Countering malign Kremlin influence will be with us for decades

Since the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1991, the U.S. has been a trusted partner to Central and Eastern European nations. During the 1990s, this engagement focused on helping countries transition to democracy and developing the private sector and free markets. There was incredible economic and social progress in the Baltics, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. In other countries, the progress was slower.

Russia, which dominated the Eastern Bloc since 1945, was preoccupied with its own challenges. However, for the last 15 years, Russia has been resurgent and has sought to cobble together a new Soviet Union or something akin to it.

Russia’s leadership has emerged as a credible threat to democracy and independence in its neighborhood. Russia’s people are not the problem, but the political leadership led by Vladimir Putin and his small coterie of oligarchs is.

Curtailing access to energy, spreading disinformation, targeted political assassinations, cyber-attacks and elections interference have been the new weapons deployed by Russian leadership to bring its neighbors back under its orbit. The Kremlin, led by Putin, wants to enable economic dependence on Russia and also wants to have unstable democracies or friendly autocracies they can manipulate. My colleague, Heather Conley, and others have written about the Kremlin threat through a comprehensive study entitled “The Kremlin Playbook.” In her series of reports, she describes how Russia cultivates networks in countries with weak democratic institutions and uses them to direct and influence decision-making. These networks concentrate on exploiting state resources to further Russian influence and are a key component of Russia’s New Generation Warfare.

The Russia threat has forced the United States to rethink its role and strategy for the region. The first step is to understand the nature of the threat; second, to understand what resources the U.S. has in hand that can be deployed and, lastly, to understand what can be done in partnership with our allies. Much of the resources at our disposal are “soft power” (read, “foreign assistance”) resources. Much of the responsibility for pushing back on what the Trump administration calls “Malign Kremlin Influence” falls on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which administers the bulk of American foreign assistance.

These efforts have led to the first major reframing of our foreign assistance in that part of the world in at least 10 years. After significant consultations with Republican and Democratic members on the Hill, the Trump administration recently rolled out its “Countering Malign Kremlin Influence” (CMKI) strategy. CMKI has four main objectives: Counter efforts to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law, resist the manipulation of information, reduce both energy and economic vulnerabilities. USAID has significantly increased spending in these target areas and countries, including an increase in funding to Ukraine from $33.6 million in fiscal year 2014 to $182.3 million in 2018. This new approach is likely going to be the strategy for at least the next 15 years in the region, especially for countries around Russia’s periphery, the so-called “frontline states” such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. (I know USAID well because I used to work there, and I chair an outside advisory board for USAID but have not been engaged in shaping CMKI, nor do I work directly on CMKI related projects.)

USAID and others are asking: “How do we encourage these countries to free themselves from Russian energy dependency? How do we strengthen their systems — and ours — from cyber-attacks, bots, and other cyber trickery? How do we significantly reduce these countries’ economic dependency on Russia and towards Europe, Turkey and other markets? How do we enable greater personal and political freedom? How can we strengthen the media and civil society engagement in this region?”

One example of the sorts of efforts we are going to see more from USAID can be found in the wine industry of Moldova. Moldovan wine sales to Russia decreased by 30 percent and increased by 16 percent to the United States after Moldova woke up and saw that too much economic dependency on Russia was creating trouble for the country. It exported even more to the Czech Republic, Britain and others. USAID helped Moldova move the wine industry away from Russia and is continuing these efforts as part of the Moldova Economic Growth Project. As part of the project, USAID is helping Moldova meet international wine standards.

Another example is energy in Ukraine. For years, efforts in Ukraine focused on energy efficiency issues. This meant providing soft loans to get large buildings to modernize their structures and power supply. What Ukraine actually needs is a total shift away from any energy dependency on Russia. Ukraine’s electric grid is still connected to Russia even after five years of war with its neighbor. However, Ukraine is in the process of moving to connect to Europe’s electric grid which is a hard, complicated process. As part of CMKI, USAID is helping Ukraine transition its power connection from Russia to Central Europe.

American foreign aid is transformational and still needed in this region, but it is not going to replace American trade and investment. If the United States is not there, these countries will seek other trading partners, including China or even Russia. The United States should be reviewing our trade relations with the countries around Russia’s periphery and seek to deepen those economic ties. We will still need several critical soft-power tools present in the region including the EXIM Bank and the new U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC, formerly known as OPIC) to compete with China, Turkey and the Gulf States.

Another overlooked instrument for this fight is ensuring that these countries reach a high-caliber level of English language. If we want these countries to turn away from Russia, we need them to speak and operate in the English language at levels that allow them to integrate into the West. Unfortunately, Ukraine, Albania and Georgia all rank in the “low” category on Education First’s English Proficiency Index.

CMKI is not only a way to help countries push back against the Russia challenge but also is a way to help enable more integration with the West. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, most people in this region support the shift from one-party rule and a state-controlled economy to a multiparty system and a market economy. Interestingly, on the other hand, more than 60 percent of Russians surveyed characterize the end of the Soviet Union as a great misfortune. Over the next several administrations, CMKI is going to be the significant soft-power approach for this part of the world.

article published in on November 15, 2019.

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