Janusz Bugajski, January 2020

Unable to prevent NATO enlargement, Moscow is intensifying its campaign to subvert Alliance members from within. President Vladimir Putin views NATO as the main threat to Russia’s expansionism and calculates that soft power sabotage is a cheaper and more effective means to undermine Western unity than a military confrontation that would expose Russia’s weaknesses.

The Kremlin has threatened numerous European states not to join NATO, fearing that this enhances America’s presence in defending Europe. It has also developed a parallel strategy to neutralize Allied governments. Joining NATO certainly enhances state security, but it does not guarantee immunity from sub-military disruption, especially if some national leaders calculate that they can profit politically or personally from Moscow’s interventions.

For Russia, there are three categories of NATO states: the vulnerable, the exploitable, and the resisters. The vulnerable states are small countries bordering Russia or new members that are susceptible to pressure. The three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are more exposed than any other NATO members and Russian officials combine disinformation and direct threats to pacify their governments and limit their engagement with the U.S. and other allies.

Fraudulent stories through official media and social networks are intended to delegitimize Baltic independence, stir inter-ethnic conflicts, and depict their governments as neo-fascists repressing hapless Russian minorities. Much of this propaganda is aimed at Western governments to convince them that the three countries are not worth defending in the event of confrontation with Russia.

NATO members in the Western Balkans are also vulnerable to Russian pressures. After failing to prevent Montenegro’s entry into NATO by using Serbian nationalists to overthrow its government, Moscow continues to support the anti-NATO opposition and disrupt the country’s progress toward EU accession. The Kremlin also failed to obstruct North Macedonia’s NATO entry but continues to inflame inter-ethnic tensions and incite nationalist extremists.

The exploitable states are mostly West European countries that can be penetrated through business, media, or political corruption. Germany, France, and Italy serve as classic examples, where a former Chancellor (Gerhard Schroeder), the leader of a major opposition party (Marine Le Pen), and a former Deputy Prime Minister (Matteo Salvini) have reportedly been financially recruited to serve Kremlin interests. Moscow’s penetration reaches deep into the political elites.

Some new NATO members have also proved vulnerable to Moscow’s influences. In Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria personal connections have been developed with presidents or prime ministers to dissuade them from applying sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to lobby for developing economic relations with Moscow. Questions are also raised about the commitment of each state to defend vulnerable neighbors in the event of a Russian attack.

Croatia has become a recent Kremlin target to curtail the development of energy projects that would challenge Russia’s monopolistic ambitions in regional gas supplies. Zagreb is also useful for Russia in keeping Bosnia-Herzegovina off balance by raising demands for a Croatian entity that mirrors Serb pressures on the fragile country.

The third category of states are the resisters, which have proved to be more impermeable to Russia’s manipulation. Poland and Romania are the two key examples, where politicians across the political spectrum have no illusions about Moscow’s neo-imperialism and where societies are largely immune to Russian state disinformation. They value NATO as an essential security structure that guarantees their independence and territorial integrity. With limited success, Moscow has tried to isolate both countries on the international arena by portraying them as perpetual anti-Russian troublemakers.

Putin is escalating his campaign to weaken NATO in order to pursue his attacks on Ukraine, to divide Georgia and Moldova, and to annex Belarus. In reaction, the Alliance must be better prepared to detect and combat Moscow’s infiltration especially by prosecuting state-sponsored corruption and countering disinformation. Above all, the tables must be turned on the Russian Federation where ethnic and regional cleavages driven by deteriorating living standards are challenging Moscow’s authoritarian rule.

Washington needs to return to core principles that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union by supporting  democratization, pluralism, minority rights, decentralization, and genuine federalism in Russia. While Moscow seeks to divide the West and fracture NATO, Washington should promote regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a strong signal to a belligerent but ultimately fearful Kremlin that the West is fully capable of reacting effectively to its subterfuge, sabotage, and subversion.