Thirty years on from the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of democratic freedom within central and eastern Europe, the spectre of Russia as an aggressive neighbour looms across the region.
Its recent concentration of army units near the Ukrainian border and the transfer of military hardware to the borders of European Union member states Estonia and Latvia have brought robust international condemnation. The US, UK, France, Germany and NATO have all expressed their support for the territorial integrity of the affected states.
But it would be a great mistake to assume that a public display of force by western powers is enough to persuade the peoples of central and eastern Europe, a region once gripped by communist rule, of their military superiority over Russia.
A major poll, released last week by GLOBSEC, found that citizens in these neighbouring countries are more likely than not to see Russia as the world’s leading military power, as well as a victim of western machinations.
These extraordinary findings result from a shift in Kremlin strategy. Moscow’s military build-up is packaged with an entirely different spin by Russian state-funded media and its local proxies in the region.
The official line from the Kremlin is that Russia is seeking to protect itself and the Russian speaking enclaves of the area, including the unrecognised breakaway regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which, it alleges, face impending assault from rebel forces supported by the US and NATO.
Eastern Ukraine is emblematic of twenty-first-century conflict and the ways in which war itself has changed dramatically. Hybrid warfare, which has become the new norm, sees the use of conventional forces as a final step that is preceded by information campaigns, cyber-attacks, military threats, economic measures and support for irregular forces.
The information domain becomes the first battleground and a crucially important component of force projection against this backdrop. Russia, buoyed by its decades of experience in pursuing “active measures”, has particularly concentrated on developing its capacities to shape narratives and exert influence in the infosphere.
The GLOBSEC survey, and its accompanying report, reveals the incredible success of this strategy, despite Russia’s dark history with respect to countries that now form part of central Europe and the Western Balkans.
For one, the survey found that many of these societies are now more inclined to accept pro-Russian narratives and to see traditional allies, such as NATO, as aggressors in the region. It also shows that, despite Russia’s recent activities – including the garrisoning of 110,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and expelling a host of international diplomats from Moscow – that only 25% of respondents feel “threatened” by their former occupier.
The recent revelation that the same Russian GRU operatives who were involved in the Salisbury Novichok attack were also behind the explosion of an arms depot in the Czech Republic is revealing of Russia’s nefarious activities within, and attitude towards, countries it previously occupied.
The mystification of Russia
At a more granular level, the survey found that in countries like Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovakia, there remains a soft spot for Russia and, in turn, a willingness to accept Russian narratives on historical and contemporary topics. While, elsewhere, in Poland and Romania there is still a resilience to these strategies, with historical memories and geopolitical dynamics shaping public attitudes.
What is striking is a dichotomy in some countries between public attitudes and government policy. Hungary exemplifies this gulf, with the government pursuing a cooperative and accommodating approach towards Russia despite the populace being largely resistant to Moscow.
The data, here, too, reveals that perceptions of Russian economic influence and power are vastly overestimated by Hungarian society: with a majority of Hungarians looking upon NATO in a favourable light, and seeing Russia as an overstated force within the region.
A converse picture is apparent in Bulgaria, which has seen the public express favourable attitudes towards Russia amid frosty political relations marked by the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats from the country.
The Political Capital Institute has labelled this phenomenon, revealed in prior polling, as the “mystification” of Russia.
Accounting for the fact that the US outspends Russia by a factor of ten on the military, it is remarkable to find that seven of the nine countries polled in central and eastern Europe see Russia, rather than the US, as the world’s leading military power.
This is a position that plays well for Moscow, and its foreign policy objectives, as it seeks to capitalise on a fractured Western alliance, by proposing alternative military partnerships for those in the region.
It also makes it harder for political leaders to stand up to Moscow if their public believe that organisations, such as NATO, are doomed to failure.
This mystification of Russian power is a hot asset that can be wielded by the Kremlin. Perceptions matter in influencing both the public and political elites, underscoring the need to take the threat seriously. The US and the West are perceived as weak by many in the region and, if this problem is not adequately addressed, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
_Peter Kreko is director of the Political Capital Institute and Daniel Milo is a senior adviser at GLOBSEC. The views above are those of the authors and not Euronews. _