Despite losses in Ukraine, Russia continues its hybrid war with Europe

In an effort to destabilise Western unity, the Kremlin continues its covert disinformation campaigns, relying largely on local supporters to promote its narrative.

Shortly after the war in Ukraine passed the one-year mark, Russia reached a major milestone, although not one Vladimir Putin had hoped for: in early March, the Russian military hit 150,000 combat losses, surpassing Soviet losses in Afghanistan almost ten times over. 

The rhetoric coming from the Kremlin, however, cannot be more divorced from reality. In February Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threatened that Moldova would “play the role of the next Ukraine” should it seek unification with Romania, followed by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s remarks about “denazifying” Poland and organising a referendum in its Silesia region. 

In the meantime, eerily similar demonstrations have been taking place in Bulgaria and Moldova, organised by pro-Russian parties with questionable ties to the Kremlin. While sanctions have hampered Russia’s ability to influence domestic politics across Europe, its propaganda onslaught is still up and running and its goal is simple – project strength where there is none. 

Developing the narrative 

In his very first speech announcing the start of the invasion, Putin built a narrative around “correcting” historical mistakes and expanding the so-called “Russian world” by denazifying Ukraine. That narrative has largely remained intact as the Kremlin tries to paint its actions as those of a liberator rather than an aggressor. It is natural to wonder where these ambitions end considering Russia’s history in the region and the extent of its former empire. 

The Kremlin has struggled with projecting a coherent message throughout the war. Promoting the Russian narrative became increasingly difficult following the ban of mouthpieces like Russia Today and Sputnik across the European Union. Russian officials on their part have been swinging from one extreme to the other trying to portray Russia as both an unstoppable force domestically and a proponent of peace on the global stage. 

In the face of successive military failures, the aggressive rhetoric is thus mostly used for domestic purposes. Western allies have crossed numerous “red lines” over the past year with no retaliation. Furthermore, most of these threats are targeted at eastern EU member states with already tenuous relations with Russia. Russia loses very little diplomatic goodwill by threatening Poland or the Baltics but can use it to project strength at home. 

Crucially, very few of the more extreme remarks have come from Putin himself. Kremlin officials such as Lavrov and Dmitry Medvedev, propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov, and even hot-headed loyalists like Kadyrov and Dmitry Rogozin account for most headlines we see. This allows the Kremlin, on one hand, to test the waters with the Russian public, and, on the other, to provide Putin with some plausible deniability should he need to change course. 

Russian propaganda on the global stage usually relies on painting the West as the aggressor and Russia as a peaceful counterweight to Western influence. At the UN, Russia’s ambassador Vasily Nebenzya has repeatedly claimed that Russia is acting in self-defence, particularly in the Donbas. Research by the Atlantic Council concluded that the most common narratives pushed by pro-Kremlin media portrayed Russia as a victim and Ukraine as an aggressor. 

Russia is fighting this information war on multiple fronts. In an effort to destabilise Western unity, the Kremlin has continued its covert disinformation campaigns and has relied largely on local supporters to promote its narrative, including funding political movements and buying off journalists. 

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Looking for weak links 

Putin began his war of conquest with grand ambitions. It was clear early on that the invasion of Ukraine could be followed by an incursion into Moldova – which already has a Russian contingent in its breakaway region Transnistria

While it is now clear that the Russian military cannot move past Ukraine, the Kremlin continues its hybrid warfare to destabilise nearby countries through disinformation and political subversion rather than direct military confrontation. Southeastern Europe has proven a favourable target, particularly countries like Bulgaria and Moldova which have befallen to political instability. 

Bulgaria has been in a constant state of political crisis since 2020 and has long been a prime target for the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns. Moldova is in an even more precarious situation as it finds itself next to the front line. 

Vessela Tcherneva, foreign policy advisor to Bulgaria’s former prime minister Kiril Petkov, tells Emerging Europe that: “Countries which are geographically close to the war theatre like Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, are probably still seen by Moscow as contested territory of influence. And while for Bulgaria, a NATO member, the meddling in its domestic affairs fuels anti-Western parties but cannot change the overall direction of travel, for Moldova it is much more difficult.” 

While pro-Russian demonstrations in Bulgaria by the Vuzrazhdane party and its allies have largely been small and ineffective, Moldova finds itself in a much more vulnerable position outside NATO. 

“Attempting regime change in Chisinău is therefore attractive in Russia’s hybrid war thinking,” adds Tcherneva. 

At a press conference in early February, President Maia Sandu told reporters that Russia’s plans for the country “included sabotage and militarily trained people disguised as civilians to carry out violent actions,” a description very similar to the one Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev gave to the Bulgarian National Assembly in January regarding Russia’s operations in Sofia. 

Russia’s ambitions in the region are nothing new, nor is its use of propaganda to destabilise it. While military escalation outside of Ukraine remains highly unlikely, the aggressive rhetoric coming from the Kremlin will likely continue as the Putin regime seeks both domestic and international support. 

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