Infiltration of an opposition demonstration, inciting the demonstrators to storm the country’s parliament, then having mercenaries disguised as police massacre them, while simultaneously assassinating the country’s long-serving Prime Minister.

The first scene of a Jason Bourne movie? No, an alleged coup attempt planned by Russian spies, thwarted in October 2016, on the day of the elections to Montenegro’s parliament. Originally circumspect in his allegations, the Montenegrin prosecutor now openly accuses Russian authorities of having masterminded the plot. Although much remains unclear, there are several developments that give credence to this accusation.1 But whatever the specific facts, it is but one of many manifestations of Russia’s growing appetite for intrusion in Central and Eastern European politics. More than 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Kremlin is rebuilding its political clout in the former Soviet empire.

What does Putin want?

In the early 2000s, many in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as well as in the West, were persuaded that Russia had been transformed into a relatively democratic, if not liberal, country. They believed that Russia’s primary objective was to stabilize its institutions, modernize its economy and develop business ties with the rest of Europe. Russia was seen politically as a strategic partner, and economically as a great business opportunity. Among other signs, this optimistic view was supported by the positive attitude toward the West that Russian President Vladimir Putin had adopted on taking office in 1999. For example, the Kremlin did not strongly oppose NATO’s expansion into the Baltic states in 2002.2 Similarly, Russians accepted the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia and, more generally, supported the American war on terror.

Soon, however, Russian foreign policy was subject to a major overhaul, triggered apparently by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, which followed upon the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia in 2000.3 This propagation of the “revolutionary virus,”4 replacing pro-Russian authoritarian regimes by more or less pro-Western democratic ones, was increasingly perceived as a threat to Putin’s regime. The events in Ukraine in particular were an eye-opener and, according to some observers, a shock comparable to 9/11 in the Western world.5

Putin and his entourage suddenly understood that the winds of change were clearly flowing in the wrong direction and that accommodation and openness toward the West had to come to a halt. Such a shift in foreign policy, which implied a more active role for Russia abroad, was facilitated by the favourable economic context brought about by skyrocketing gas prices, along with signs of weakness in the West such as the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the failed constitutional treaty in the European Union.6

The current regime’s survival is, without much doubt, the primary motivation for Russia’s activism in CEE and beyond. By weakening the West and pro-Western actors in the East, Russia aims to deprive its domestic opposition of material and ideological support. Although Putin seems to benefit from genuinely high approval within Russia – greatly facilitated by the state’s tight grip on the media – the mobilization potential of the opposition (as manifested in the nationwide protests on March 26) and the unpredictability of revolutionary movements should not be underestimated.7

A major warning came from Ukraine – symbolically, 10 years after the Orange Revolution. The Euromaidan events of 2014, which ousted Russia-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, constituted yet another pro-Western revolutionary upheaval in Russia’s backyard. Given that Russia had long felt threatened by the West, it does not come as a surprise that the Ukrainian déjà vu provoked Putin’s most aggressive and spectacular external action so far: the military campaign in Ukraine. Even though the annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in eastern Ukraine reflect Russia’s strategic interests (the importance of Russia’s naval base in Crimea’s capital Sevastopol) and imperial ambitions, the dominant considerations in these operations were domestic ones. The actions in Ukraine demonstrated Putin’s determination to fight resistance and bolstered his legitimacy. His popularity, which had been declining as a result of the economic downturn that began in 2012, shot up as the population was called on to “rally round the flag.”8

The second motivation underlying Russia’s increasing activity in CEE is its historical aspiration to be a great power. This aspiration, explicitly invoked by Putin even in his first presidential term, reflects elite and mass opinion. Surveys reveal that a majority of Russians are nostalgic for the Communist era, when the Soviet Union played a leading role on the world stage and CEE was part of the Soviet empire. Most Russians approve of the Kremlin’s increasingly neo-imperial and anti-Western discourse and agree that Russia has the right to regain control of its near abroad.9 By adopting aggressive, anti-Western expansionism, Putin extends Russia’s sphere of influence and – what likely matters more to him – consolidates his position back home.

Russia’s strategy and tools
Putin and Zeman

Because of its history and geography, CEE is the natural target for Russia’s expansion and principal battlefield for the confrontation between Russia and the West. Russia’s main objective is the weakening, delegitimization and, if possible, disintegration of the two main Western structures: NATO and the European Union. Territorial expansion is probably not a priority at this stage, but it may become one since if and when the main objective is met it will become infinitely easier to implement. To achieve its ends, the Kremlin employs three principal types of tools.

Military operations are the first and, obviously, the most extreme. They can be used in Russia’s close proximity and, as long as NATO is operational, only against countries that are not NATO members. Up to the mid-2000s, Russia acted mainly indirectly, helping keep armed conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan frozen. Since then, however, the Kremlin has not hesitated to launch direct military interventions, which all targeted countries that were moving into the Western orbit: Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014) and, presumably, Montenegro (2016).


