US Senators: Vigilance and effort needed to counter Russian undemocratic meddling

United States Capitol in Washington; Photo: WikiCommons / Scrumshus

WASHINGTON – Russian campaign aimed at undermining democracy and democratic institutions, universal values, and the rule of law across Europe is depicted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff report, published on January 10 and commissioned by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the Committee’s ranking member.

Throughout the report, composed of eight chapters and numerous appendixes, top Russian officials led by President Vladimir Putin are being accused of meddling in the elections and internal affairs both across the Europe and the US and employing “an asymmetric arsenal that includes military invasions, cyber attacks, disinformation, support for fringe political groups, and the weaponization of energy resources, organized crime, and corruption”.

In addition, the authors refer to instruments such as civil society, ideology, culture, and religion as part of an asymmetric arsenal used for aforementioned purposes.

In this regard, the Democrats recommend a series of actions that the US shall undertake across government, civil society and the private sector in order to stall and push back the attempts directed towards the undermining of democracy. The recommendations call for, inter alia, assistance to build democratic institutions in those countries most vulnerable to the interference, US and NATO-led coalition of countries committed to mutual defence against cyber attacks and an organization similar to the National Counter-Terrorism Center that would coordinate the American reaction to such meddling.

A special mention is given to the countries directly or indirectly targeted by Russia. Montenegro and Serbia are among them.

The report says the Russian malign influence in Montenegro has long been present and has only intensified after 2016 in an attempt to derail the country’s efforts to join NATO.

“This renewed focus included propaganda, support for NGOs and political parties, and culminated in an alleged Russian effort to overthrow the government following the 2016 parliamentary election. While Russia was strongly opposed to Montenegro’s desire to join NATO, it did not resort to the conventional military tactics used in Ukraine and Georgia but instead relied on a hybrid mix of disinformation and threat of force to send the same message that integration with the West was unacceptable,” according to the report.

A mention has been made of an alleged coup plot in Montenegro aimed at creating “such discord in Montenegro that its NATO bid, or any prospects for integration with Europe, would be disrupted”.

“This coup attempt, however, was not a one-off event, but the culmination of a sustained propaganda and interference campaign to persuade the Montenegrin people to oppose NATO membership,” the Senators write.

They noted that, following the disclosure of Montenegro’s intention to join NATO, Russia underwent a propaganda campaign that included support for pro-Russian political parties and anti-NATO civil society groups. They deem the Democratic Front political party to have received millions of dollars in Russian support and growing from being a marginal force into Montenegro’s main opposition party.

With regard to Serbia, deep connections with Russia through the Orthodox Church and a shared Slavic culture are highlighted.

“Russian malign influence in the Republic of Serbia manifests itself through cultural ties, propaganda, energy, and an expanding defence relationship. (…) This narrative has been carefully cultivated over the years such that Russian government disinformation campaigns find very fertile ground among the population of Serbia,” the Senators explain.

The report also reflects on Serbian overt desire to join the European Union, asserting that maintaining good relations with both the EU and Russia might not be sustainable, “as deeper integration may mean adopting EU decisions that run counter to Russian interests.”

Whereas the country has employed substantial political capital and resources towards joining the EU, it has not done much to counter Russian anti-EU propaganda that circulates throughout the country, the report asserts.

“According to the U.S. State Department, the ‘number of media outlets and NGOs taking pro-Russian stands has grown from a dozen to over a hundred in recent years, and the free content offered by Russian state outlets such as Sputnik make them the most quoted foreign sources in the Serbian press’.”

Security cooperation between two countries is seen as another powerful inroad into Serbia’s government and society and recent procurements of Russian military equipment are also noted.

“The narrative that Russia is Serbia’s protector on the world stage has a particular resonance with Serbia’s population”, it is stated.

The report also referred to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the ongoing tension between the entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina with regard to NATO and Russia.

Notwithstanding the support the central government in Sarajevo has expressed for Bosnia’s implementation of a NATO Membership Action Plan, the parliament in the RS responded by passing a non-binding resolution in October 2017 opposing Bosnia’s potential NATO membership.

“If Bosnia were to make significant progress towards NATO, Russia could exert influence in RS to hamper forward progress”, the report adds.

The Senators advised both Serbia and Montenegro and the US and NATO regarding the issues analysed in the report.

NATO is required to take heed and require a series of reforms by aspirant countries focused on building resiliency against undemocratic interference.

Montenegro, on the other hand, is advised to remain vigilant, since “Moscow could continue to exert pressure and influence in ways similar to those seen in countries like Bulgaria”.

In addition, the international community “should actively help the government to bolster its defences against other soft power tools in Russia’s asymmetric arsenal,” the report says.

In case of Serbia, the report asserts that Serbia faces pressure in trying to “sit on two chairs” and if it “wants to join the EU, it needs to take steps to counter the Russian asymmetric arsenal.”

The United States, on the other hand, is advised to re-engage with resources and provide the senior level and consistent diplomatic engagement.

“The United States needs to send a clear message that it is back and ready to work seriously in cooperation with host countries and allies across Europe to defend against malign influence and help countries complete the integration process”, the report concludes.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States