From secret services clashes, to either demonstrative or strategic positioning of troops on the world map – the recorded evolutions in an accelerated rythm, with the end of summer, highlights the confruntations that Russia assumes with the Western sphere. Pieces are moved on the chess board, with possible profound implications in the near future. For example, the future power configurations in the European Union and, implicitly, the European project. Also, there are informational war regroups with major impact upon the stability of societies and political systems.
Just take for example the future power configurations in the European Union, implying the European project. In parallel, the regrouping in an informational warefare will have a major impact on the stability of the societies and political systems involved in this power race.
An autumn begins like any other or will it be followed by a long global winter?
Spies at War
“The Russians are in a wartime mode of operations. There is a major difference between the way secret services work in times of peace and war. In peacetime, it’s about gathering information for lawmakers. In times of war, services tend to become executive agencies, implicated in assassinations, sabotage, etc. They take more risks and are much less aware of the political consequences.”, said Mark Galeotti, a British expert on international relations, being one of the conclusions reached during the Skripal investigations – where the ex-Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned with Noviciok. Recently, Scotland Yard unraveled the names of the two agents working for the GU, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, who coordinated the operation.
Photo: Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boşirov, the two Russian suspects who poisoned ex-spy Serghei Skripal and his daughter, Iulia, here in an interview on Russia Today
The proportion of these clashes are seen these days in the French Minister of Armed Forces’ declarations who denounced the Franco-Italian military satellite spying attempts. In a discourse about the space defense sector, Florence Partly warned: “Yes, we are in danger, our communications, our military maneuvers as our dailies are in danger if we do not react”. The French Minister drew attention on the potential offensive abilities, that leave little doubt about the aggressive vocation large space powers deploy.
The activity of the Russian secret services on the EU territory has been noted at the beginning of September in Poland, where the Court announced the opening of an investigation against a high-official in the Ministry of Economy for spying in Moscow’s favour. The Polish Prosecutor’s office issued a press release where it accused the governmental employee for working with the GU during 2014-2016, more precisely for sending information about Warshaw’s position in reference to North Stream 2. Poland is against this Russian-German project because it will give Russia an even greater power upon the countries in Eastern Europe. The civil servant is under arrest and risks ten years in jail.
The Shows of Strength
Photo: The Russian fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean
The fact that we are currently in a conflict framework is proved by the American military answer: The Chairman of the Joint Cheifs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford talked, recently in Athens, about the perspective of expanding the American military presence in Greece, while the US Ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell announced the American military reinforcement in Germany. If in the summer, the American press presented scenarios for relocating 33.000 American troops out of Germany, now after the NATO Summit an official announcement stated that an additional 1500 soldiers and their families will be deployed there until no later than 2020. It is a solid answer to the fears for the future of the Trans-Atlantic Cooperation when it comes to defense. The reaction is shy in comparison with the threat.
On the 8th of September, Russia finished its military drills in the Eastern Mediterranean where 25 ships and 34 aircrafts participated. “An important demonstration of force”, described by Admiral Charles-Henri. “The area, which could be described as a NATO lake until the 1990s, has become a concentrate of global geopolitical problems; it is there that the powers evaluate and judge each other.”, highlighted the French admiral who also holds the position of the Mediterranean Maritime prefect. Even though the military presence is three times less than during the Cold War, the systematic advancement of China from Aden Golf through the Suez Channel and the project of opening a Chinese military base in the Mediterranean Sea shows the intensifying power games in the region.
Shortly after, the biggest Russian military exercise after the USSR fell, in the Middle East, programmed during 11 and 15 September, where a Chinese contingent of 3200 soldiers joined as a tradition started in 2005. “Vostok 2018” wanted to be more impressive than “Zapad 1981”, considered to be the height of the force demonstrations of the Warsaw Pact. The exercises involved 300.000 soldiers, 1000 planes, helicopters and drones, 36.000 tanks and armored cars, as well as 80 ships, according to the Russian Chief of Defense, Valeri Gherasimov. In the meanwhile, the Russian and Chinese presidents were attenting in Vladivostok the Oriental Economic Forum. The consolidation of the bilateral partnership is Vladimir Putin’s reply to Western sanctions applied after Ukraine’s invasion.
Russia’s tendency as a global actor also targets Africa. In the Central African Republic 170 Russian military instructors operate, the security of the president being guatanteed by Russian councelors and Russian companies have concluded concessions and prospective contracts in the mining industry. Even in Burkina Faso Moscow is strenghening its military collaborations and even in Eritrea is currently discussing about the opening of a new logistic harbour, which would give them a good strategic positioning at the Horn of Africa, next to the Djibouti bases opened by SUA, China and France.
Photo: Russia and the al-Assad regime resumed bombings against the rebels in Idlib
Also, on a military level, the Russian offensive in Idlib, the last insurgent group in Syria can be part of a bigger offensive project, through the humanitarian implications which the assalt might have. UN warns about the risk of a humanitarian catastrophy, estimating 800.000 potential refugees. They could be added to the other three million Syrians that already are in Turkey, as declared by Erdogan, at the recent failed Summit in Teheran. Russian-Iranian alliance opposed the Turkish request for an armistice in Idlib. Getting out of control the Syrian refugee crisis on the verge of electoral campaigns for the EU Parliament could worringly amplify the chances for Europhob parties.
Retaliation on the informational front
Photo: John Bolton – counselor for National Security for president Trump
It would not be the first time when Russia tries to influence the political game in Western democracies. John Bolton, adviser for president Trump’s on National Security, warned about Russia and its interference during the US mid-term parliamentary elections when he attended a meeting in Geneva with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrouchev. The discussion is raised after the ex-campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, lied to the FBI agents who were investigating the Russian involvement in the presidential campaign in 2016.
An issue for which Facebook and Twitter took responsability in front of the American Congress for reacting too slow against fake news, saying that they were not ready for this. At the end of August, Facebook announced that it closed 652 pages, groups and accounts involved in campaigns for influencing the public opinion by Russia and Iran. In July, Twitter closed in just two months 70 million accounts.
A study shows that Russian trolls were not only involved in spreading fake information during the American presidential campaign, but also in anti-vaccination campaigns and also dividing the Western societies. The objective was not to convince the citizens, but to raise the rate of hostility and confusion.
“It is not Russophobia that all recent interferences in referendums (Netherlands, Brexit, Catalonia) and elections (United States, France, Germany) are linked, so far to Russia”, reads a report issued by the centers for strategic researches of the Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries. The report pleads for a better prepared counter informational manipulation at aging scale, especially against Russian “cyber-brigades” who aim to destabilize democratic debate and weaken Europe.
Entitled “Information Manipulation – A challenge for Our Democracies”, the study warns that technological progress and the use of artificial intelligence will make information manipulation quasi-undetectable, thus entire societies and political systems could be confused. Sweeden created a task force focusing on counter-acting influencing campaigns, as well as Denmark, while Latvia has a working group for informational threats and Great Britain created an inter-ministerial cell for strategic communication.
This multitude of hostile elements does not pass Romania, as it would seem at first sight. Each of the above decisions concerns us from a strategic viewpoint. The fact that the Romanian society and the authorites are ignoring power postionings in the word around, represents a major weakness for the country. The consequences can be a grave inadequacy on many levels in front of a more and more threatening elements.
*Horia Blidaru is the founder of Europolis– a European cooperation forum that promotes democracy. He was a MEP expert in Bruxelles (2008-2018). He is now a MA student on Security and Information Analysis at the University of Bucharest.