After a victorious but embarrassing traditional war against Georgia in 2008, which revealed weaknesses in the Russian military, the last two operations took the form of hybrid warfare, executed by unidentified armed forces consisting of regular soldiers, mercenaries and local extremists. By officially denying any involvement (a key part of its disinformation campaign), Russia averts a direct response from NATO and, in case of failure (as in Montenegro), avoids embarrassment in domestic public opinion, which proved fatal to authoritarian regimes in the past. Conversely, as the Crimean experience demonstrates, it is never too late to claim responsibility in case of a positive outcome.10

In the Baltics, despite NATO’s guarantees, there is fear of a Russian invasion, especially with Donald Trump in the White House. The fact that Lithuania (in 2015) and neighbouring Sweden (in 2017) have reintroduced conscription, and that the measure has been discussed in Latvia, speaks for itself. In Estonia (which retains conscription) and in Latvia, there is concern about Russia’s instrumentalizing these two countries’ large Russian-speaking minorities in a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario. Moreover, these countries remain vulnerable to potential disruptions in the supply of Russian gas.11 Tension remains high, maintained by Russia’s frequent military drills, the reinforcement of its military presence in its Kaliningrad enclave, daily violations of the Baltic states’ airspace by Russian jets, disinformation and cyberattacks.

The second type of tools in CEE consists of circles of influence made up of CEE countries’ politicians, public officials, judges, secret services and business leaders, established through a combination of legal business operations, corruption, patronage and blackmail.12 In the first stage, businesses and lobbies close to the Kremlin typically establish economic partnerships in the target countries. Together with their local partners, they subsequently identify politicians and public officials to promote their economic interests and, by the same token, Russia’s political agenda. Once these politicians and officials receive money or other favours, sometimes without being aware of the origin of the largesse, they are trapped. Unless they want to see their career in ruins, they have to remain an active part of the Russia-affiliated network of influence. Some of these “agents” act, at least partially, on ideological grounds (Russophiles or nationalists opposed to supranational governance and globalization); others, however, seek personal gain as the networks have an interest in helping their members make it to the pinnacle of political and economic power.

For obvious reasons, the operations and scope of the Russian networks of influence are difficult to trace. Nevertheless, apart from testimonies, reports and leaks from counterintelligence,13 there is abundant anecdotal evidence of worrisome links between Russian lobbies and Central and Eastern European elected officials. As in western Europe, many pro-Russian sympathizers in CEE are found among both far-right and far-left politicians, whose anti-establishment and anti-Western orientations fit Russia’s goals extremely well. Political parties such as Jobbik (far right) in Hungary, the KSCM (Communist) in the Czech Republic, the SNS (far right) in Slovakia and Ataka (far right) in Bulgaria all defend pro-Russian positions and maintain close relations with Russia’s representatives.14

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Russia’s allies can be found in the highest echelons of CEE politics. It is publicly available information that Lukoil, the Russian state oil firm, has backed former Czech President Václav Klaus (2003–2013) and current President Miloš Zeman, who became perhaps the most high-profile and vocal detractors of the EU in the Western world. While constrained by the largely ceremonial role of the Czech presidency, Klaus and Zeman have artfully enrobed pro-Russian positions in the cloak of a populist and nationalistic discourse, which appeals to a large segment of the Czech electorate.15

In neighbouring Hungary and Slovakia, the long-serving prime ministers, Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico, have been more opportunistic in their support of Russia. However, using similar populist undertones, they do not hesitate to question European integration and criticize the sanctions that the EU adopted against the Kremlin in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In those countries, Russia’s main leverage is energy.16 Hungary signed a 2014 deal with Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear firm, to build a nuclear power plant, funded by a Russian loan. Slovakia, which has also negotiated with Rosatom over the construction of a new nuclear reactor, is notably concerned by the construction of a new pipeline (Nord Stream 2) between Russia and Germany, which could deprive it of lucrative revenue from the transmission of Russian gas to western Europe.

In southeastern Europe, Russia benefits from strong historical, cultural and business ties in countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia and Moldova. Public opinion is somewhat more sympathetic toward Russia here than it is in central Europe. Mainstream political parties tend to try to strike a balance between the West and Russia, turning a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. This is particularly true of Serbia, which despite its bid for EU membership has refused to participate in EU sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, Serbia takes part in joint military exercises with the Kremlin, and purchases military equipment from Russia. In return, the Russians defend Serbia’s claim to Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in 2006, and question Serbia’s responsibility for war crimes during the Yugoslav Civil War. Russia also supports Serb minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo and instrumentalizes their grievances to disrupt the shaky regional stability maintained by NATO.17

The third type of tools through which Russia interferes in CEE politics is a vast disinformation campaign, which has intensified since the Ukraine crisis.18 The campaign relies on a variety of vehicles:

  • official Russian media run in multiple language forms (the RT and Pierviy Kanal TV stations and the Sputnik news agency);
  • a multitude of mostly online platforms in CEE languages, ranging from conspiracy and antisystem magazines to relatively respectable news outlets;
  • puppet pro-Russian nongovernmental organizations and think tanks;
  • groups, pages and channels on social networks and video-sharing platforms;
  • internet trolls, bloggers and bots (automated accounts on social media and discussion forums).

