Pushing back, restricting, integrating – the threat from Russia requires new strategies from the European Union. Institutional distrust within the Union i. e. by Poland and Hungary are at the same time symptoms of growing Euroscepticism.
Distrust and Euroscepticism
On 14 October, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša tweeted his refusal to meet incoming EU MEPs investigating the Slovenian judiciary and press freedom in the country, calling them 'Soros’ puppets’. Among those included in the inflammatory image was a picture of the Chairwoman of the EU delegation in question that was investigating Slovenia.
While the PM deleted the tweet a few hours later, a dark shadow had already been cast over the visit, and internet archives are forever. This vitriolic behavior would leave one shocked to know Slovenia currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU!
These signals of institutional distrust are worrisome symptoms of Euroscepticism, representing threats that originate from inside Europe.
Similar dustups with European Union officials have occurred from various state actors. For example, Poland has clashed with Brussels over its ‘judicial reforms’, antiimmigrant stance, and undesirable gender and LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual etc.) positions. Hungary has openly declared its desire to be known as an ‘illiberal democracy’, defying EU practices and norms on political and civil freedoms and supporting anti-EU policies. These are but a few examples.
Favourite methods against EU institutions include cyber-attacks on EU infrastructure, election interference, and targeted disinformation campaigns, photo: Philipp Katzenberger via unsplash
However, these public displays of open combat with Brussels tend to play well with supporters who are distrustful of the EU. These signals of institutional distrust are worrisome symptoms of Euroscepticism, representing threats that originate from inside Europe.
Unfortunately, a growing portion is the result of intentional and targeted attacks from external forces. China, Iran, and American fundamentalist organisations have all been caught with their hands in the EU cookie jar. However, the lion’s share appears to be linked to Russian state actors.
The alleged motives vary but seem to range from delegitimising the EU’s institutions, causing chaos and confusion during elections, and base retaliation to sanctions. Favourite methods include cyber-attacks on EU infrastructure, election interference, and targeted disinformation campaigns.
Russian-backed interests have also orchestrated a migrant crisis originating from Belarus. As a result, the European Union’s core rules and values are being tested, and the public's trust in the EU has faltered. If the EU wishes to increase public trust and maintain legitimacy, it must shore up its security and meet these affronts with an equal response under the law.
Global democracy on the decline
Global democracy was already on the decline. In 2006, democracy saw its worst year since Freedom House began its Freedom in the World report. Then, the global debt crisis hit Europe in late 2009 as unemployment soared, particularly youth.
For example, in Spain, youth unemployment was 37.7 percent in 2009 and peaked at 55.5 percent in 2013; in Greece, the youth started at 25.4 percent and skyrocketed to 58 percent the corresponding year. These are but two examples.
Just as Europe began to recover in 2015, a hobbling continent discovered hundreds of thousands of desperate men, women and children knocking on her door.
Similar, though less extreme, stories of relatively high unemployment caused anxiety across Europe. Then, just as Europe began to recover in 2015, a hobbling continent discovered hundreds of thousands of desperate men, women and children knocking on her door. They were fleeing for their lives mostly from Syria and Iraq, which were ravaged by civil war and ISIS-born terror. Between 2015-2016 over 1.2 million souls applied for asylum in the EU, and they continued to come by land and sea. This massive influx created panic for some EU residents.
People experiencing hardship seek ‘explanations’ for why their world is spiralling out of control. According to Serge Moscovici, a Romanian-born French social psychologist, and director of the Laboratoire Européen de Psychologie Sociale, individuals become susceptible to conspiracy theories in order to ‘make sense’ of grand global events as they actively look for ways to regain control of their lives.
Some may resort to ‘othering’ marginalised groups to find a scapegoat for woes. Others might also seek a return to an imagined traditional society of years gone by when they were ‘happier’ and ‘safer’. Citizens might also join polarising political parties or radical, nationalist movements that ‘validate’ their current experiences. They tend to support political candidates who promise economic security and physical safety from outside ‘others’. Citizens who fall into this abyss tend to already lack social and institutional trust to some degree. Luckily, this group was in the minority across Europe.
Populist surge in Europe
Washington-based Pew Research polled 10 EU Member States in 2016 at the height of the crisis and found troubling patterns. Attitudes towards immigrants followed economic patterns in their countries. Europeans polled tended to believe refugees would potentially take their jobs. Pew also found negative perceptions of refugees track with negative perceptions of Muslims.
