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Better use money than brute force. Dimitar Bechev on why Russia is running out of friends in Eastern Europe

Discovery of Russian involvement in the explosions at Czech ammunition depots in 2014 has sparked a huge diplomatic scandal. Official Prague has expelled nearly a hundred Russian diplomats, and other Eastern European countries have demonstrated solidarity by following suit. On April 28, the Bulgarian Prosecutor's Office confirmed the involvement of the GRU in acts of sabotage in Bulgaria. Dimitar Bechev, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, explains why countries formerly loyal to Moscow are necessarily turning their backs on Russia.

There was a time when Moscow could count on some countries in Eastern Europe. Sure enough, the likes of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary or Bulgaria would stick with the rest of the pack when NATO or the EU would take a hardline on Russia. All of them joined the post-Crimea sanctions in 2014. The Czechs and the Hungarians expelled Russian diplomats after the Salisbury attack in 2018, too. But in contrast to Poland or the Baltic republics, there has never been any enthusiasm about picking fights with the Russians. Czech President Miloš Zeman was dubbed the Kremlin’s most influential ally in Central Europe. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a pragmatist at heart, chose to tag along rather than push back against Zeman’s overtures to Moscow. Slovakia and Bulgaria, for their part, broke ranks with the West over the Skripal affair. Back in 2018, Russia’s embassies in Bratislava and Sofia continued with business as usual, with no unexpected staff losses.

Back in 2018, Russia’s embassies in Bratislava and Sofia continued with business as usual, with no unexpected staff losses

Things are changing, however. The revelations about Russian involvement in a Czech arms depots explosion in 2014 has triggered a diplomatic scandal of massive proportions. Initially, authorities in Prague told 18 Russian diplomats to leave. Now another 63 staff are also to return to Moscow. The Czech Republic is arguing that the outsize number of personnel at the embassy, a relic from pre-1993 Czechoslovakia, should be brought down to match that of Czech diplomats in Moscow. For its part, Slovakia, in solidarity with the Czech, declared three Russian diplomats persona non grata. Further south, Bulgaria expelled another two at the end of March, in reaction to an espionage scandal rather than the Czech revelations. Prosecutors pressed charges against an alleged spy ring led by a former official at the Ministry of Defense’s intelligence service. Authorities claim they collected and passed on to their Russian handlers classified information concerning Bulgaria’s purchase of F16 fighter jets from the US.

Why are Eastern Europe’s moderates changing tack? Is Russia losing its friends in the region for good?

At some level, the Kremlin has only itself to blame. What works in Eastern Europe, or anywhere in the West for that matter, is co-optation and not GRU’s daredevil operations. If you want to have governments on your side you better use money – whether it is investment, cushy energy deals, transfers into select offshore accounts and the like – and not brute force. Using coercive power has its upside. The Vrbětice blast may have complicated plans to send weapons and ammunition to Ukraine when the war in its east was still in a peak phase. The same is true of the alleged poisoning attack in 2015 against Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms’ dealer. Targeted by the same hit team involved in the Skripal case and, we now find, the explosion in that Czech warehouse, Gebrev probably knows which red lines exactly he has overstepped. Tellingly, he made several contradicting public statements on whether he had connections to the Czech depot.

Yet flexing your muscles abroad carries a cost as well. Even countries that Moscow dismisses as minor players have the means to fight back, especially when the big guys – e.g. France, Germany or the UK, not to mention the Biden administration – are likely to lend a sympathetic ear. How and why the pushback happens varies from place to place. In the Czech Republic, intelligence and law enforcement have made a difference in taking on Russia. In Bulgaria, it is a story of Western pressure coupled with an ambitious and controversial Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, seeking to curry favour with the US and key European allies.

The second reason Eastern Europeans are course-correcting is that the growing polarisation between Russia and the West limits their room for maneuvering. The instinct in Budapest, Prague or Sofia is to avoid picking sides. Cashing in on membership in the EU and NATO without burning bridges to the Russian side. Even if the economic relations with the region are not as dense as in the past, there is always scope for business – whether it is a pipeline, the acquisition of a local bank or a glitzy real estate project. This balancing act is becoming ever harder to sustain. The case in point is Bulgaria. It basically swept the Gebrev case under the carpet in 2015 only to re-open it when the UK and US leaned on the government and the Prosecutor General’s office in the autumn of 2018. A year later, Sofia started expelling Russian diplomats, an unprecedented move in a country considered the Soviet Union’s most loyal satellite back in the day. The spy scandal from last month and the multiple explosions at Bulgaria ammunition depots in 2014-2015 spell more trouble ahead too. Sofia might kick out more Russian diplomats, having done so with eight since 2019, including the defence attache.

What we have also found is that the cost of confronting Russia is not that high. Moscow might wish to punish the countries in question, but there is little it could do beyond kicking out their diplomats. Their exports to Russia are not as significant as to give the Kremlin leverage. Those of the Czech Republic shrank dramatically after 2015 due to the sanctions and the countersanctions. If anything, it is Russia which is interested in selling its oil and gas and nuclear technology. The Czech decision to exclude Rosatom from a tender for a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant shows that Moscow has a lot to lose from an escalation. Of course, the Kremlin could also opt for stirring the domestic political pot – e.g. through disinformation campaigns targeting Eastern Europeans. Yet, it is doubtful such tactics would achieve much in 2021 as in the good old days. Nowadays, there is much greater sensitivity to external meddling at the level of governments, security services but also the expert community. Target countries have developed know-how on how to respond too. Lastly, there is not compelling evidence that past influence operations actually managed to sway political decisions one way or the other, as opposed to just sowing confusion and discord.

Moscow might wish to punish the countries, but there is little it could do beyond kicking out diplomats

The fact that thus far the Kremlin is not overreacting moves made by the Czech Republic, much less to those of Bulgaria, might mean they simply don’t think that stakes are that high. The espionage networks on the ground have likely been disrupted but not wiped out. There might be scope for future deals with the governments in question, too. Witness Bulgaria’s acting Prime Minister Boyko Borisov unbending commitment to Balkan Stream (a.k.a. TurkStream 2) gas pipeline. The Czech Republic won’t replace Poland or the Baltics as the standard-bearer of the Western containment policy. Slovakia has been mulling the ordering the Sputnik anti-COVID vaccine, following the example of Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Eventually, tensions would die down and Moscow might reclaim, step by step, some of the influence lost in the EU’s east.

Such a view might prove deeply mistaken, of course, but only time will tell if that is the case. At the end of the day, Moscow’s rate of success hinges on the strength of democratic institutions and societal resilience in Eastern Europe. In countries where the rule of law is compromised, state capture rampant, and social trust deficient, Russia will still be knocking on an open door.

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