Often overlooked in Moscow’s campaign against the West is its growing institutional penetration of democratic societies.
While Russia’s information wars, cyber attacks, energy controls, business corruption, election interference, inter-ethnic incitement, and military buildup are rigorously scrutinized, the infiltration of social, political, religious, and cultural organizations also requires systematic monitoring.
Democracies are vulnerable to subversion, as hostile powers can manipulate the freedom to speak, assemble, and organize in order to weaken the functioning of targeted states. Moscow markets various ideologies and causes in the West, offers money and favors, fosters suspicion toward elected governments, and incites hostility toward multi-national institutions. By a process of attrition, the Kremlin entraps an extensive array of parties, religious groups, and non-governmental organizations to serve its ends.
Europe’s volatile political scene has become a playground for Russian infiltrators – from radical leftists and anti-American pacifists to ultra-right conservatives and anti-NATO nationalists. The Kremlin cultivates links with populist and nationalist formations that become significant political actors, encouraging them to push Moscow-friendly policies. Italy’s new governing coalition and the nationalist bloc in the Bulgarian administration are two prominent examples. In several countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, the major leftist and nationalist parties have maintained close contacts with Moscow, often through President Putin’s United Russia party.
Religion is now a valuable tool for the Kremlin. Unlike the Soviet anti-religious campaigns, the Russian state exploits religious institutions to battle the principles on which Western democracies are founded, particularly individual liberty. Russia’s Orthodox Church has a long tradition of serving the government; the Moscow Patriarchate helps maintain Russian influence among Orthodox believers within the former USSR and promotes anti-Western and anti-democratic policies. Moscow steers the Patriarchate to exert its influence in Orthodox-majority states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, Bulgaria, Armenia, and Georgia in order to generate pro-Russian sentiment. Concurrently, various religious denominations are encouraged to oppose a range of social policies from LGBTI rights to abortion, and to depict Moscow as the cradle of traditionalism, family values, and godliness.
The Kremlin has also developed an NGO front, in which it imitates the West’s democracy building programs by funding policy institutes and supposed human rights groups that push for anti-American and pro-Russia policies. Branches of Kremlin-funded institutes, claiming to provide alternative viewpoints, have been established in some Western states to attract critics of Western policies. The most well-known outfit is the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS), which remains close to the Putin regime. The RISS has established branches in several European capitals and funds joint programs with some Western institutions. Kremlin money also seeps in from Russian energy companies and academic institutes or through camouflaged third parties, seeking to influence Western scholars, journalists, and policy analysts and give Putinists a voice in the U.S. and Europe.
Anti-globalist and anti-capitalist protest groups present another opportunity for Kremlin infiltration and are reminiscent of the Cold War-era peace movements and other anti-American fellow travelers. Russia has funded several specific “cause groups” that campaign against some Western policy that Moscow opposes, including anti-fracking environmentalists in Romania and Lithuania to prevent the development of alternative indigenous gas supplies.
Cultural and historical associations, veterans groups, and Russian friendship societies provide additional avenues of penetration and are particularly active in countries that have some positive historical connections with Russia, including Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russian services have also targeted sports, hobbyist, and lifestyle groups to promote pro-Moscow policies. These include gun clubs, bikers’ societies, and survivalist groups. For instance, the Night Wolves bikers club, of which Putin is an honorary member, has established links with similar groups across central Europe and the Balkans, where they promulgate Russian chauvinism.
Kremlin officials are also paying increasing attention to the large Russian diaspora in Western states. Whereas in Soviet times they were condemned for their anti-communism, in the Putinist era Russian expatriates are encouraged to support their Motherland and its foreign policies. Russian communities in the West are beginning to spawn lobbying groups and political campaigns in order to convince national politicians that cooperation with Russia is in their best interests. Patriotic youth camps in Russia are arranged for young people from various European states, in which the youth receive basic military training and are imbued with Russian imperial propaganda.
Moscow has two overlapping objectives in its campaign of social attrition: destruction and diversion. The destructive goal is to weaken and divide Western societies, prevent democratic consolidation in transforming states, and undermine public trust in politicians and institutions in mature democracies. The diversionary goal is to depict Moscow as a supporter of important domestic causes and a partner in defense of sovereignty and tradition, thus weakening Western policies that sanction or ostracize Russia. Western societies remain particularly prone to Kremlin penetration when they are lulled by propaganda, are enticed by money, or remain ignorant of the ultimate cause they are serving.
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.
Photo: President of Russia
13 June 2018