The civilised world can hardly be called a comfort zone anymore due to the migration crisis, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability and the continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian tanks in Ukraine and daily attacks on Ukrainian civilians prove that Russia aims at political destabilisation in the heart of Europe. The aggressor state sticks to its well-defined playbook and shows no intention of renouncing its imperialistic ambitions.
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Russia is engaged in hybrid warfare which means that the war takes place on the battlefield as well as in the informational space. If anyone still thinks that destructive processes occurring worldwide are just a coincidence or a conspiracy, they should face the truth: Russia has started a new, intensified stage of hybrid aggression not only against Ukraine but all of civilised Europe. The threat of destabilisation and a significant shift in spheres of influence for the key global players and even changes in the established borders have become the new reality.
It seems like Russia has launched an era of geopolitical turbulence, causing worldwide havoc with unpredictable consequences, local and global crises and wars. Today it is hard to foresee the actions of states or organisations on a global stage or to establish a world order that will be respected by the key players and will guarantee global security.
Since 2020, western nations have been dealing with uncertainty and insecurity that shifted the European mindset leaving no room for stability or a predictable future. The first challenge came with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the next one started with a new phase of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2022. On 24 February 2022, Putin proved that predictability is a very shaky construct and that a full-scale invasion of a sovereign state can happen in the 21st century. The Kremlin has opened a geopolitical Pandora’s box by blatantly carrying out its aggressive power policy, which has never been peaceful but has finally become evident. Thus, the outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian war will influence the future status and actions of other countries, especially those ruled by dictators.
To open up Pandora's boxAn idiom that means to do or start something that will cause a lot of other problems. A reference to the story from Greek mythology in which Pandora out of curiosity opens a box containing all the curses of mankind.
Putin has shown that it is possible to apply force with impunity to those territories that one would like to conquer. For example, the rhetoric of the People’s Republic of China regarding Taiwan became much more aggressive after the 24th of February. Beijing began to demonstrate its revanchist sentiments and actively promote the “one China” policy. Even though now there are two contenders for this name, the People’s Republic of China (a continental part of China) and the Republic of China (an island Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China is fighting for their recognition as the only true state on the world’s map.
Putin has shown that it is possible to apply force with impunity to the territories that one would like to conquer. For example, the rhetoric of the People’s Republic of China regarding Taiwan became much more aggressive after the 24th of February. Beijing began demonstrating its revanchist sentiments and actively promoting the “one China” policy. Even though now there are two contenders for this name, the People’s Republic of China (the continental part of China) and the Republic of China (the island of Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China is fighting for their recognition as the only Chinese state on the world’s map.
The world made significant efforts to defend the order established after World War II. Even though the existing borders are far from perfect, reconsidering the internationally recognized boundaries poses great risks. Martin Kimani, Kenya’s UN ambassador, mentioned these perils in his speech during the emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the situation in Ukraine. The meeting that took place just a few days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 22 February 2022 was devoted to the Kremlin’s recognition of the “independence” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Kimani voiced Kenya’s support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and condemned the breaching of international law by Russia. He pointed out that even though the borders of Kenya and other African countries were defined by former empires (such as the British, French and Portuguese), it cannot become an excuse for starting bloody wars in the 21st century.
The West is to blame
In 2016, Moscow State National University published a thorough over-700-pages monograph called “Strategic Forecast of International Affairs” which reflects the Kremlin’s geopolitical strategy for the next 10 years. The monograph states that Russia guards three key civilizational frontiers: the West, Islamic countries, and China. It also outlines possible courses of action, such as attacking Romania or creating an expanded version of the so-called Novorossiya from southern and eastern parts of Ukraine.
Novorossiya or Tavria guberniaAn administrative area of the Russian Empire that included the territory of today’s Pryazovia, Prychornomoria and Tavria regions of Ukraine. Throughout its existence, from the early 19 century to 1917, its local residents were subjected to Russia’s colonial oppression.
The monograph is a step-by-step guidebook for the Kremlin regime, These are some of the messages the authors consider (translated from Russian):
– “Sooner or later, whether we like it or not, the fight against Europe (or at least against most of its parts) is inevitable.”
