Anton Shekhovtsov

Senior Fellow, Free Russia Foundation

May 14, 2020
The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly #1

The first issue of Kremlin Influence Quarterly looks at malign influence operations of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the areas of diplomacy, law, economy, politics, media and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The opening essay, “Russian Malign Influence Operations in Coronavirus-hit Italy” by Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov argues that by sending medical aid to Italy — a country that was among the hardest hit by the pandemic — the Kremlin pursued a political and geopolitical, rather than a humanitarian, agenda. The Kremlin sent aid to Italy against the background of rising distrust toward the EU in Italy as European institutions were late in demonstrating solidarity with the Italian people suffering from the pandemic. The Kremlin’s influence operation was meant to show that it was Russia, rather than the EU or NATO, that was the true friend of Italy. Putin’s regime hoped that it would undermine Italy’s trust in the two international institutions even further and strengthen the country’s opposition to the EU’s sanctions policy on Russia.

In their chapter on Russian-Hungarian diplomatic relations, authors Péter Krekó and Dominik Istrate write that while Putin’s Russia has often had a maliciously close relationship to some former Hungarian prime ministers, Russian influence over Hungary has gradually expanded since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010. The authors note a huge asymmetry that characterizes the relationship between the two countries, noting that the benefits are much more obvious for the Russian state than for Hungary. The diplomatic relations seem to be only the tip of the iceberg in the non-transparent bilateral ties—with the frequency of the meetings and some background information suggesting a deep and shady relationship.

Drawing on the example of Spain, Vladimir Zhbankov argues that the Russian authorities are directly affiliated with criminal groups in Europe. With the help of these groups, they launder their incomes and provide themselves and their friends and partners the opportunity to live comfortably in developed countries. Despite the efforts of Spanish authorities to investigate and prosecute illegal activities of Russian criminal groups and eliminate the effect of their malign influence on internal affairs, the results are still underwhelming.

In the first part of his essay on Austrian-Russian business relations, Martin Malek focuses on their political framework conditions, as well as side effects and consequences over the past two decades. The author asserts that the supply of natural gas and crude oil from Russia to and via Austria plays a special role in this relationship, since it accounts for the lion’s share of Moscow’s exports, and that it is also relevant for other EU countries which likewise purchase Russian gas. Furthermore, the author asserts that trade relations between Russia and Austria have advanced Russia’s malign influence.

Egor Kuroptev’s chapter provides an overview of disruptive Russian influence in Georgia. This influence manifests itself in a number of areas ranging from politics to disinformation. As a consequence of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the two countries have no diplomatic relations. Russia still occupies Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abhazia, while the Russian military continue its so-called “borderization,” a process of illegal movement of occupation lines deeper into the territory of Georgia. However, the author writes that Moscow is not interested in a change of the ruling regime in Tbilisi, as it sees them as more loyal to the Kremlin than any existing opposition party in Georgia.

In her essay Alisa Volkova discusses how large Russian businesses have successfully established close connections with Bulgarian politicians in order to promote their interests and deepen Bulgarian dependency on Russia’s energy sector, as well as keep corrupt politicians in positions of power. The author warns that such politically driven business activities directly and indirectly undermine the rule of law in Bulgaria by restricting media freedom and democratic institutions, such as elections.

Georgy Chizhov’s chapter looks at the workings of the pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine. The author identifies these media and analyzes narratives they promote in order to discredit democratic values and institutions in Ukraine and in the West, and to sow distrust both inside Ukrainian society as well as regarding European and American partners. He also examines Ukraine’s attempts to resist Russia’s information influence.

Anton Shekhovtsov’s concluding chapter provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for analyzing malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe. This influence is defined as one that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. The author highlights major areas in which actors of Putin’s Russia exercise malign influence and identifies main categories of Russian operators and their European facilitators that conduct or help conduct the Kremlin’s political warfare against the West.

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