Additionally, seven out of ten found refugees a ‘major threat’ to their security. Ironically, Germany and Sweden, which have taken in the most, came in last in this ranking. Overall, the countries polled all agreed the EU was doing a terrible job dealing with the crisis, showing a lack of trust in the EU. Ultimately, what resulted was a populist surge of uncivic society, which caught Europe by surprise.
The Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, formed in 2013, gained 94 seats in the Bundestag by 2017, photo: Mika Baumeister via unsplash
The Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, formed in 2013, gained seven seats in the European Parliament the following year and by 2017 gained 94 seats in the Bundestag. The National Front in France, headed by Marine Le Pen, made a significant showing in the 2017 presidential elections, forcing a runoff with the centre-right candidate Emmanuel Macron. Law and Justice in Poland took the 2015 elections. The UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, and legislation pushed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage was supported and promoted by far-right groups in Britain. These and other populist and far-right parties were driven by anti-immigrant, antisemitic, nativistic, anti-EU, and fundamentalist beliefs. These are but a few examples.
It only made sense that opportunistic actors on the global stage would seize the opportunity to leverage this increasingly polarised environment for their own purposes. Over the past several years, the evidence points to Russia as the main culprit for external assaults threatening the Eurozone to shake the people’s trust in the EU and perhaps liberal democracy writ large. The frequency of the attacks has increased recently, however.
Cyberattacks targeting infrastructure
Infrastructure attacks aim to destroy or damage the equipment and tools used to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the voting process in both the Member States and the EU. These also aim to damage institutional trust in elected officials and the EU itself. The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity reports there were 304 ‘critical’ sector attacks in 2020, including a 47 percent jump in hospital attacks.
Types of attacks include DDoS (distributed denial of service), ransomware, phishing, information theft, malware, and more. The ENISA report believes these were malicious and significant and claimed the numbers represented a doubling in events over the previous year. The current analysis is that the attempts on infrastructure will continue to climb.
Attacks on infrastructure serve the purpose of causing confusion and reducing public trust in institutions to keep them safe.
The election infrastructure and those in charge of it is also a target. For example, in September of this year, hackers attacked a German election development server used for the national census though it was luckily undamaged. In addition, the EU reported multiple phishing attempts on state and local lawmakers, local civil society groups, and members of the EP. The attacks allegedly originate from a cyber outfit known as Ghostwriter, affiliated with the Russian state. Attacks on infrastructure serve the purpose of causing confusion and reducing public trust in institutions to keep them safe.
Election interference is a tactic that has been realistically deployed by various countries in the past for a multitude of purposes. Nonetheless, it is detrimental to liberal democratic progress. ‘Hybrid warfare’ constitutes actions taken by a state when seeking to dismantle or otherwise harm a recipient state by deploying a combination of military, technological, diplomatic, and economic assets through a coordinated effort, ether conventionally or non-conventionally, while remaining distant from the effort and unseen. Today, many states prefer this method to conventional war because it is cheaper and carries fewer political costs at home.
Russia is known to engage in this behaviour extensively throughout the continent. These tactics were seen in the 2017 French elections when Russian sources helped fund populist candidate Le Pen’s campaign for the French Presidency with a 13-million-dollar loan. Macron’s campaign was hacked, likely by the Russian outfit APT28, in 2017 during the ‘no campaigning’ period in France, preventing him from responding to the disinformation spread under the hashtag #MacronGate.
These methods are effective because they can create confusion around specific issues or candidates and reduce social and institutional trust.
Evidence points to a Russian bot campaign helping the Brexit effort in the UK; investigations show Russian sources meddled in the Scottish referendum vote in 2014, spreading mass disinformation online claiming voter fraud. In 2015, the Polish electoral commission was attacked by Russian hackers, reducing confidence in that election. Saturating the internet with false information by bots and fake accounts is called ‘firehosing’. This account is not exhaustive.
Evidence points to a Russian bot campaign helping the Brexit effort in the UK, photo: Elionas2 via pixabay
These methods are effective because they can create confusion around specific issues or candidates and reduce social and institutional trust. For example, in the days leading up to the Brexit referendum, Russian bot activity increased significantly. Preying on preexisting societal divisions, bots overwhelmingly focused on anti-immigration tweets with racist overtones or outright bigoted messages. They would then magnify those tweets that received the most traction.
