Source: EFCR

Russia has a multitude of capabilities and venues for political influence, including diplomacy, political communication, media and social media, Russian diaspora and compatriots, various parts of civil society (including foundations, NGOs, academia, think tanks, and the Orthodox Church), the business and energy sectors, sympathizing political parties and organizations. Some of these assets are controlled by Russian intelligence or other state organs, while others share values or sympathize with Russia. Russia has a whole-of-government approach to political activities.

Russia is the foreign state that tries to influence European politics and decision-making most. A recent comprehensive study attributed 80 percent of influence efforts in Europe to Russia, with China as the second largest state actor.

Russian influence activities are long-term efforts to ensure Russian political interests and achievement of the country´s objectives. The Kremlin has three main strategic objectives:

  1. First, to ensure regime security and maintain their own power.
  2. Second, to ensure predominance in Russia’s near abroad, usually understood as the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic States.
  3. Finally, to secure world-power status for Russia with the commensurate influence and respect internationally. The latter two directly support the primary objective of regime security.

Russian influence activities are of a political nature, and logically support the achievement of these strategic objectives. In a short-term perspective, Russia aims to have the sanctions imposed since 2014 lifted.

Political influence activities to counter the sanctions

  1. Obtain information on the views of the government, political parties and institutions, how they would handle the conflict, and their future policy towards Russia.
  2. Prepare influence activities, obtain information on the decision-making processes, and find out to what extent it is still possible to influence them.
  3. Use contacts to spread the Russian point of view, calm them about Russian policy.

In general, Russia uses all available venues to wield influence, including Government, political parties, institutions, business, and the public through media and social media.

In addition there are more specific objectives related to individual countries. Russia is a major energy exporter and has used this as a tool for political influence on numerous occasions. Unsurprisingly, countries heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies report Russian attempts to influence their energy policy and investment decisions.

The main venues to reach the general population are media and social media. In addition, Russia also uses minorities and refugees, businesses and front organizations. Large and well-resourced media outlets are loyal tools for the Russian government. The most prominent foreign language media are RT and Sputnik, operating in numerous languages. Russia communicates through TV, radio, the Internet and public events, and employs paid journalists in Western and other media.

Energy and Business

Russia’s role as a major, sometimes the only energy supplier, is a key venue for influence. Maintaining control of energy supply is, therefore, a major objective, serving three purposes.

  1. First, it gives direct political influence as threats to turn off energy supplies may be made. That said, it would also involve huge economic and political consequences for Russia.
  2. Second, it gives Russia a major economic and therefor political role, involving energy, infrastructure, transit and transportation.
  3. Third, energy is the major source of income for  Russia, and therefore essential to maintain political stability.

The major obstacle for Russia is the EU energy policy and integration of energy markets across Europe. Russia, therefore, exploits disagreements and makes every effort possible to weaken support for this policy, including the use of bilateral relations and lucrative economic offers, media and lobbying to promote its own and undermine other sources of energy. Such efforts can be directed at legislative processes, at decision-making regarding investment and policies, or public opinion. Russian lobbying efforts are more effective than their media efforts. Russia has used all levers available to promote the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, going directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea and thus around Poland and the Baltic States. Lithuania was totally dependent on Russian gas, and Russia actively worked against a new liquefied natural gas terminal and electricity interconnections with Sweden and Poland. Another example is the substantial effort to influence investment decisions and nuclear fuel supply in the Czech nuclear power industry.

Russia also attempts to maintain a grip on critical infrastructure, including pipelines, ports, terminals, railway infrastructure and electricity grids and interconnections. The Russian energy industry is used as a political tool, where decisions can be made based on political objectives and not only business potential or profit. Business in general can serve as a platform for economic dependence and to counter sanctions. Consultancies have good connections and thorough understanding of political processes and decision-making, and can therefore, wittingly or unwittingly, be useful venues for influence. While there is broad agreement in general on the importance of business and energy as tools of influence, the question of how it plays out is more complex.

Allies and front organizations

There are at least five categories of allies and front organizations: civil society and political activists, academic and research organizations, the media, extremist groups, and businesses. There is certainly a degree of overlap and synergies, and some fall into several categories. Civil society organizations advocate political issues, organize political influence activities and events . There is a range of interest groups, foundations, war veterans, NGOs, and in some cases political parties.

