The results of the US presidential election are forcing Russia to focus on its own hybrid efforts in the EU. Only there does Russia have a prospect of success. Only in the EU there is room for active maneuvers and a powerful pro-Russian lobby.
Caution towards Washington, increased interest in Brussels
The storming of the Capitol on January 6 not only became a dramatic episode in recent US political history; it also prompted an investigation into the circumstances of this provocative move, which was supposed to shake the foundations of democracy in the United States. There already is information that one of the rioters plotted to sell a laptop stolen from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to Russian intelligence. For now, there’s no proven Russian connection and, as far as we know, the woman acted on her own accord, but if the investigation into the January 6 events would reveal any sort of Russian connection to the rioters, that would surely have a strong impact on an already strained relationship. The new political configuration in Washington – Joe Biden at the White House and the Democratic Party in a tenuous control of the Senate – will not stop communication between Washington and Moscow, but the former is likely to be more demanding than the previous administration. This is already evidenced by a telephone conversation between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. The themes touched upon by the American president (including the alleged Russian interference in the 2020 elections) and the cold tone of the White House statement about the conversation suggest that the Kremlin has no reason to hope for another "reset" of relations with the United States. The extension of the New START treaty is still the only compromise.
However, even if Moscow might have to walk on its toes, it is too early to say that it will abandon hybrid activity. This is her “modus operandi” and way to prove the “greatness of Russia”. More caution with the US might mean more focus on the EU. The Kremlin's main goal will be to destabilize the situation in the European Union, and Putin's supposedly deteriorating health (a fact that was also stressed by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine in its "White Paper") is unlikely to prevent this.
Moscow's strategy and Putin's frustrations
I will explain my own hypothesis based on a few facts. The first, for as long as the EU exists within its current borders, especially the Eastern ones, Russia does not have the possibility to expand its sphere of influence. It is limited to the post-Soviet countries, like Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, and even there Moscow is challenged by a number of factors – the very existence of a different model, that of the liberal democracies based on the rule of law that is working and it is prosperous and thus, a good example, and the existence of European neighborhood policies and the incentives given to these countries that, if they are willing to reform, one day they might even join the European club.
That is why Moscow seeks to undermine Europe from within. If Brussels has problems to deal with, its ability to focus beyond the EU borders diminishes. Also, a Europe in trouble is no longer a tempting example and, last but not least, countries that may leave the European club would be easier targets in the soft-power game.
Brexit is a perfect example of Europe facing problems from within – and this is my second point. One must remember that there were some connections between the Leave camp and Moscow, and even if the impact of Russia’s interference is not clear and the final decision rested with the British people, one thing is certain: Moscow did not shed a tear for Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Brexit impacts the EU as a whole and it creates a precedent for other exits, though it is worth noting that the way the divorce negotiations unfolded might discourage others to follow suit the Brits; also, it is important to see how Brexit, now that it is accomplished, will actually work on the medium and long time.
The third point regards Putin's personal attitude towards the EU, especially following the September 19, 2019 European Parliament resolution that states that the responsibility for inciting World War II rests both with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This decision has left a deep imprint on Putin's mind, especially since Russia has put, during the past several years, a lot of energy into pushing its alternate version of history, in which the USSR was a mere victim of the Nazi aggression – and not a country that, prior to being invaded by Germany, had signed a Treaty of non-Aggression with Berlin (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August the 23rd, 1939), attacked Poland as that country was fighting the Nazis, and annexed the Baltic states and part of Romania.
Luring the West with economic growth while pushing the nationalistic card in the East
The coronavirus pandemic has created grounds for a Russian political counteroffensive. The European Union, unlike NATO, did not immediately find convincing arguments to demonstrate unity. Despite the start of vaccination against COVID-19 at the end of 2020, all EU countries have been given some leeway in purchasing the vaccine. Russia has managed to advance a contract for 2 million doses of Sputnik V vaccine to Hungary. This decision has, first of all, a propagandistic effect, but it’s also a way for Moscow to test the strength of the European unity. The spread of coronavirus might give it new opportunities.
The vaccine is only one part of the picture. There are economic factors too at work. The pandemic has increased demand for investment, new markets, and everybody is hoping and asking for a rapid economic recovery. Unfortunately, Russia is well versed in the demands and needs of the collective West. The Kremlin is now continuing political maneuvers around NordStream2, which is important for both Germany and its economy. In stock – proposals to lift the sanctions it was subjected to during the past several years, backed by a willingness to buy European goods with high added value. This can accelerate the recovery of a number of European economies, and would allow those European politicians who today determine the fate of the EU to retain power. Putin will try to “bribe” those he truly despises with the promise of economic growth. It is a desire to trap opponents, to force them to violate the principles on which there is a strong European policy.
Vladimir Putin does not profess the principles of peaceful coexistence. Russia will also try to take advantage of the frictions between Central and Old Europe, the growth of xenophobia and the rise of nationalist sentiment. The main targets here are Hungary and Poland, the EU's Central European problematic members. Although the nature of Budapest's and Warsaw's relations with Moscow is different, the Kremlin sees both countries as "weak links". The Kremlin has experience working with various allies and uses a triad of informational influence: Russia Today television - Sputnik Media news agency - Olgino bots and trolls. The coronavirus infodemia has significantly increased the vulnerability of the European community to fake news and misinformation, and this must also be considered.
Blocking EU enlargement remains the Kremlin's priority
It seems important for Russia to strike at the prospects of EU enlargement. The crisis of the Eastern Partnership allows it to act more actively. After the autumn military confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia expanded its military presence in the South Caucasus. Whether she will leave the region in the near future is a rhetorical question. In Georgia, the parliamentary elections ended not only with the victory of the ruling Georgian Dream, but also with a political crisis that played into the hands of the Kremlin.
Moldova, despite the rise to power of pro-European President Maia Sandu, remains under the threat of retaliation by pro-Russian forces in the parliamentary elections. Igor Dodon demonstratively shows he’s got a deal with Moscow. Belarus is in a state of deep political crisis, which for Russia is a win-win. Neither Alexander Lukashenko nor any of his potential successors intend to change Belarus' foreign policy.
It is obvious that Russia's strategic task is to hinder Ukraine's European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The ongoing conflict in Donbas is perceived by the Kremlin as an instrument of influencing Ukraine's foreign policy choices. As for Crimea, its retention in Russia after the illegal occupation and annexation is vital for Putin. Russian legislation since last year forbids even discussing the prospect of the peninsula returning to Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has a significant arsenal of influence on the current political leadership of Ukraine and skillfully destabilizes the situation inside the country.
Russia is projected to try to influence the situation in the Western Balkans as well. The Kremlin sees North Macedonia's accession to NATO as a failure and intends to take revenge in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, using the echoes of the military conflict of the 1990s.
Will the EU be able to counter the Kremlin's increasing hybrid influence? The question does not look rhetorical and requires asymmetry of thinking and action. It is not enough to expose fakes and determine the speed of their spread - you need to quickly create your own agenda, using the latest channels of information dissemination. It is not enough to organize "battles for history" - it is necessary to form a pan-European narrative, which will be a clear alternative, in particular, to the "Immortal Regiment". It is not enough to talk about the uniqueness of the European Union - it is necessary to determine the trajectory of its further development.