Russia’s tactical maneuvering in Ukraine is part of a wider strategy of pushing back Western influence from former Soviet territories, according to East European and Western officials. That is the conclusion in a lead article in the latest issue of Time magazine, which quotes several eponymous sources, including John McLaughlin, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Marina Kaljurand, Estonia’s ambassador to Washington.
She tells the newsmagazine that Russia’s meddling in Ukraine forms part of a carefully organized and well-funded strategy that involves “overt and covert” operations throughout Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Kaljurand says the operations include “a range of Cold War espionage tools”, such as planted agents, citizen groups funded by the Kremlin, as well as recruitment of intelligence assets.
The aim, she argues, is to “restore in one form or another the power of the Russian Federation in the lands where Russian people live”. Western officials quoted in the Time article seem to agree that the strategy has a long-term, wider goal, which is “to undermine and roll back Western power” in former Soviet lands. Currently, Russian push-back operations are not only underway in Ukraine, but also in Latvia, where nearly half of the population consists of ethnic Russians, as well as in Estonia, where one in four citizens is Russian in origin.
As in all former Soviet republics, many ethnic Russians in Estonia are members of the Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots, a group that is coordinated, guided, and often funded, by the Russian embassy in the country. In a recent report, the Estonian Internal Security Service said the Russian embassy in Tallinn is “guiding the Russian-speaking population […] by using influence operations inherited from the KGB”.
IntelNews regulars will recall the case of Herman Simm, the high-level official at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, who once headed the country’s National Security Authority. He was arrested in 2008 and later convicted for —among other things— giving classified North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) material to Russia. Two years later, Estonia had been subjected to a sustained cyber attack after its government removed a statue commemorating the Soviet military contribution to World War II from downtown Tallinn.
In August 2008, Russian troops entered Georgia, an aspirant NATO candidate member, ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians from what Moscow deemed an ‘unfriendly regime’ in Tbilisi. In April of this year, NATO deployed several hundred troops to Poland and the Baltic states, in a symbolic move that was aimed at showing Russia that the Organization intends to defend its members from outside threats. Meanwhile, May 9 is celebrated by Russians around the world as “Victory Day”, marking the anniversary of the unconditional capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945. Many former Soviet republics are weary about how their ethnic Russian populations might wish to mark the anniversary, in light of what is currently taking place in Ukraine.