OPINIONS

Date: 24 November 2019

Russia’s policy strategy

Apart from breaking up the Transatlantic Alliance, the strategic goal of Russian policy has long been to break up the European Union. A solidarity-based and strong EU prevents Russia’s expansion on the Old Continent. Therefore, Moscow conducts hybrid activities directed towards the West, which are strikingly similar to those conducted during the Cold War, as they are also aimed at fuelling or even creating divisions within European society. At the same time, the Russians attack everyone who strives to reform the current, increasingly inefficient EU system. Although Moscow supports Eurosceptics, it absolutely loathes Eurorealists.

The main goal is to weaken the EU and NATO. To achieve this, not only does Russia use various tools of disinformation, but it also interferes in internal disputes by supporting or attacking all sides in order to further deepen divisions. This process can be observed at three different levels. At the first, highest, European level, there are attacks on the cohesion and the mere existence of both NATO and the EU. At the second, middle level, divisions and distrust between countries and nations are being created and fuelled. At the third, lowest level, conflicts are being created within the societies of individual countries, between different social groups, different nationalities or between the electorates of different parties. What is important, although, for a few years now, both the mainstream media and mainstream politicians have been trying to reinforce the belief that Eurosceptics are Russia’s only allies in Europe, such a division is false. In fact, Moscow has been investing heavily, or perhaps even more than one might expect, in liberal, pro-democratic and seemingly anti-Russian groups. The reasons are threefold. First, such groups are now dominant in Europe; therefore, they have a greater impact on decision-making processes in the EU. Second, it was their elites that were the most infiltrated by Soviet intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and now, in modern times, they have been the easiest to do business with for the Kremlin. Suffice it to mention such figures as Frans Timmermans or Guy Verhofstadt, who, interestingly enough, are today leading a crusade against the countries and governments that seek to reform and strengthen the EU, primarily, Poland and Hungary. Finally, third, it all boils down to fuelling conflicts …

Not so long ago, the Financial Times, a prestigious UK newspaper, has written that “the axis of illiberalism that unites Russia and Europe’s far-right (..) represents a pernicious threat to the moderate European political order and the well-being of European societies”. Simply put, the enemy has been identified. It is the populist supporters of Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. They seek to destroy the European Union, and, as if that was not already enough, they do so together with Putin. For a while now, this narrative has been pushed forward by the Western European political mainstream, its media and their respective branches in Central and Eastern Europe. Each case of cooperation between Eurosceptics and Russia has been highly publicised and strongly condemned. Of course, there should be no doubt that this is all because of cooperation with Russia. Nothing more deceptive. This is all because of Euroscepticism. The great coalition of the Christian Democrats and Social Liberals, supported by the far left and a broad spectrum of the Greens, is clearly fighting to maintain its dominance in Europe, and not so much as to bring Russian expansion to a halt. The crisis in Western Europe has now become a reality, which means that the political mainstream responsible for it is now defending itself by all means necessary. The problem is, however, that the Russians are interfering in this internal European rivalry. And not just by carrying out cyber-attacks and hitting the establishment on social media, all of which many Western governments are more than eager to point out. Russia is following a deliberate, long-term strategy that aims to weaken or to even break up Europe. The Kremlin openly supports populists and Eurosceptics, adopting the position of “the last defender” of traditional Christian values in Europe, and, simultaneously, though with far greater discretion, supports radical liberals, pacifist movements, foundations defending “the rule of law”, or even organisations and movements that, at first glance, might seem anti-Russian due to their constant bashing of the authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime, which has manifested itself, for example, in the persecution of the LGBT community.

