Larger than life – Who is afraid of the Big Bad Russia? Conference Summary
András Rácz, security analyst of Political Capital (PC), opened the conference by articulating that prior to the crisis in Crimea (2014), international security studies literature underestimated the threat Russia posed internationally, and overestimated that same threat after the crisis. According to Rácz, five years have passed since the 2014 ordeal, which has allowed security policy experts to become much more aware of Russia’s power, as they have expanded their knowledge regarding the nature of the threats Russia poses to the region and the Western world.
Panel discussion 1.: The authors of the study discussed its results
In the first panel discussion, the authors of the study discussed the topic of Russian influence within the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Lóránt Győri, geopolitical analyst with PC presented the main findings of the study, which used the so-called social listening methodology where millions of “natural,” spontaneous online conversations around Russia were analyzed. We observed that the most pro-Russian discourses occurred in Slovakia and the least pro-Russian discussions taking place in the Czech Republic, while Hungary stood between the two. The two most dominant perceptions in all three countries reflect the Kremlin’s current “cross-domain coercion” or hybrid warfare, which sees Russia as an “Aggressor” or an “Invisible influencer”.. Specifically, Russia emerges as a ruthless, unpredictable and powerful country that also wields an invisible communication power, which utilizes smokescreens, political deceptions and disinformation to achieve its malicious goals. While discussing statistics, positive perceptions are shared by less than 20% of the conversations overall. The Russia as a “Strong protector and ally” perception carries with it a positive interpretation of past and current Russian military “assertiveness.” The “Known bad” perception appearing in more than 10% of the conversations reflects the shared “positive” historical experiences with Russia in these countries.
The most important finding of the study is that Central Eastern European countries are currently experiencing an identity crisis that stems from the region’s confused geopolitical identity: whether these countries politically belong to the East or the West, and whether they want to identify themselves with the values of the East or the West. This identity crisis can be attributed to two basic emotional drives: „insecurity,” which refers to contemplating their individual/national survival, while „inferiority” addresses CEE countries’ perceived dependence on “big powers,” and the feeling of being secondary citizens of Western alliances. In addition, Győri also emphasized the role of regional factors, such as communication of the elite (Viktor Orbán or Zeman Miloš), the ideologies of Panslavism, Euroscepticism, and Soviet nostalgia.
Daniel Milo (senior research fellow at GLOBSEC Policy Institute) stated that public opinion polls of GLOBSEC support the findings of the study, regarding Slovakia being the most pro-Russian country in the Central European region. According to the research of GLOBSEC, the majority of Slovakians (56%) are „somewhere in between” regarding the question whether they would like to belong to the East or the West, geopolitically and culturally. The official position of the Slovakian government is pro-Western: the government claims that the EU and NATO memberships of Slovakia, and the Euroatlantic guarantee the stability and prosperity of Slovakia. However, Milo also pointed out that there are some tendencies to promote a closer cooperation with Russia, evidently seen through the discussions occurring in the Slovakian parliament between Andrej Danko and Viacheslav Volodin who addressed the possible new forms of cooperation between the two countries.
Jonas Syrovatka (program manager at the Prague Security Studies Institute) stated that while there are some pro-Russian tendencies in the Czech Republic, such as high level of support for pro-Russian president Miloš Zeman, pro-Russian voices remain on the fringes within the media, and in politics these voices are not strong enough to mobilize masses of Czech people. According to Syrovatka, a significant amount of citizens in the Czech Republic are afraid of the „invisible power” Russia possesses, which is supported by the recent spread of fake news about Russia’s soft power.
Lóránt Győri stated that, Hungarians are resistant towards pro-Russian narratives in general, because they think of Russia as an aggressor, or as an invisible manipulator. Győri added that although the majority of Hungarians claim to belong to the West, the messages propagated by Fidesz regarding Brussels and „the failing West” do strengthen pro-Russian opinions.
Panel discussion 2.: Experts on Germany, Poland and Ukraine discussed Russian influence within a more broad European context
With regards to the perceptions held by Germans on Russia, Gustav Gressel (senior policy fellow of European Council on Foreign Relations) explained that Germans still tend to regard Russia as „the other great power”, and the big enemy of the United States. According to Gressel, an important driver behind this belief is the fact that Germans lost the Second World War to Russia, therefore they see Russia as an invincible enemy. He also stated that the idea that „the losers of Western politics – Russia and Germany – should team up” does have the potential to become relevant in Germany once again.
Magdalena Jakubowska (president of Res Publica) continued with a discussion about Poland, as she explained that Poles – due to their historical memories about Russia being an aggressor towards them – are very anti-Russian and resistant towards Russian propaganda. According to Jabukoswka, although Russian influence is very weak in Poland, Russia possesses several tools that could be effective in dismantling Poles’ immunity towards Russian influence. These tools are constructed along the concepts of „the decline of the West”. Some examples for this are Polish patriotism, anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ sentiments, as well as the narratives against Ukrainian minorities living in Poland.
Maryna Vorotnyuk (researcher at Central European University, Center for European Neighborhood Studies) emphasized that there are important differences between Ukraine and the Central-Eastern European countries discussed earlier. The most important of these differences is that besides information attacks; Ukraine is also under attack militarily from Russia. As opposed to the families of V4 countries, military conflicts are part of the everyday lives of Ukrainian families, and are no longer distant memories. Furthermore, Ukraine is more of a target of disinformation attacks by Russia than any of the V4 countries seeing as Russian campaigns target the entirety of the Ukrainian population. Vorotnyuk also emphasized that Ukraine does not experience the same identity crisis that the CEE region does, because after the events that transpired in Crimea, Ukrainians had to position themselves towards Russia. According to public opinion polls, the majority of Ukrainians (75%) are anti-Russian while only 8% of the population is pro-Russian. Furthermore, in Ukraine, Euroscepticism is on the fringe as the majority of the population favors the integration into the EU. It is because of this, that the Kremlin is camouflaging their pro-Russian narratives and attempting to demoralize Ukrainians through a series of carefully worded messages, belittling their process of democratization. For example, the Kremlin spread messages that the Ukrainian election system is fake, that the reforms are all in vein and that Ukraine is a puppet state lacking sovereignty. In her closing remark, Vorontyuk highlighted that although the majority of Ukrainians are not pro-Russian, local media plays a very important role, as it can reframe the news and narratives to appear pro-Russian.
This summary has been prepared by Edina Nikoletti and Stefano Gardiman, interns of Political Capital.