The outbreak of the mass EuroMaidan street protests in Kyiv (2013) and Russia’s subsequent aggression against Ukraine convinced the Kremlin of the need to project Russian “soft power” to blunt any response from Europe. However, Western countries ostracized Russia particularly after it illegally and forcibly annexed Crimea. Consequently, Russia could no longer easily rely on large Russian corporations to influence mainstream European politicians and members of civil society “to see things from Moscow’s point of view,” as used to be the case. Instead, European extremists and radicals became the Kremlin’s main allies on the continent (Svoboda.org, July 28, 2016; see EDM, September 5, 2014). A recent case in point has been the March 28/29 grenade-launcher attack on the Polish consulate in Lutsk, western Ukraine, by unknown individuals but made to appear like an effort by home-grown Ukrainian nationalists to politically divide Kyiv from Warsaw. The Ukrainian and Polish authorities both suspect Russia’s hand in this incident (TVN24, March 29, 2017).
In recent years, extremist group “fan clubs” of Russian President Vladimir Putin have mushroomed all over Europe. Even Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik described Putin as a “just and decisive leader, worthy of respect” (Opendemocracy.net, April 28, 2014). Initially, these forces did not enjoy wide popular support, and their accession to power was deemed virtually impossible. Today, such an outcome looks less fantastical, and the Kremlin’s financial investments could eventually begin paying off (Defence24.pl, February 8, 2015).
When it came to building influence in Central Eastern Europe, however, the Kremlin faced a serious problem. Unlike in so-called “old Europe,” where Moscow could count on organized parties/movements, in countries of the former Eastern Bloc Putin’s support was mainly tied to individual politicians. Furthermore, the painful memories of Soviet occupation served as an antidote against Russophilia throughout much of the region. Therefore, Moscow’s operational goals developed two prongs: First, to nurture local pro-Russian political forces, and second, to pit these countries against Ukraine and foster anti-American and anti-European sentiments.
Within the past several months, relations between Kyiv and Warsaw, previously deemed strategic regional allies, deteriorated substantially. In large part, the relationship soured as a result of the heated debate about the role of Ukrainian nationalists in the “Volyn Massacre” of local Poles in Galicia (1943) and current policies of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, headed by Volodymyr Viatrovych. A new threshold was passed in January, when Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party leader Jarosław Kaczyński declared, “The way Ukraine interprets its history casts a big shadow of doubt on the future of relations between Poland and Ukraine” (Eurointegration.com.ua, January 30).
This has been supplemented by a number of hideous instances of vandalism at Polish cemeteries in Lviv, immediately hailed by Russian mass media for propaganda purposes (Gazeta Wyborcza, January 10). And these episodes are merely the tip of the iceberg. Such recent provocations as the attack on the Polish consulate in Lutsk and the blockade of the international highway connecting Poland and western Ukraine by local paid radicals have further embittered bilateral relations (Espreso.tv, March 29, 2017).
The roots of these “mysterious” developments are much easier to understand thanks to the materials published by the “hacktivist” group Ukrainian Cyber Alliance (UCA). In particular, the UCA has released the private e-mail correspondence of the “Grey Cardinal” of the Russian World in Central and Eastern Europe, Alexander Usowskii (Informnapalm.org, February 22, 2017). Usowskii is a Belarusian activist suspected of organizing anti-Ukraine rallies in Poland. This e-mail dump sheds light on the nature of Moscow’s immediate and longer-term strategic goals in the region.
On the basis of the aforementioned documents, the following key points could be made:
First, Russia has chosen Poland as its primary target for destructive activities and spreading of disinformation. As the region’s largest country and a direct neighbor to Ukraine, Poland is being pitted against Ukraine to erode the level of support for Kyiv among European Union states. For this purpose, Moscow is ready to employ a broad spectrum of tools, ranging from support for far-right radicals, various social platforms and non-governmental organizations (NGO), with the aim of creating the image of “Fascist Ukraine” that hails Stepan Bandera and rejects European integration. In particular, the Kremlin sponsors “anti-war” (in practice anti-Ukrainian) rallies and backs local pro-Russian politicians such as the notorious fringe nationalist Mateusz Piskorski (see EDM, April 29, 2015). According to the Usowskii e-mails, Russia’s ultimate goal in Poland is the creation of a pro-Russian fraction inside the Polish parliament (Sejm).
A second Russian strategic goal is the infiltration of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic) by propagating anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiment. This is being done via various NGOs and foundations, such as the East European Cultural Initiative (Východoeurópska Kultúrna Iniciatíva), organized in 2014 in Slovakia. Moreover, Moscow relies on Russia-friendly rhetoric and political activities by leftist forces in the Czech Republic such as the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, a member of the European United Left–Nordic Green Left bloc in the European Parliament (Informnapalm.org, March 1).
Third, in addition to Ukraine, Russia is determined to discredit Moldova’s international image. Of particular importance for this strategy are two planning documents: “Project: Moldova is not Romania” and “Project: Ukraine is not the European Union.” These projects are apparently supposed to create and promote slanted images of both countries in the West, suggesting that Moldova and Ukraine’s “natural” pre-disposition leans toward relations with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than Europe.
Fourth, the e-mails released by the UCA again highlight how the Kremlin employs large numbers of trolls and “patriotic” bloggers with the aim to secure victory in the realms of informational and cyber warfare. Presumably, recent Russian reforms to upgrade the country’s offensive cyber capabilities—such as by the creation of military “cyber units” and via the widely discussed expansion of powers of the Russian National Guard to control the Internet (see EDM, March 21)—are likely to soon be employed by the Kremlin on a far greater scale.
Finally, the hacked documents expose the involvement in these regional operations of such top-ranking Russian officials as Konstantin Zatulin (first deputy chairman of the State Duma committee for the Commonwealth of Independent States and relations with Russian nationals abroad) and Konstantin Malofeev (the “Orthodox oligarch” and unofficial sponsor of Russian aggression in Donbas) (see Hot Issue, August 8, 2014).
Clearly, Russian agitprop operations across Central and Eastern Europe are being driven from the very top. And the revelations found in Usowskii’s leaked e-mails reinforce the need to boost the resiliency of these societies.