These different vehicles interact and spread disinformation by combining fabricated stories and twisted interpretations with factually accurate reporting.

Current Russian disinformation is considerably more sophisticated and efficient than Soviet propaganda used to be, especially because it seldom focuses on Russia. Instead, the main objective is to divide and polarize the targeted societies and undermine public trust and support for democratic institutions, the mainstream media and Western structures and alliances (NATO, the EU, the United States). The West is depicted as belligerent, morally corrupt and on the brink of collapse. Western democracy is reportedly subverted by collusion of political and business elites supported by mainstream media that are biased, censored and manipulative.19

The campaign targets different countries with messages to fit their particular circumstances. Although it is global in its objectives, as illustrated by its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the campaign is particularly intense in Central and Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic alone, the Prague-based think tank European Values counted 39 Russian disinformation websites in April 2016. The most prominent targets are the Baltic countries with Russian minorities and the aforementioned countries that have been historically close to Russia (Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova and Montenegro).20

Prospects for democracy and security in Central and Eastern Europe

Crimea sets a dangerous precedent. Russia managed to illegally annex it with practically no resistance, and today the status of the peninsula is no longer on the negotiating table. EU authorities condition the removal of the sanctions against Russia on implementation of the Minsk II agreement, which aims to pacify the situation in eastern Ukraine but says nothing about Crimea.21 More widely, Russian disinformation, capitalizing on recent challenges faced by the European Union (especially the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, terrorism and Brexit) and on Russia’s military success in Ukraine and Syria, seems to bear fruit in a variety of European countries.22 It also contributes to the rise of populism in Western countries. The emergence of increasingly authoritarian and inward-looking governments in Poland and Hungary could encourage the rise of similar governments elsewhere in CEE.23 To this must be added the effect of statements by the new U.S. President and his entourage undermining the credibility of NATO’s commitments in CEE.

Russia’s dream of a restored position of leadership – of a disintegrated, divided, and vulnerable CEE under its hegemony – has little prospect of materializing in the near future. Yet, in contrast to a few years ago, it is sadly no longer entirely implausible. In confronting the West, Putin’s regime has the advantage of facing fewer moral, legal and procedural constraints than its foes. As the first post-Communist Czech President, playwright and dissident Václav Havel, put it, “It is a natural disadvantage of democracy that it ties the hands of those who wish it well, and opens unlimited possibilities for those who do not take it seriously.”24 Naturally, EU member states cannot apply the same methods to fight Russia’s activities in CEE as Putin employs to repress opposition in Russia. Similarly, the West is penalized by an asymmetric exposure to disinformation. As a study by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence explains, “Via RT and Perviy Kanal, Russia has free access to democratic societies, while the West’s ability to influence Russian audiences is limited and controlled by the state.”25

Still, there is still a good case for optimism. First, Russia does not really propose an alternative model to Western democracy.26 Few Europeans are seriously attracted by the prospect of living in an illiberal and unequal society. The current populist challenge, supported by Russia, is for many voters a call for more and not less democracy. And although EU institutions face multiple criticisms, a large majority of Europeans support EU policies (including common defence and security). Similarly, in spite of Russia’s disinformation campaign, the prosperity of European Union membership remains attractive in the Balkans.27

Second, the European Union and NATO are, economically and militarily, incomparably stronger than Russia. For Moscow, an open confrontation with the West is thus, under the current circumstances, undesirable if not inconceivable.

Third, some countries are learning how to counter disinformation. The Scandinavian versions of the news agency Sputnik closed in 2016 because of low readership. Factors such as high-performing adult education systems and the actions taken by the public authorities to inform the public of the Russian threat presumably helped.28 This is something many European governments could do better. Although the Kremlin clearly wages an information war against Europe, relatively few Europeans perceive Russia as a major threat when compared to the Islamic State, climate change or economic instability.29

Fourth, both NATO and the most exposed countries (the Baltic states, Poland and their Scandinavian neighbours) have built up their defence capacities and seem increasingly prepared for Russian hostility. In addition, notwithstanding the verbal opposition voiced by the Hungarian and Slovak prime ministers, EU governments remain united in the sanctions against Russia.

Finally, even though the Kremlin currently seems to be on the offensive, it should not be forgotten that its actions were initially motivated by its increasing vulnerability. However improbable it seems now, Putin’s destiny could be that of many authoritarians before him (including the Soviet leaders) whose support unexpectedly crumbled like a house of cards.30 As we write these lines, protest marches against corruption are taking place in more than 80 cities all around Russia. In the years to come, as Putin’s position weakens, we could very well see an escalation of the confrontation with the West. Yet, we could also see a change in Russian leadership and thus, hopefully, significantly better prospects for democracy and security in Central and Eastern Europe. Continue reading “The Kremlin strikes back”