– “… true modesty and its true dignity preclude Russia from being a part of Europe.”
– “The only way to ensure Russia’s permanent security is gaining military, technical and ideological superiority against the West”, etc.
The document emphasises that Russia, facing the imminent conflict, has to switch to power geopolitics before “it is too late” because, according to the authors, Ukraine will drift away from Russia for good by 2023.
Russia expected to finish “the special military operation” by occupying Kyiv in three days and thus demonstrate to the international community “the formation of a new world order” and Putin’s “historical mission” in it. This can be proved by a celebratory article headlined “The arrival of Russia in a new world” that Russian news portal RIA News published by oversight at 8 am on 26 February 2022. Apparently, Russian media did not expect that Ukrainians would resist so powerfully, thereby the piece, which had been obviously written in advance, was published as planned. It clearly indicates the Kremlin’s outlook and declares its key narratives, which clearly illustrate the reasons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the aggressor’s intentions.
However, tensions have been mounting throughout Putin’s rule. His cronies along with the Kremlin propagandists routinely viewed the West as an enemy and the root of all Russia’s problems.
Putin even proclaimed that “the border of Russia does not end anywhere” at the award ceremony of the Russian Geographical Society in 2016. Here are some more loud statements that the Russian leader made year after year (all fragments are translated from Russian):
2007. From Vladimir Putin’s speech in Munich:
“We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”
2020. Putin’s declaration regarding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty):
“We consider the US withdrawal and termination of the INF Treaty a consequential mistake that only increases the risks of an arms race, building up the confrontational potential and shifting to an uncontrolled escalation. In the light of strengthened enmity within the line Russia–NATO, the new threats to European security show up apparent.”
2021. From Putin’s article in the German newspaper “Die Zeit”:
“A lot of countries were forced to make an assumed choice between the West (as a collective term) and Russia. It pretends to be an ultimatum. We can look at Ukraine’s tragedy of 2014 as a consequence of this aggressive policy. Europe has supported an anti-constitutional revolution in Ukraine. This is how it began. For what was it committed? By that moment, the current president Yanukovych had already agreed with all requirements from the opposition. What for had the USA organised this revolt, and European countries had dumbly supported it, causing a split of Ukraine and the exit of Crimea from Ukraine?”
The collective West is identified as an enemy threatening “Great Russia” in such statements, so it becomes convenient for Russia to cover up its own failures with confrontations with “the enemy”. The standard of living in Russia has not improved much in decades, while Putin claims that their struggle is holy, even if it leads to the annexation of the territories of sovereign states. It is hardly surprising that ordinary Russians easily share the narratives on conquering not only Ukraine but also Poland, Moldova or Lithuania.
Psychological warfare and revision of borders
Russia is carrying out a mediatory war, which means involving third parties such as political puppets and mercenaries. It drags into the warfare not only individuals but also whole territories, such as the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) and “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) that are given money, equipment and human resources (specifically, soldiers) for inciting aggression. This way, Russia significantly modernises the “ruled chaos theory” developed by Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, adapting it to the current postmodern mentality.
Before Europeans could even notice, the Russian Federation had ruined the image of “good old Europe”, a safe haven where air-raid alarms had not gone off in the past 80 years. Now Europeans are facing a new reality, striving to adjust to it, and at the same time attempting not to turn it into a norm. Interestingly enough, some Polish cities also turn on alarms in solidarity with Ukraine. It is not merely a PR campaign as many Europeans have suddenly realised that one morning they could be next for Russia to invade. After decades of living in comfort and safety, such a significant shift and constant risk is the biggest challenge for Europeans since 1945.