Why is Moscow playing both ends against the middle? Because its goal is not, ultimately, the victory of Eurosceptics and parties that are favourably inclined towards Russia. The goal is to ensure the continuity of a political war between a new wave of populists and both the fossilised and politically correct (in the most extreme form possible) mainstream and the far left. The victory of either side is not even the point here. The point is, however, to ensure that the war continues and European society is becoming even more divided than ever before. In a sense, this strategy has already been implemented in Poland, where Russia is delighted with the high temperature of a conflict between the opposition and the government, which, as a result, prevents holding political debate on the future of the state, in which, apart from criticising the government’s proposals (relaying, of course, on facts, not assumptions), the opposition, being as responsible as it is, will present its own ideas. Indeed, Moscow must be especially amused to hear that the opposition has repeatedly accused the Law and Justice (PiS) government of making … pro-Russian policy. For the Kremlin, there is probably nothing better than the political turmoil that will in the future lead to reducing all, even the well-founded ones, accusations of being pro-Russian to absurdity. That being said, Poland is an excellent example of how Moscow is using officially progressive, European, democratic and liberal groups to attack the political camp that poses a considerable threat to Russia since it can affect the policy of the entire EU. Besides, here, the opponents of the current government in Warsaw, including those from Russia as well as from Berlin, Paris and Brussels, are faced with a serious dilemma. While Orbán can be attacked for his “despotism” and Salvini for his populism, both of which can still be combined with their very good relations with Moscow, in the case of Poland, however, this is not possible. Regardless of that, Moscow will most likely spare no efforts to achieve its goals, for example, by promoting all sorts of non-governmental foundations fighting for democracy.

During the Cold War, Moscow supported mainly Communist parties and pacifists. Today, it cooperates with the far right, the radical left and anti-establishment movements. At the same time, however, it collects evidence discrediting mainstream politicians and secretly, often through an intricate network of companies and foundations, supports and provides financial aid to individual politicians and non-governmental organisations that are generally considered to be liberal, democratic and highly critical of Putin’s regime. Why is the Kremlin doing this? Well, every time the mainstream grows weaker, Putin throws it a lifebuoy just to further fuel the conflict tearing Europe apart. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, the Russian president declared that liberalism has become obsolete. Although such a statement coming from Putin himself should not sound surprising, it triggered a strong response in the West, almost causing a wave of hysteria. One might even get the impression that the defence of the liberal idea prompted the Western elites to criticise Putin even more sharply than the successive crimes committed by his regime. With his anti-liberal rhetoric and the self-imposed role of the defender of conservatism and traditional values, Putin has become the perfect enemy rallying the defenders of the old order of Europe’s 1968 generation.

One can agree with the opinions, widely present in major European newspapers, that the main goal of Russia’s activities is to create divisions in European societies, but not necessarily “to demoralise the public’s faith in liberal political systems and values” (quoted from the Financial Times article). For the Kremlin, ideology is of secondary importance. It is just a means to an end. Therefore, it does not even matter whether some radical pro-life movement or advocates of homosexuals adopting children receive support from Moscow. The point is to destabilise Western society, or simply put, to turn the opposing groups against each other. For example, upon hearing about the crisis of values in Europe, extreme liberals and the progressive left automatically label anyone who shares this view as a useful idiot or a Russian spy. The mainstream attacks Eurosceptics, who are generally right-wing or conservative, claiming that they do all the scheming for Putin. The same can be applied to the defence of traditional values. The fact is that Moscow skilfully provides every reason for this, drawing Salvini and Le Pen into cooperation and trying to join Europe’s conservative and pro-life circles.

It seems that Moscow does not even count on the fact that, one day, the Eurosceptics of today will seize power in all major European countries as well as in Brussels. Although the crisis is now a reality, the Russians have found that it is far more profitable for them to prolong it than to allow it to reach its zenith. The occurrence of subsequent mishaps of France’s National Front, Italy’s League and Austria’s Freedom Party, which resulted in exposing cooperation with Russia or the willingness to establish it (involving financial gains), comes as no surprise. There is nothing to hide. If Moscow truly wished to hide the fact of supporting Eurosceptic populists in Europe, then it would really be that way. Instead, measures are being undertaken to weaken both Salvini and Le Pen, though only to such an extent as to prevent them from seriously threatening the mainstream running the EU, but not so much as to prevent Russia from using the two to attack and weaken the European community.