Further, the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport select committee found that the Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik had a greater reach with anti-EU content in the 48 hours leading up to the referendum vote than Vote Leave or Leave.EU. No one knows for sure the impact on the Brexit vote, but it likely swayed some percentage of voters who might not have been sure or were planning to stay home. It is impossible to know the magnitude of the effect. Bigoted and racial firehosing, however, is effective in stirring up and disrupting social cohesion and political trust.
The EU found numerous Russian accounts behind disinformation campaigns originating from APT28, Fancy Bear, Ghostwriter and other Russian hacking groups. In a report spanning the years 2018-2021, hackers targeted ethnic, religious, and LGBTQIA+ minorities. Articles depicted migrants as health threats or terrorists. Some disseminated various antisemitic conspiracy theories including those about George Soros. These sorts of attacks micro target Member States, sometimes down to the city or village level, and exploit existing cleavages in society. It also leads to a normalisation of bigoted language and beliefs which ultimately translates into negative behaviour.
Russian accounts have also created confusion regarding the safety of European COVID-19 vaccines while promoting the efficacy and safety of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. They also tend to target Member States with Russian-speaking populations. The net effect here is a reduction in public trust in the European vaccines offered and a reduction in social cohesion. Discrediting the European options may impact health outcomes for minorities who already distrust the Member State; they opt not to get vaccinated because of reduced trust in the vaccine. This reduces public health safety in Member States and the EU more broadly. It also damages individual human rights surrounding life.
These sorts of attacks micro target Member States, sometimes down to the city or village level, and exploit existing cleavages in society.
July 2021 found the EU facing another externally orchestrated threat to social cohesion that the EU is still struggling with today. Russia and Belarus are encouraging migrants to travel to Minsk, where they can then continue their journey to Europe. Desperate people looking for a better life are seizing this opportunity, hoping against hope this will be their chance of freedom in Europe.
They are coming from all corners of the globe: Cuba, Syria, Cameroon, Congo, Afghanistan. They are Iraqis, Kurds, Nigerians, to name but a few, spending their life’s savings, making the perilous journey. Some states like Lithuania are unable to accommodate large numbers of migrants and are putting up barbed wire. However, if they go by way of Poland, the authorities are not processing their asylum papers and will return the migrants to Belarus. This is a violation of EU law.
A new strategy for Russia
It is clear that the authorities in Belarus wholly facilitate and profit from this human trafficking. Along the migrant path, receipts from luxury hotels and travel agencies, both run by Belorussian authorities, have been recovered. Further, Lukashenko has created the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the massive influx of ‘travellers’ being funnelled through their airports. For his part, the Belarusian President admits his country will in no way be the final destination, as all of these people are on their way to ‘cosy Europe’.
This act is particularly cruel; Russia and Belarus are using human beings as pawns in a sadistic revenge game. The EU calculus surmises this event is in retaliation for sanctions placed on Belarus by the EU for accusations of stealing the election in 2020 and many human rights violations.
The EU has handled Russia with kid gloves for many years, primarily because of its dependence on Russian natural gas and Russia’s nuclear power. Currently, it supplies around 44 percent to Europe; that number will increase once the Nord Stream 2 opens. Energy dependence is not likely to change in the immediate future.
Security interests in Europe necessitate open channels of communication and improved relations. However, can Europe continuously allow Russia to act maliciously within its borders? Earlier this year, High Representative Josep Borrell discussed his thoughts on handling Russia when he spoke to the European External Action Service (EEAS). There he offered three main ways Brussels should handle Russia: Push Back, Constrain, Engage. Overall, I agree with the spirit of this strategy. Below I will offer my brief thoughts on the approach.
Europe must push back against all attempts at destabilisation and reduce foreign dependence. Dependence on foreign gas is hindering relations with Russia; working more efficiently to secure independence will strengthen Europe's partnerships. Continuing to strengthen cyber-intelligence to counter any attack before it happens is also vital. Significant work has begun at the EU level, and some Member States' attempts are a work in progress.
Europe can push back and stand its ground when its strongest and stands of its laws and values.
Finally, efforts must continue to focus on public information campaigns to counter disinformation and strengthen social cohesion. Brussels has been making good efforts at public outreach on disinformation and to strengthen hate laws. Enforcing values at home that are, in part, degraded through external threats, will go a long way towards increasing public trust and creating a stronger Europe. In short, Europe can push back and stand its ground when its strongest and stands of its laws and values. These are internal projects.
