EU Strategy and Russia | Opinion

Last week members of the European Union met to discuss their strategy on Russia. The EU eventually adopted a hard-line stance that was particularly advocated for by member states who share a border with Russia, despite unanticipated French and German efforts to derail the policy. While this new posture toward Russia is a step in the right direction, the EU is woefully unprepared to actually deal with Russian hybrid warfare. If European nations do not quickly shore up their capabilities, they will soon suffer grave consequences.

Russia possesses clear goals and tactics—undermine democracy, destroy trans-Atlantic unity and restore Russian primacy in the post-Soviet space. Russian actors co-opt European elites, use Kremlin-controlled natural gas and oil to establish energy reliance, engage in strategic corruption and wage vicious disinformation campaigns. Additionally, Russia supports far-right nationalist parties across Europe in an attempt to undermine the liberal international order.

It would be naïve, however, to assume that Russia's efforts only threaten former Soviet states. Russia consistently displays aggression toward the entire continent; most recently, Russia's empowerment of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko led to the hijacking of a plane carrying EU citizens. Germany's domestic intelligence agency even recently announced an increase in Russian intelligence operations in Germany.

Nevertheless, the largest Western powers in the EU take a strikingly acquiescent stance toward Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron's de facto policy of appeasing Moscow erodes the trust that Paris once had of its Central and Eastern European allies. Meanwhile, one of Germany's leading chancellor candidates, Armin Laschet, displayed a disquieting affinity for Russia, including support for Nord Stream 2, a pipeline project that would give Russia greater leverage over Europe.

Western Europe's entire strategic culture regarding Russia consists of frantically avoiding confrontation while pleading for dialogue, which has not stopped Russia from organizing new hostile activities. In February, the EU dispatched Josep Borrell, its foreign policy chief, to Moscow in a gesture of goodwill, but this mission failed miserably when the Kremlin unceremoniously denounced the diplomat.

Western Europe's approach contrasts sharply with that of Central and Eastern Europe. Estonia became a leading cybersecurity powerhouse in response to a 2007 Russian cyberattack. The Czech Republic recently expelled multiple Russian diplomats and intelligence officers in response to an attack on a NATO ammunition depot. There are, of course, regional exceptions. Austria facilitates Russian intelligence operations, and Hungary functions as a loyal ally of the Kremlin. Beyond the EU, Serbia helps to further Russia's goals in the Balkans.

These exceptions notwithstanding, Europe is divided between the appeasement policies of the West and the defensive posture of Central and Eastern Europe. While this difference is in part explained by Russia's use of money in elite capture operations, it is also explained by history. The former Soviet-occupied states in Central and Eastern Europe know what it is like to be a constant target of the Kremlin and to live under Russian dictators. By contrast, Western Europe has never suffered a serious Russian attack, which explains why many Western foreign policy practitioners live in an alternate reality regarding the Kremlin.

President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Angela Merkel
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a press conference during their meeting in Sochi on May 18, 2018. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

The rest of the EU must learn from Central and Eastern European states to start developing a comprehensive plan for the continent's security. For one, existing bodies and institutions should be strengthened to allow members to effectively counter Russian activities.

The European External Action Service's East StratCom Task Force should become the EU's main analytical and response body. Member states should guarantee increased funding for the Task Force to give it the capacity to counter Russia. Additionally, the Council of the EU's disinformation action plan should be built upon to include the production of regular joint threat assessments and practical hybrid threat scenario exercises.

Member states should also follow American, British and Baltic examples of launching investigations into potential Russian influence networks and instances of interference. Requiring officials in each state to adequately explain the nature of these uncovered operations would support public discourse in a way that reaffirms trust and a sense of security. The EU as a whole should complement these efforts with the creation of an agency to screen foreign investments and to coordinate the creation of sanctions lists. Additionally, the Biden administration's recent announcement of a renewed focus on fighting corruption and kleptocracy offers a timely opportunity for trans-Atlantic cooperation on an issue that intersects with the fight against Russian hybrid warfare.

Finally, likeminded European countries must act collectively when responding to Russia. The expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and diplomats should be executed in unison by groups of likeminded EU countries to limit Russia's ability to single-out member states for retaliation. Moreover, Russia's flouting of the Council of Europe's rules constitutes grounds for expulsion.

The new Russia strategy is based on three principles "push back, constrain and engage." The EU finds itself in an unenviable position vis-à-vis Russia, but urgent action by European nations would go a long way in addressing existing vulnerabilities. Negligence and appeasement are no longer options.

Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jakub Janda is executive director of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.