In the case of most European countries, Russia’s task is simplified inasmuch as there are relatively important far-right groups. The pattern is not complicated. On the one hand, there is a ruling camp, be it the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats (with a liberal touch), which calls for a strong EU, on the other hand, however, there are populists, oftentimes right-wing extremists, who do not pretend that, if they could, they would be more than happy to dissolve the European Union. Given that Russia has for quite some time been acting (of course, for the time being, to satisfy its current needs) as the defender of Christianity and traditional values that is fighting against “rotten” liberalism, the far right naturally clings to Moscow. For its mainstream opponents, this is a pretext to paint Eurosceptics as both the Kremlin’s fifth column and the enemies of a united Europe. However, the problem arises when there is a country where there are no significant right-wing extremists who could be easily intimidated by liberals and the government does not fit into the typically imposed division: it is anti-Russian, but not anti-EU. It does not strive to break up the EU, but rather to reform it. All this stems from the realisation that Russia, which is the greatest threat to Europe, is, indeed, the one that seeks to tear the EU apart. That is why, unlike many others, it refuses to cooperate with Moscow against the Brussels establishment, even though it has already endured a series of petty humiliations served up by the EU mainstream. All of the above refers, of course, to Poland and the PiS government.

In such circumstances, Moscow relies on slightly different methods than those in the case of, for example, France, where the country is becoming gradually destabilised by the Kremlin’s games with either the National Front or the so-called “yellow vests”, or even by influencing and tempting Macron himself. It is highly probable that in no other EU country does Russia use extreme liberals for its own purposes as much as it does in Poland, where they are fighting with the anti-Russian government by accusing it of being … pro-Russian. Of course, Russia does not attack Poland directly. In this case, it hides behind the so-called “false flag operations”. In short, Moscow makes use of its European resources and allies. Non-governmental organisations, foundations and even the media, some of which having quite suspicious links with Russia, all play an important role in fighting rebellious governments in countries such as Poland. It is particularly noteworthy to mention the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) and its founder, Lyudmyla Kozlovska. Their case illustrates well how difficult it is to fight against such methods of state destabilisation. After all, it is no coincidence that major German foundations and George Soros himself eagerly use non-governmental organisations as a weapon to fight against governments such as those in Poland and Hungary. Where do the Russians fit in all this? Once again, it is worth recalling ODF and Kozlovska. It is truly rare to find a more pro-European and much-cherished person in the high political circles of several Western capitals. When the authorities in both Poland and Moldova drew attention to her questionable connections with Russia, the response was quite clear: the law-breaching PiS government and Moldova’s most powerful oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, are taking their revenge on Kozlovska simply because she fights to defend democracy in both of these countries. Some time later, a change of government took place in Moldova. The camp oppressing Kozlovska disappeared and Maia Sandu, a pro-European politician, whom ODF had previously supported, became Moldova’s Prime Minister. What better evidence of Kozlovska fighting for Western values, the rule of law and democracy? Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, Moscow took real control over Moldova, and politicians affiliated with ODF, such as Maia Sandu and Andrei Năstase, entered into a coalition with the pro-Russian Socialists and recognised President Igor Dodon, who was recorded not only admitting that his party receives financial aid from the Russians, but also offering Plahotniuc a coalition arrangement, which, however, would have the form of some kind of a secret protocol signed in the presence of … the Russian ambassador to Moldova.

While in Moldova Kozlovska is fighting with the Plahotniuc government, in Poland, the activist is battling the PiS government. The backbone of the opposition presents itself as a liberal, pro-European and democratic front. Efforts are being made to portray the government as a group of anti-liberal, anti-European and pro-Russian populists. The problem is, however, that PiS is not anti-European, let alone pro-Russian. The issue of relations with Russia is of particular importance here. In reality, the liberal opposition is pursuing the goals of Russian policy. It has been trying to discredit the government, deliberately portraying it as being pro-Russian and anti-European; in other words, the point here is to undermine the image of the government that fiercely defends its position when dealing with Moscow, while, at the same time, striving to reform and strengthen the EU. In the meantime, however, the opposition is submitting proposals that de facto benefit Russia. The following are two examples of such undertakings: first, a demand that local border traffic with the Kaliningrad Oblast be restored (as part of his local election campaign, the former Minister of National Defence, Bogdan Klich, even promised that a railway connection between the Polish city of Olsztyn and Russia’s Kaliningrad would be built) and, second, the fight to stop the Vistula Spit waterway excavation project. Both are completely in line with Russia’s interests.

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.

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