Several of Russia's hybrid warfare tactics against the West were on prominent display this past week, as U.S., U.K. and Dutch authorities exposed a campaign by the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU to conduct a cyberattack against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a global chemical weapons watchdog based in the Hague. The organization was investigating the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter — believed to have been carried out by GRU operatives — in the United Kingdom using the chemical agent Novichok. The GRU was also reportedly targeting files related to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine and chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Russia has proven itself skilled and active in conducting cyberattacks and poisonings, but amid these types of high-profile cases is a more subtle, ongoing aspect of Russia's hybrid warfare strategy: the effort to support conservative, far-right and anti-liberal movements in the West and Western-leaning states. As demographic and immigration pressures become more pronounced in Europe, Russia is seeking to use such pressures in its bid to foster divisions within the West and slow or even prevent states throughout the European borderlands from joining the European Union or NATO.
One aspect of Russia's standoff with the West that flies under the radar is Moscow's support of conservative and anti-liberalism movements across Europe and the former Soviet states. While less flashy than spy poisonings and separatist conflicts, it may be no less important for Russia-West relations in the long run.
The World Congress of Families, a recent conference held in the small but strategic state of Moldova, provides an example of how Russia is taking advantage of far-right movements to further its own agenda. The annual gathering of anti-liberal, pro-life and anti-LGBT groups from around the world brought out an array of conservative advocates, including government officials and clerics from Russia, Christian scholars from the United States and various political figures from Europe and elsewhere.
Moldovan President Igor Dodon opened the conference by identifying depopulation and mass migration as key threats to his country, noting that young Moldovans are reluctant to have children and are prone to seeking employment opportunities outside of the country. Dodon said that 106 people leave Moldova on average every day and that the country's population could decline by 1 million in the next 20 years — a staggering statistic for a nation of just over 4 million people. According to Dodon, the solution is a renewed emphasis on family. Dodon called family the most important social institution in Moldova and said it is under attack by anti-family philosophies and ideologies being propagated by the West. Dodon advocated for "festivals of sexual minorities" to be outlawed in the country, and said that children must be protected from the negative influence of such ideas. Dodon ended his speech by proudly declaring 2019 as the year of the family in the Republic of Moldova.
Demographic Decline as a Conservative Tool
According to the United Nations, Moldova is indeed projected to lose almost 20 percent of its population by 2050, due both to its low birth-rate of 1.25 children per woman (one of the lowest in the world) and to the country's small and undeveloped economy, which prompts many young and educated Moldovans to work abroad in Russia and EU countries.
Moldova is not alone in facing a steep long-term demographic decline. Countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe face negative population outlooks caused by low birth rates, low immigration rates and high emigration rates. Bulgaria and Latvia are projected to lose more than 20 percent of their populations by 2050, while almost all other countries in Central and Eastern Europe will lose between 10 percent and 20 percent of their populations by then. (Even Russia itself, which is an immigration destination for people from poorer countries in the former Soviet sphere, is projected to have an overall population decline of 8 percent by 2050.)
Declining populations put pressure on a country's economy and can drive certain political factions to more openly embrace the kind of pro-family, anti-gay ideology espoused by the World Congress of Families. This state of affairs presents an opportunity for Russia to engage in one of its many means of hybrid warfare: encouraging the propagation of conservative and anti-liberal ideas in an attempt to sow chaos and discord in the West and Western-oriented states. Though the World Congress of Families is not a Russian-run organization — it was founded by U.S. historian and religious scholar Allan Carlson and is currently led by U.S. Christian activist Brian Brown — it has reportedly received support from conservative Russian oligarchs like Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin and Tsargrad chairman Konstantin Malofeev, who are known to finance pro-Russian and Christian Orthodox initiatives in Eastern and Western Europe.
How Russia Uses These Movements to Undermine European Unity
The conference's platforms, supported explicitly by Dodon, play perfectly into Russia's interests. Moldova is a classic borderland state, caught between the opposing influences of the European Union and Russia. During the 2016 Moldovan presidential election campaign, Dodon was in frequent close contact with the Kremlin, traveling to Russia often. And since his victory, Dodon has advanced conservative sentiments and actions that are also pro-Russia and anti-Western. The president criticized the Moldovan parliament's efforts to integrate with the European Union and has supported closer political and economic relations with Russia. In 2017, he formally moved Moldova to "observer status" in the Eurasian Economic Union, a major indicator of which side of the Russia-West standoff he intends to be on.
Moscow is also sowing political division among more explicitly Western-oriented countries, intending to achieve outcomes such as preventing the spread of NATO and challenging the unanimity needed for the European Union to implement sanctions against Russia. Take Hungary, which is located in Central Eastern Europe but, unlike Moldova, is already a member of the European Union. Russia supports conservative party Fidesz in Hungary, particularly its leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban has clashed with the European Union over rule-of-law issues in his country, has advocated for lifting sanctions against Russia and has spoken against EU integration efforts, all of which foster frictions within the European Union. Orban meets often with Putin; on a Sept. 18 visit, the two leaders extended a natural gas agreement between their countries and established a deal for Russia to build two new reactors at Hungary's Paks nuclear power plant.
The Kremlin is in this for the long run, intending to shape and grow conservative movements over a period of years.
Even in major Western European countries, Russia has been trying to encourage European disintegration by exacerbating demographic and immigration debates that have fostered a divisive political atmosphere. In France, for example, Moscow has thrown its weight behind France's National Rally party (formerly National Front), a far-right nationalist party whose leader Marine Le Pen called for France's departure from the eurozone. Le Pen advanced to the final round of presidential elections in 2017, further than any other French nationalist candidate before her. While France does not face the degree of population decline that Hungary and other countries in Eastern Europe contend with, immigration into the country — particularly from Middle Eastern and African countries — is a controversial topic that drives support for parties like the National Rally. Through political and economic support and a variety of propaganda and disinformation techniques, Russia has sought to exploit that debate. It is taking similar actions in supporting Italy's Five Star Movement and Germany's Alternative for Germany, which both seek to challenge economic and social norms within the European Union.
The Bigger Picture
Moscow has found ways to identify and exploit parties across Europe and Eurasia whose policy goals — even if they are not explicitly pro-Russian — align with its broader goal of countering Western influence and undermining Europe's cohesion efforts. Russia's strategy of supporting such parties and groups rarely guarantees clear, instant success for Moscow. Le Pen was defeated by pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron in the French elections, and EU sanctions against Russia have continued despite Orban's calls to lift them. But the Kremlin is in this for the long run, intending to shape and grow conservative movements over a period of years. While Russia's political influence campaigns may be subtler and quieter than spy poisoning and cyberattacks, they are low-cost tools that Russia has used and will continue to use throughout the West and pro-Western countries to sow chaos, foster divisions and stymie integration efforts.