Ten years ago, the idea that Russia had the will or ability to interfere in other countries’ affairs was widely dismissed as paranoid scaremongering. Not any more. Events in the United States, France, Ukraine and elsewhere have highlighted the Kremlin’s ability—real or perceived—to project power beyond its borders.
Yet one of the most important theatres of the East-West tussle has so far escaped attention. In the southeastern corner of Europe, Russian influence is particularly strong, while the West’s fragile pull is weakening. This shift, dating back nearly 20 years but largely unnoticed outside the region, is the subject of Dimitar Bechev’s masterly and meticulous book, “Rival Power.”
The book covers Russia’s attempts to expand its influence in 14 countries: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. The variation is wide: boringly prosperous Slovenia has long since shed its “ex-communist” label, while lowly Moldova—the poorest country in Europe—is still plagued by its Soviet past. Albania is staunchly Atlanticist, whereas other countries, notably Cyprus, Greece and Serbia, are cheerleaders for Russia.
This is not the Cold War, nor is it 19th century geopolitics. There are no clear dividing lines, and military might is of peripheral importance. Money goes a long way in corrupt, poor countries. Oil and gas exports are the other main source of Kremlin clout, exercised both openly and covertly. Soft power plays a role too: Russia’s self-portrayal as the defender of traditional Orthodox values and national sovereignty against an arrogant and decadent West resonates.
Bechev’s nuanced and detailed account unpacks some misleading stereotypes. For all its success in building bridgeheads of influence, Russia is no rival to the European Union in economic terms, or to NATO in military heft. Russia’s forte is “insertion and disruption”—an opportunistic approach rather than a costly bid for regional hegemony. Its goal is to “undercut and upset” Western rules and institutions, but it lacks a coherent alternative model of its own.
Its allies in this include local tycoons and strongmen—people such as the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some local politicians also see electoral advantages in taking a vehemently pro-Kremlin, anti-Western stance—though as Bechev notes, some of them speak no Russian and have never actually been there.
The Kremlin’s greatest asset is what Bechev refers to as “chancers”—those who, in an era of Western weakness and indecision, see the immediate advantage of dealing with Russia, but without wanting to hitch themselves permanently to the Kremlin’s cause. Such people abound in southeastern Europe. But they can be found in plenty of other places too.
The big worry, though, is that the West’s reaction, though commendable, is out of date. NATO, for example, has woken up to its problem in the Baltic states and Poland. It has drawn up contingency plans, positioned trip-wire forces there, and holds regular exercises. That has diminished the danger of a successful, surprise Russian attack. It has also dispelled the idea that the eastern allies are “NATO-lite” countries the alliance has no real intention or capability of defending.
Similarly, the EU now takes energy security seriously. Ten years ago, it was just beginning to realize the danger of Russia’s monopolistic and corrupt gas-export business. Now we have a north-south gas grid, blunting the effect of the old east-west pipelines. Thanks to the Third Energy Package, Russia’s vertically integrated model has been unbundled. And the efforts of the Competition Directorate have forced Russia to abandon its politically loaded use of country-by-country pricing.
True, a lot more needs to be done. NATO has not yet sorted out air defense in the Baltic region. Integration with Sweden and Finland could be better. Ukraine needs more military assistance. For its part, the EU has failed to block the NordStream 2 gas pipeline. It is shamefully unwilling to fund its counter-disinformation effort properly.
But I am more worried by the unthinking assumption that the Kremlin will play only the cards that it has used before, and will do so in a convenient and predictable manner. Disruptive “DDoS” cyber-attacks worked against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. Since then, Russia has adopted much more sophisticated forms of cyber attack, such as those on the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016.
Russia has also moved away from the crude hacking-and-leaking attacks that worked so well in the United States last year. They failed in the French presidential election, and were not even tried in Germany last month. Similarly, it is still possible that that the Kremlin will stoke and exploit an insurrection in some ethnically Russian part of Estonia or Latvia. But I think that is highly unlikely. I also think Russia is increasingly unlikely to ever launch a military offensive of the kind it rehearsed during this year’s Zapad exercise.
We should continue to try to reduce still further the risks of such attacks. But much greater attention should go into identifying and countering the next generation of Russian tactics.
The West’s record here is poor: we missed Russia’s use of cyber, energy, military and propaganda attacks. We should be humble about assuming we will spot the next threat before it hits us. My recommendation is to take advice from the frontline states. Whatever Russia tries will probably be visible there first.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
5 Oct 2017