Academic and research organizations legitimize and support views and issues desirable for Russia, and also provide the basis for debate and political influence. This category can also include various foundations, think tanks and history projects, and they sometimes perform much of the same functions as civil society organizations.

Media promote the narrative, reach out to the public, and support political influence activities.

Identifying an organization as a front is challenging. Some are directly or indirectly financed and organized by Russia, but proof of this is very rare, even though claims abound. Others are ideologically or otherwise motivated, but sympathizing with Russia is not illegitimate, and it is very difficult to distinguish those working for their own causes from those that in various ways work for Russia. A much-featured case is French National Front’s (since 2018 National Rally) 9-million-euro loan from a Russian bank. The party has been outspoken in its criticism of Western sanctions and supportive of Russia on several occasions.

Maintaining a network of allies and front organizations is an important piece of the Russian influence apparatus. It reaches into the political debate and structures of foreign countries, provides legitimacy, and the direct or indirect involvement of Russia is obscured or deniable. However, it is not necessarily a simple task to organize and maintain these structures.

Projecting Soft Power

Russia puts emphasis on public diplomacy and more specifically on the use of “soft power” as one of the methods of achieving foreign policy objectives. The Information Security Doctrine (2016) lists as one of Russia’s national interests in the information sphere “providing the Russian and international community with reliable information” on Russian policies .

The Role of Russian Experts

  • Delivery to the international community of unbiased information about Russia’s perspectives on key international issues, its foreign policy initiatives and efforts, processes and plans of its socioeconomic development and Russia’s cultural research achievements is an important element of foreign policy activities of the Russian Federation. Russia considers the global information community to be fundamentally skewed or biased in favour of the West. This is why there is an insistence on the need to bring “unbiased information” about global events and to provide an “objective image” of Russia. In Russian thinking about the information space, the West dominates the international media, including the internet. To a certain degree, this is a justified claim.
  • Russia seeks to ensure that the world has an objective image of the country, develops its own effective ways to influence foreign audiences, promotes Russian and Russian-language media in the global information space, providing them with necessary government support, is proactive in international information cooperation, and takes necessary steps to counter threats to its information security. New information and communication technology is used to this end. Russia is intent on promoting a set of legal and ethical forms regarding the safe use of such technology. Russia asserts the right of every person to access unbiased information about global developments and various points of view.
  • Greater participation of Russia’s academics and experts in the dialogue with foreign specialists on global politics and international security is one of the areas of public diplomacy development. Engaging experts to promote Russian public diplomacy and Russia’s strategic narrative externally is an explicit goal. This is part and parcel of a larger strategy to use information as a way of influencing foreign countries . The experts that are expected to promote a Russian strategic narrative are attached to the leading think tanks on foreign policy in Russia. This strategic narrative can be analysed on three levels.
  1. First, the narrative about how the international system is structured and how it is evolving;
  2. Second, a narrative about what Russia is and which values it promotes as well as the goals it pursues; and  finally,
  3. A narrative that explains the virtues of specific policies and the way Russia pursues these .

Selected Think Tanks

  1. Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC): A think tank with a network of foreign affairs and security policy experts. Established by President Medvedev.
  2. Valdai Club: Founded by SVOP, MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations)and HSE (National Research University Higher School of Economics) . Link to the President through yearly Valdai conference.  
  3. Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP): Founded 1992 by experts and officials at power ministries and journalists.
  4. Gorchakov Fund: Founded by President Medvedev 2010. Closely linked to Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  5. Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, (RISS): Established by President Putin. Linked to SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), financed by the President’s Directorate for Administrative Questions.
  6. Rethinking Russia: Probably founded by the ISEPR think tank. Described as “International Analytical Center”. Cooperation with VTsIOM.
  7. Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC): Founded by Vladimir Yakunin, former chair of Russian Railways, with close ties to President Putin
  8. Institute of Democracy and Cooperation (IDC): Institutes in Paris and New York to balance the EU’s promotion of democracy and human rights in Russia.
  9. Information Security Institute: Institute at Moscow State University.

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