Pavel Baev (Institut Français des Relations Internationales)
Since the crisis broke out in Ukraine in the spring of 2014, Central and Eastern European countries (CEE) have been facing growing economic, political and military pressure from the Russian Federation. What are the latest shifts in the patterns of Russian behavior towards the CEE countries? What strategy is Moscow pursuing and is it successful at achieving the desired results?
Russia is seeking to influence its Western neighbors by employing three basic ‘levers’. One of them is the export of oil and gas. The situation in the energy sector is, however, not going very well for the Kremlin. Putin’s dream of conquering the European energy market has not materialized. The Baltic countries have worked hard to diversify energy supplies and, in southern Europe, Russia did not succeed with the South Stream project – a series of pipelines that would operate a network of special customers. Overall, the Kremlin is failing to take advantage of the pressure in the energy sector to influence political developments in the CEE region.
Another tool that serves to achieve the objectives of Russian foreign policy is corruption and propaganda. Small countries in Central Europe appeared to Vladimir Putin as those that create problems within the EU and that could be potentially used to weaken and paralyze the EU’s decision-making power. Therefore, he focused on strengthening the anti-EU, and hence pro-Russian, voices. By means of special funds, Moscow managed to create a number of significant “friends” on the local political scene, who, for example, openly speak out against sanctions imposed on Moscow. Extensive propaganda has thus helped Putin to partly influence public opinion in Russia’s favor. However, the opinions of these “friends” went unheard in the EU, and since Moscow is forced to cut funding on propaganda because of the bad economic situation, the information war is not going very well for the Kremlin either.
Moscow considers military force to be the most reliable tool for the implementation of foreign policy. The incredibly fast and effective annexation of Crimea sparked panic in the Baltics, where they started talking about a possible similar scenario as in Ukraine. Although the Kremlin will probably not be willing to undergo a military conflict in this region, its aggressive policy and constant escalation of the security situation are creating considerable tensions. The threat of a theoretically possible escalation of these tensions will continue to influence local political developments. However, Russia has not succeeded in creating, through its military threats, the desired fissures within NATO that Putin may like to see.
The Russian Federation is generally in the phase of a geopolitical retreat from the Western front. It is trying to reverse this retreat through the above-mentioned activities in the CEE region. Ultimately, these efforts are often counterproductive and often – perhaps paradoxically – accelerate the Russian retreat.