Regular missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and constant nuclear and energy blackmail are becoming a part of daily life for Europeans. However, some countries are not ready to accept this new inconvenient reality, trying to live as if nothing has happened. Yet, this approach only increases citizens’ anxiety levels and social tensions and changes people’s values and political preferences. Worst of all, they start to believe that the problem is Ukraine which keeps resisting the act of aggression rather than Russia which started the war. The Kremlin places its main bets on bullying and psychological pressure campaigns, threats of dramatic changes in normal lifestyle as well as shifting the blame for attacking Ukraine and its global repercussions.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has clearly shown that the idea of borders shifts as well. Russian political figures as well as the leaders of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” in the east of Ukraine have demanded to remove the Ukrainian army from the “borders” of these quasi-states. According to the Kremlin’s strategy, European borders should also become moveable. As a matter of fact, Russian conservative and right-wing radical figures begin to call for the liquidation of the post-war system of international law based on Yalta and Potsdam principles agreed in 1945 by the USSR, USA and the United Kingdom, three allied states that won the Second World War. Some influencers also push the message that the crisis of the world order must be overcome. Relativity of the existing borders appears to be the crucial component of the war unleashed by Russia. For instance, on 8 June 2022, a bill proposing to revoke the independence of Lithuania, a current EU and NATO member, was submitted to the Russian State Duma. The Kremlin employs this step-by-step strategy to test the reaction of the collective Wes which Russia views as its main existential enemy.
Trojan Horses in global policy
While trying to destroy the international order, Putin has been stress-testing international security institutions. European radicals are attracted by Russia’s calls for the destruction of EU bureaucracy and redesigning international organisations like the UN or ICRC. With the help of its propagandist media, public speeches and political statements, the Kremlin has succeeded in demolishing the reputations of many international organisations, forcing the public to question their capabilities and authority. Basically, Putin managed to completely devalue and denounce the existing global order by constantly infringing on it. At the same time, some international security institutions have proven their incompetence by constantly expressing “deep concern” over Russia’s terrifying acts in Ukraine instead of taking any real actions to stop them. These organisations have demonstrated their inadequacy and inefficiency in handling present-day challenges.
Russia’s destabilisation of Europe is based on the network concept. Russian authorities together with propagandists are operating and protecting ideological dichotomies as “North–South”, “West–East”, “old Europe–Europe/NATO newcomers”, “locals–refugees”, “conservative politicians–freak politicians” etc. The Kremlin relies on the extensive network of its agents of influence who spread Russia’s disinformation narratives to weaken the EU solidarity.
The Russian Federation takes a systematic approach to undermine the European civilisation space. The Kremlin earns trust and “nurtures” the allies that will help it promote its agenda and destabilise the EU by destroying its unity. Hungary and Serbia are examples of Russia’s Trojan horses in Europe. The main danger is that they promote policy or economic alternatives that, in fact, pursue the interests of the Russian Federation. Besides, Russia is currently putting on the table its scenario of restoring its territory in the borders of the 19th century, when the Russian Empire consisted of now-freed European countries such as Poland, Finland, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania and others.
The “Trojan horse country” does not necessarily have to be an EU member. It is enough to be relatively close to Russia as it is easier for such a country to share colonial narratives, and strengthen economic and cultural dependence. Serbia is a classic example of a Trojan horse. On 31 July 2022, the Balkans were on a brink of a new interethnic conflict which was initiated by Serbia that tried on behalf of the Kremlin to further demoralise Europe. The case is that the authorities of the partially recognised Republic of Kosovo, which once was a part of the Republic of Serbia, were planning to cancel the validity of Serbian passports and car plates on its territory from 1 August 2022. The ethnic Serbians who populate the northern part of Kosovo, supported by Belgrade, went for a protest that resulted in a skirmish with the police. Aleksandar Vučić, the president of the Republic of Serbia, called on the international community to make every effort to prevent the implementation of this decision or, at least, to postpone it. On the night of 1 August, the leader of the Kosovo government conceded to the postponement of this resolution.
Obviously, it is difficult for an average person to notice the Kremlin’s influence in this situation. However, there is no doubt that Putin is interested in opening an additional front to disperse the attention of the EU, USA, NATO or Turkey to distract them from the war in Ukraine.