One way to help force Russia’s hand is to strengthen security relationships with neighbours and allies. For example, Turkey has stalled on reforms; Europe has to keep lines of communication open and encourage their relationship with Armenia and democratisation efforts. They are a needed ally in the region.
It is a must that the Union continue to engage Ukraine in a security partnership. Furthermore, there is the necessity to leverage the change in the US executive to rebuild stronger ties with the US. The EU must discourage Member States from disrupting these arrangements by reaching out to states unilaterally and also respond more urgently to the crisis at the border as tensions continue to mount. Unfortunately, Russia is not playing by the rules and repeatedly breaks EU law. Therefore, it is essential to consistently enact and enforce targeted sanctions against Russia for disruptive and malicious interference in EU affairs. This means looking more closely at all ties to the organisations in question, no matter where they lead. This means including oligarchs with accounts and property in Europe.
It is a must that the Union continue to engage Ukraine in a security partnership, photo: TheAndrasBarta via pixabay
It also means being transparent and sharing this information openly, publicly on the world stage. What is the incentive to not engage in malicious behaviour otherwise? If the rule of law is not enforced, what is the point of the rule of law? The EU is taking targeted sanctions more seriously and should continue to find ways to improve sanction effectiveness, always with an eye to the people of Russia and making sure they are not collateral damage. Overall, it is necessary to expand and strengthen alliances and enforce the rule of law.
Unfortunately, Russia is not playing by the rules and repeatedly breaks EU law. Therefore, it is essential to consistently enact and enforce targeted sanctions against Russia for disruptive and malicious interference in EU affairs.
Russia will remain a player given its strategic oil resources and proximity to Europe. In addition, Russia’s nuclear power is not receding, rather it is actively modernising and improving its capabilities. It will always be in the best interests of the EU to find ways, when possible, to cooperate with Russia on issues to include energy, trade, travel, educational exchanges, and more.
Europe must also look for avenues to actively engage with the United States on nuclear initiatives. At the same time, the 2016 American election made clear Europe needs a Plan B as the US may not always be a reliable partner on security issues. Brussels should be less of a bystander with regard to the security of Europe and develop diplomatic capabilities to take the helm. Most importantly, there is also always the hope that relations may one day normalise. Europe must never close the door to that possibility and make this clear. Nor must it close the door on the people of Russia.
It will always be in the best interests of the EU to find ways, when possible, to cooperate with Russia on issues to include energy, trade, travel, educational exchanges, and more.
The latest 2021 Eurobarometer taken in June–July 2021 shows public trust in the EU is up to its highest point since 2008, with 49 percent of Europeans trusting the EU and an impressive 66 percent feeling optimistic about the future of the EU; this is the highest since 2009. It is not all kittens and rainbows, however. Three in ten hold pessimistic views about the EU's future; this is the lowest since 2009. In other words, this is no time to rest on one’s laurels.
If the EU wishes to increase institutional trust among its residents, Brussels must respond more effectively to external threats, stand firm on its codified conscience and the rule of law. Institutional trust depends on the public’s ability to count on its leaders to uphold the social contract, its promises, and principles. However, given the bombastic antics and flagrant rule breaking of its populist leaders, Brussels may also wish to enforce its values and laws at home more vigorously if it is to be taken seriously both internally and externally.
About the Author
Adjunct Professor at Tampa University, Florida
Professor Dr Nicolè Ford teaches Comparative Politics at the University of Tampa, Florida, USA. Her field of expertise is Russia and the post-Soviet Sphere/ Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. She is also an expert on democratic systems and democratisation in a broader sense, as well as democratic backsliding towards authoritarianism or breakdown. In the past she has carried out research for former Senator Bob Graham on Big Sugar and helped with constituent interfacing. She has worked with the United Nations, the Department of Political Affairs in the NE Asia division during the Gulf War and developed nuclear threat assessments. She has carried out field research and language training in Moscow, Russia. Finally, she is also a former United States Marine.
A selection of books and articles:
Placing the 2020 Belarusian Protests in Historical Context: Political Attitudes and Participation during Lukashenko’s Presidency. Cambridge University Press, 2022
Adat (Chechnya). In: The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, Understanding Social and Cultural Complexity. Vol. 1. Alena Ledeneva (ed.). UCL Press, London 2018.
Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.