Russia’s Soft Strategy to Hostile Measures in Europe
They’ve been called political warfare, measures short of war, gray zone warfare, and a host of other terms. Whatever the preferred term of art, Russia has used a wide range of hostile measures — political, economic, diplomatic, intelligence, and military activities — to expand its influence and undermine governments across the European continent. And yet, for all the attention paid to the subject, there remains a basic paradox in Russia’s actions. On the one hand, Russia’s actions are widespread and sophisticated, employing a varied toolset to differing degrees depending on local circumstances. On the other, in most of Europe, the results so far have been lackluster at best. There are two keys to unraveling this enigma. First, Russia faces a structural problem: Its leverage tends to be greatest in countries in its near abroad, and not necessarily in those countries best positioned to accomplish Russia’s other key foreign priorities of changing the overall bent of Western policy, undermining institutions like the European Union and NATO or promoting its vision of itself as a great power. Second, because its hostile measures are unpredictable and generally unlikely to succeed, Russia has adopted a “soft strategy” for employing these measures, using a wide array of tactics without a clear picture of how they will ultimately serve its interests.
Russian hostile measures span the continent of Europe, from Sweden to Italy and Spain to Moldova. While some measures are similar in many countries, such as its RT television network and its control of energy resources, Russia also tailors its approach. Russia can reach out to the population of Russian and Soviet migrants and their children in Estonia and Latvia. It can seek to exacerbate ethnic conflict in the Balkans by training paramilitaries in Bosnia or stir up strife by sowing discord in the Hungarian minority in Romania. While Russian ties to the far right across Europe have attracted much of the attention, Russia has also allegedly forged relationships with far-left parties. And modern Russian propaganda is similarly tailored, if inconsistent, in its messages. Not all of these threats are equally concerning, but virtually no country on the continent is wholly untouched and in no two countries is Russia’s approach precisely the same.
Despite their prevalence and seeming sophistication, however, Russian hostile measures produce few clear victories. To be sure, disillusionment with the European Union is up, particularly across Eastern Europe, and support for far-right populism has increased across the continent. How much of either trend can be chalked up to Russian hostile measures versus other confounding variables, most notably Europe’s own internal monetary and domestic policy problems, is not clear. Similarly, recent investigations reveal that Russia launched a disinformation campaign to shape the Brexit vote, leveraging RT and Sputnik to promote pro-“Leave” messages and activating 3,800 fake Twitter accounts during the day of the Brexit vote alone to drum up support. And yet, the impact of Russia’s effort is more ambiguous: Viewership data suggest that RT only comprised 0.04 percent of the U.K.’s television viewing for the week of the referendum and polls leading up to the Brexit vote suggest that the outcome was quite close, especially once we consider different polling methodologies. More clear is the failure of alleged Russian efforts, including a campaign to influence the 2017 French election and a coup attempt in Montenegro.
Even when elections have not gone quite the way some in the West would have liked, the results have still fallen short of an indisputable win for the Kremlin. Some governments, like Andrzej Duda’s Poland, may be skeptical of the European Union, but they are still hostile to Moscow. Similarly, the long-feared election of parties dominated by Russian speakers has not shifted E.U. or NATO policy in Latvia or Estonia.
Of the few examples of Russian hostile measures that have produced tangible results, most tended to have a smaller impact. For instance, Russian support for anti-fracking protests allegedly helped kill energy projects in Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova that could have challenged Russia’s energy hold over much of Europe. Even if new energy projects emerged in Southeast Europe, they would likely not challenge Russia’s energy dominance in Western Europe.
Ultimately, this mismatch between Russia’s tactical sophistication and level of investment and its seeming lack of success stems from a structural challenge it faces. Russia’s influence is greatest in the post-Soviet space, particularly those countries that fall outside the European Union, including eastern Europe, the western Balkans and the Central Asian states. Russian or other Slavic languages are widely spoken in these countries, making them more likely to turn to Russia for their news. Still, the former Warsaw Pact countries inside the European Union tend to be more economically dependent on Russia and some face higher corruption. Russia, for example, still drives Bulgaria’s tourism, banking and telecommunication sectors. Even without a deliberate attempt to wield “hostile” influence to undermine the European Union or NATO, Russia would still have considerable sway over the country.
Russia wants influence in its immediate neighborhood, sometimes called its “near-abroad.” But achieving most of its other core interests — from enhancing its position as a great power to protecting itself from perceived Western encroachment — requires swaying publics further abroad in Central and Western Europe. After all, Western Europe is still home to Europe’s largest economies, most powerful militaries, and key U.S. military bases. Western European countries also do not share the same cultural and linguistic ties with Russia. Western Europe is dependent on Russian energy, but the dependency goes both ways, as Russia needs energy exports to fuel its economy. Consequently, Russian hostile measures face a steeper climb where additional Russian influence could have the greatest impact.
Partly because it knows that most of its tactics will fail, Russia relies on a soft strategy when employing hostile measures. A soft strategy differs from a more linear, Western approach that clearly specifies intermediate goals and expectations for the outcomes of specific actions. For example, Russia likely does not expect that support for a particular far-right party in France or Hungary or the election of any particular leader will accomplish the goal of undermining NATO and the European Union. Rather, Russia hopes that these measures, in combination with other activities or fortuitous circumstances, will create outcomes in its favor or opportunities it can later exploit. Not only does this conception of Russian strategy fit with the diffuse pattern of Russian hostile measures across Europe, it also aligns with portrayals of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision-making style. As Brookings Institution Russia experts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy note, Putin has “strategic objectives, and…many ways to achieve those objectives,” but “exactly what his next step towards the objective will be depends on the circumstances. It depends on how his adversary reacts.”
Russia’s soft strategy with hostile measures may also point to what the United States and its European allies could do to counter these measures. One broad solution to Russian hostile measures could be to address the vulnerabilities they target, such as measures by a range of U.S. government agencies to strengthen the rule of law, diminish ethnic tension, enhance cyber security, and create resilience to information campaigns. Judicious selection of these measures is important, however. The U.S. government has pursued many of these activities for decades in the parts of Europe most vulnerable to Russian influence, with mixed results. Responding to every Russian attempt may be wasteful, given that not all are likely to succeed. Rather, the United States and the West could concentrate their resources on the most vulnerable countries and on the few measures that do resonate with targeted publics.
In this competition, the political and economic levers of the European Union may very well be as important as NATO’s military tools, since many of these issues fall outside the traditional security lane. The U.S. military does have some role, such as when Russia uses its locally dominant military or intelligence forces to bully U.S. allies or partners, but these cases are more the exception rather than norm. In this sense, labeling Russian hostile measures as political warfare, measures short of war, or gray zone warfare may in fact be misleading, if not self-defeating, because the military’s role in such a conflict may be quite limited. And yet, no matter what label is used to describe Russian hostile measures, or with whom the United States chooses to partner, these tactics should be appreciated for what they are — part of a larger, coherent Russian effort, but ultimately not an insurmountable one.
Raphael S. Cohen and Andrew Radin are political scientists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. They are the authors of the recently released report, Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe: Understanding the Threat from which this piece is partially adapted. The views expressed in this article reflect those of the authors and do not reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or the United States government.