Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of democratic freedom in Central and Eastern Europe, the specter of Russia as an aggressive neighbor looms over the region.
Its recent concentration of army units near the border with Ukraine and the transfer of military equipment to the borders of the member states of the European Union, Estonia and Latvia, have drawn strong international condemnation. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and NATO have expressed their support for the territorial integrity of the affected states.
But it would be a great mistake to assume that a public show of force by the Western powers is sufficient to persuade the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, a region once dominated by the communist regime, of their military superiority over Russia.
A major poll, released last week by GLOBSEC, found that citizens of these neighboring countries are more likely to view Russia as the world’s leading military power, as well as a victim of Western machinations.
These extraordinary findings are the result of a change in the Kremlin’s strategy. Moscow’s military build-up is packaged with a completely different twist by the Russian state-funded media and their local proxies in the region.
The Kremlin’s official line is that Russia is trying to protect itself and the Russian-speaking enclaves in the area, including the unrecognized separatist regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which it alleges are They face the imminent assault of the rebel forces. supported by the US and NATO.
Eastern Ukraine is emblematic of the 21st century conflict and the ways in which the war itself has dramatically changed. Hybrid warfare, which has become the new norm, views the use of conventional forces as a final step that is preceded by information campaigns, cyberattacks, military threats, economic measures, and support for irregular forces.
The domain of information becomes the first battlefield and a vitally important component for the projection of force in this context. Russia, encouraged by its decades of experience in applying “proactive measures”, has focused particularly on developing its capacities to shape narratives and influence the infosphere.
The GLOBSEC survey, and the accompanying report, reveals the incredible success of this strategy, despite Russia’s dark history vis-à-vis the countries that are now part of Central Europe and the Western Balkans.
On the one hand, the survey found that many of these societies are now more inclined to accept pro-Russian narratives and to view traditional allies, such as NATO, as aggressors in the region. It also shows that despite recent activities by Russia, including the garrison of 110,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine and the expulsion of several international diplomats from Moscow, only 25% of those surveyed feel “threatened” by their former occupant. .
The recent revelation that the same Russian GRU agents who participated in the Salisbury Novichok attack were also behind the explosion of an arms depot in the Czech Republic reveals Russia’s nefarious activities within and the attitude towards the 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 issues. While elsewhere, in Poland and Romania, there is still resistance to these strategies, with historical memories and geopolitical dynamics shaping public attitudes.
What is striking is the dichotomy in some countries between public attitudes and government policies. Hungary exemplifies this chasm, with the government pursuing a cooperative and accommodating approach to Russia despite the population largely resisting 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 favorably on NATO and viewing Russia as an exaggerated force within the region. .
A reverse picture is evident in Bulgaria, which has seen the public express favorable attitudes toward Russia amid icy political relations marked by the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats from the country.
The Institute of Political Capital has labeled this phenomenon, revealed in a previous survey, as the “mystification” of Russia.
Considering the fact that the United States spends more than Russia by a factor of ten on the military, it is remarkable to find that seven of the nine countries surveyed in Central and Eastern Europe view Russia, rather than the United States, as the main military power in the world.
This is a position that plays well for Moscow and its foreign policy goals, as it seeks to capitalize on a fractured Western alliance, 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 believes that organizations, like NATO, are doomed.
This mystification of Russian power is a hot asset that can be managed by the Kremlin. Perceptions are important in influencing both the public and political elites, underscoring the need to take the threat seriously. The United States and the West are perceived as weak by many in the region, and if this issue is not adequately addressed, it runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
_Peter Kreko is director of the Political Capital Institute and Daniel Milo is a senior advisor to GLOBSEC. The opinions above are those of the authors and not Euronews. _
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism