploiting the problems of minorities and migrants, and undermining Western efforts to support free and fair elections in Eastern Europe. Generally, Russia is likely to use any opportunity to create division and conflict in EU states in order to gain leverage over their governments and even to obstruct the emergence of the EU as a global actor. And Europe is vulnerable to this new kind of weapon: consider the violent demonstrations in France and Hungary, the governmental crisis in Belgium, seeds of tension in Scotland, and radical movements of all kinds in Germany. What if one day someone skilled in indirect aggression began to help perpetuate these crises?
LEAN AND MEAN
One key to understanding Russias foreign policy lies in how the Kremlin behaves in its so-called near abroad, meaning former Soviet republics. We should remember that it has already used destabilizing measures in Moldova, Ukraine, and Estonia, and that todays Russia is ruled by former members of the Soviet intelligence agencies. They represent a distinct subculture, and their education and experience lead them to think very differently than career politicians in the West, or unlike anybody else that Western politicians have dealt with.
Admittedly, Western governments had years of dealing with Soviet intelligence services during the Cold War, but this generation of operatives, on both sides of the divide, is different. Many contemporary Western strategists cut their teeth during a period when Russia was on the decline, beginning shortly before the breakup of the Soviet Union and continuing well into the - end of history" era, which supposedly marked the final triumph of Western liberalism. A newly belligerent Russia demands that they relearn a few key lessons.
Russia, on the other hand, evolved from a system under which the military and intelligence services were at least nominally under civilian control to one in which the intelligence agencies control the government. Indeed, when a rivalry between the countrys intelligence services recently erupted into public view, one intelligence chief argued that Russias clandestine services had saved the country from a fatal decline. In his words, they were the hook on which a free-falling society had caught itself, and stabilized.
The nature of Russian society means that its government need not contend with some issues that can tie the hands of Western politicians: there is no serious internal opposition to question specific policies, and there is little need to worry about domestic public opinion. Much of the population is quite anti-Western after many years of an efficient propaganda campaign in the domestic media.
The decision-making process is very quick, due to the lack of any institutional balance. High oil prices obviously give Russia another advantage, allowing it to spend significant money on defense and security agencies at the command of the Kremlin. Any intelligence agency would dream of the conditions that Russia has built: plenty of funds, high secrecy, political support, unaccountability to any legislative body, and global ambitions. The West, with its institutionalized checks and balances, fights Russia with one hand tied behind its back.
WRITING THE RULES
Even if the EU fought with both hands, Moscow has convinced it to fight by Russian rules, although those rules go against the founding principles of the union.
For example, the EU has tacitly accepted the Russian claim that former Soviet republics represent a region of legitimate interest for Moscow, meaning the EU pretends not to notice the Byzantine methods that Russia uses to gain influence over the governments of its former satellites.
The Russian government is widely suspected of instigated the violent street protests that took place in Estonia this spring. According to the Estonian authorities, before the disturbances a senior official of the Russian Embassy met repeatedly, apparently in secret, with the leader of a group that played a prominent role in fomenting tensions around the Estonian governments decision to move a memorial to a Soviet soldier from the center of Tallinn.
The heated debate around the question of the missile shield in Poland and Czech Republic is also illuminating, for in essence Moscow is questioning the sovereign right of those two EU members to build up defense cooperation with a chosen partner. It is these countries business to decide whether they want to cooperate with the United States or Australia or Japan or whomever. It is also up to the Polish and Czech governments to decide what the threat to their people is and how to defend their territories against it.
Should the EU feel the need to install an anti-missile shield, will it have to give up the project if Russia objects?
CAUTIOUS OR JUST WEAK?
The EU has a few options for dealing with Russia. Given the countrys current nationalist mood, its important that the West avoid bending to illegitimate pressures from Russia. Every concession only increases the domestic popularity of current Russian ruling elite. The failure of the West to ask the right questions, like why Russia would be threatened by a defense system if it does not intend to attack Europe, also undermines its position in the view of the Russian public.
Russias ability to interfere in EU affairs will only increase if it manages to consolidate its control over ex-Soviet satellites such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Then its focus will extend farther West, toward ex-Warsaw pact countries and todays EU members. Helping Ukraine and Moldova to resist Russian influence and continue their democratic development is a matter of life and death for the eastern EU members, and therefore for the entire union.
Today a war of ideas is waging between Russia and the West. Russian leadership aims to preserve the authoritarian leaders who rule its ex-Soviet satellites in order to influence the politics of those territories. Moscow does this through propaganda campaigns that convince local people that the West is alien to them and their cultures, and that they can prosper only with Russia as a partner. The long crisis in Ukraine is partly explained by the fact that half of the population trusts the West, the other half Russia.
While the West invests massive funds into institutions in Eastern Europe, Russia targets the people. It fights to win hearts and minds, through mass-media campaigns discrediting the West and democratic values. This is exactly the mistake that Western development agencies made in Russia and continue to make in countries like Ukraine and Moldova. Funding the development of democratic institutions in countries where the much of the population is politically uneducated, and therefore easily manipulated, is like building irrigation channels where theres no water to fill them. It is the people that the money should be invested in, and then they will build the institutions, or will force their leaders to do so.
If separate EU members, which at one time or another have lobbied for Russian interest in Brussels or have played into the Russian hand, will not opt for a single EU voice while dealing with Kremlin, then they might well find themselves quite alone when it is their turn to stand up to the bear.
Dumitru Minzarari is a Lane Kirkland fellow and an associate researcher with the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives in Chisinau, Moldova.