The aim of a geopolitical Trojan horse is to destabilise the region and wreak havoc in neighbouring countries. Even countries that appear socially and politically stable may still serve as Russia’s puppets. These countries’ leaders usually have “alternative” views that do not align with the European development course. They stir up the narratives of geopolitical and social differences and provoke local conflicts, in particular, those based on religion. However, it is usually challenging to ignore such a puppet country as it is usually integrated into the key European institutions and declares itself as a full-rights member of the European community whose interests are being oppressed.
The Trojan horse influence can be exercised on two levels. The first one is institutional, i.e. on the level of governments and organisations. It is represented by numerous “Putin’s friends” among the leaders of European countries who serve as “agents of influence”, voicing the Kremlin’s interests abroad. Viktor Orban, the current prime minister of Hungary, is one of them. He has frequently called Putin his political role model. Orban determinedly spreads pro-Russian narratives, particularly about the fatality of sanctions against Russia for Europe. Thus, Orban questions the appropriateness of EU policy. In his speech made on 25 July 2022 during his private visit to the Romanian city of Băile Tușnad, Orban declared his aversion to the mixing of European and non-European races, saying: “We (Hungarians — ed.) are not a mixed race and do not want to become a mixed race”. The countries where Europeans and non-Europeans mingle are “no longer nations”. He also condemned the West’s military support of Ukraine: “The more modern NATO weapons we provide to Ukraine, the more Russia will move forward on the front line… All we are doing is continuing the war”. These words have outraged the opposition and some European politicians.
The case of Amnesty International is yet another expository example. On 4 August 2022, the human rights organisation stated that the Ukrainian army who stood against the Russian invasion are endangering civilians by establishing military bases and weapon depots in schools and hospitals. At the same time, the Amnesty website did not publish a word of condemnation of the mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka or the brutal torture and murder of captive Ukrainian defenders by the Russians.
The second level of influence is personal, i.e. through politicians, businessmen or business groups. Guided by either friendly, mercantile or other interests, these individuals indicate their loyalty to Russia and join, directly or indirectly, in the destabilisation processes in Europe. Regional or local politicians can also play this role. Faced with economic or social crises, they contradict pan-European trends, either in gas policy or migrant quotas, claiming that it is not a good time for these steps.
The Kremlin uses anyone open to contact and able to lobby Russian interests. Some politicians collaborate with Russia despite huge reputational risks. A case in point is Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor and the former chairman of the board of directors at Russian oil and gas state enterprise “Rosneft”, who became a well-known Kremlin lobbyist. At the end of July 2022, Schröder visited Moscow to meet Putin to discuss the Ukrainian issue. In his interview for Stern magazine, he announced the willingness of the Kremlin to seek a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine. He also proclaimed the war in Ukraine was a mistake of the Russian government, emphasising the necessity of concessions from both sides. Schröder also claimed that the idea of Ukraine reconquering Crimea militarily was absurd and claimed that Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a wise decision by blocking Ukraine’s NATO membership back in 2008. According to Schröder, “armed neutrality” is the only alternative for Ukraine. Evidently, he is a typical “Trojan Horse” voicing Russian propaganda statements.
Threats of cold winter and other adversities
Russia’s agents of influence help to scale destabilisation processes throughout the whole European continent. However, they are not the only Kremlin’s destabilisation tool; it also stirs up simmering problematic narratives that exist in every country and can cause heightened tensions. One such crucial matter is Europe’s dependence on Russian energy resources which allows Russia to claim that sanctions are mainly destructive for the EU. The Kremlin identified the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of Europe and waited for the time to act. The case is that being the key provider of coal, oil and gas, Russia earns huge amounts on fossil fuel exports and then uses the proceeds to buy all the goods it needs from the West. Therefore, European businesses are the key beneficiaries of this model. Moreover, to be effective, sanctions have to be imposed globally. However, according to the survey that the informational agency Bloomberg conducted following the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Indonesia, half of the participants do not support sanctions against Russia and did not join them.
The G20 or Group of TwentyThe group of the ministers of finance and the managers of central banks of the most high-powered 20 world economies.
Instead, Russia is carrying out gas blackmail using it as a lever to affect not only economic sanctions but also the course of the war in Ukraine. It is essential that every European understood that the energy crisis with all its consequences (such as an increase in heating prices or colder houses in winter) is the result of Russia’s full-scale war and not the fault of Ukraine which defends itself against the aggressor and provides a shield to the rest of Europe.
Putin wants to make Europeans feel constant anxiety and fear aiming to disrupt and weaken the collective West. In his opinion, this strategy might help him to force the key players to refuse to support Ukraine. This is why the Kremlin caused an artificial food crisis with the Russian army blocking Ukrainian ports, stealing Ukrainian grain, shelling granaries, mining fields, and burning out wheat harvests.
Furthermore, Europe is frightened not only by famine but also by an inflow of illegal migrants or an outbreak of crimes and violence. Ukraine is a major global exporter of agricultural products, with a 10% share in the global supplies of wheat and a 15–20% share in the global supplies of barley (according to data provided by the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine). Thus, the whole world suffers from the consequences of the war in Ukraine and it is high time Europe and the global community realised that it is Russia that is solely responsible for them.
The Russian Federation cultivates an atmosphere of continuous expectation of horror. The gas crisis, losses due to the effect of the sanctions, and other repercussions of the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war have affected every European. After almost eighty years of enjoying civilisational benefits and non-violent settlement of conflicts, the current situation in the world shocks Europeans with the new reality of uncertainty and unpredictability. It urges some Europeans to rush into populist slogans like “we stand for peace” or claims that “Ukraine should surrender to stop the war”. This way, they side with the aggressor-state and consequently assist it in deepening destabilisation not just in their country but in entire Europe.
As a result, European politicians face situations when they are compelled to make unpopular but crucial decisions that Russia can use to its advantage. It seems like Russian politicians are making bets on which Western politician is next to resign. In addition to spreading havoc, the Russian Federation does not hesitate to discredit the reputation of European politicians to destabilise Western governments. For instance, the Kremlin media spread information about parties during the coronavirus pandemic that impacted Boris Johnson’s resignation or about “knockout drops” at the SPD’s party which German chancellor Olaf Scholz attended, to name a few. The Russian Federation uses the tactics of convincing its people of Europe’s wickedness and impotence by presenting European government members as dregs of society. Remarkably, the moral image of a politician is given prominence. During the “dark ages”, citizens prefer conservatives who demonstrate a stern devotion to moral values and their number in Europe is steadily decreasing.
Russian propagandists proclaim the ideas of minimising needs due to the sanctions pressure trying to push the message of the necessity for the cancellation of sanctions. They are aiming to convince Europeans that if sanctions do not work and cause losses for Europeans themselves, why do they have to be imposed at all? Also, they are spreading nonsensical ideas that Europeans will lose more with sanctions than Russians, who will easily switch to their own production. The Kremlin propaganda paints the picture of an average European who is forced to give up simple life pleasures or daily rituals like spending less time under a shower or saving on food. It is an obvious overstatement that the Kremlin uses either to demonstrate its power or to show Europe’s weakness.
At the moment some members of the European political arena appear to be transmitting to Ukraine their own irresolution and fear of changes, and hence, they simply do not believe in Ukraine’s future. However, resistance can turn into an opportunity to break free from Russian influence as Ukraine is not the last goal of the Kremlin’s invasion plan. Putin is an adherent of the Eurasian idea that proclaims exclusive control of the Russian Federation from Portugal to Kamchatka, and his collaboration with China as an equal ally proves that.
There is a good chance that the Russian political and propaganda machine will push Europe into a deeper mental crisis and will gradually paralyse its will to resist. There should be no doubt that toxic narratives such as “Ukraine should stop resisting” and “Things should stay as they used to be” will not help to resolve the situation and will only aggravate it. The thing is that territory is not just land but it is people inhabiting it. Moreover, it is doubtful that Russia will get satisfied with a “piece” of Ukraine. The only way to stop Russia from destabilising the world even further is the victory for Ukraine instead of freezing the conflict. This is exactly what Ukrainians have been fighting for all this time.
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