Kremlin steps up disruptive ops from Arctic to Africa

Kremlin steps up disruptive ops from Arctic to Africa

A week after Russian prosecutors added her and other Baltic officials to a "wanted" list for supposedly encouraging the desecration of Soviet war graves, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced her intelligence services had broken up a ring of Russian-sponsored disruptors within the Baltic states.

"We know the Kremlin is targeting all of our democratic societies," Ms Kallas said in a post on X, previously known as Twitter.

Those who track Kremlin efforts to destabilise the rest of Europe say Moscow temporarily lost traction after Vladimir Putin's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine when dozens of its diplomats were deported, and Russia's security machine was forced to refocus on the war.

But reports this week from the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and London-based Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) say the Kremlin is rebuilding its foreign influence. As well as the Baltic states, targets appear to be Ukrainian neighbour Moldova, Africa and the Middle East.

Based on briefings from Ukrainian and other security officials, Rusi suggested the Kremlin was looking to recruit and develop networks among Russians who had moved abroad since 2022, often due to their reluctance to fight in the invasion.

Some, it suggested, were being encouraged to seek asylum in the West and develop contacts with Russian and other dissidents whom they could then keep an eye on and exploit at will on behalf of the Russian state.

The complexity of some of these suspected operations appears to vary. On the other side of the Gulf of Finland, Nato's newest member complains it is on the receiving end of a different form of what officials there describe as hybrid warfare, one also used against the Baltic states and Poland from 2022.

They complain illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East are being pushed across the border or given mountain bikes to get there.

As along the Lithuanian and Polish border with Belarus, Finnish authorities are now erecting fencing and considering asking the EU to change immigration rules to make it legal to push arriving migrants back. Earlier this year, Russia withdrew from its previous long-running border deal with Finland, seen as deliberate retaliation for its Nato membership.

In Estonia, the domestic security agency said it arrested 10 suspects between December and February it suggested were taking part in an operation intended to "spread fear and create tension in Estonian society".

They included individuals believed to have broken windows belonging to a car of Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets as well as another belonging to a journalist.

As with adding Prime Minister Kallas to a "wanted" list, the primary purpose appeared to be to intimidate, to remind Estonian citizens -- who were part of the Soviet Union since 1991 -- that the Kremlin can still threaten them with ease.

The death last week in prison of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, some suggest, might also have deliberately coincided with the start of the Munich Security Conference, traditionally one of the largest gatherings of Western defence experts.

The news sent shockwaves through the first day of the meeting and, coupled with US Republican frontrunner Donald Trump's comments on potentially not supporting Nato allies, left many European defence figures openly admitting they felt depressed over the trajectory of events.

The Kremlin denied involvement in Navalny's death. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also described Estonian allegations of a local Russian-run operation as part of a "theatre of the absurd", designed to distract from Estonian support for the "terrorism" of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Both Rusi and ISW suggested the Kremlin was also particularly interested in Moldova, which is neither a Nato nor EU member but has embraced the West much more closely since early 2022. Russia and Moldova have an ongoing territorial dispute over the Transnistria region, where Moscow has kept peacekeeping troops since the fall of the USSR.

Throughout 2023, Moldovan and Western officials briefed multiple media outlets on what they said appeared to be a major Russian information operations campaign to undermine the government of President Maia Sandu, who last year claimed the Kremlin was possibly planning a coup.

Such reports have been circulating since 2022, with suggestions Russia had hoped to create conditions for a military intervention in Moldova then but needed to prioritise Ukraine.

That would fit prior Kremlin behaviour, analysts say. In February 2017, Montenegrin officials accused Russia of attempting to mount a coup the previous year intended to stop the country joining Nato, another charge denied by Moscow.

Russia has also been linked with coups within West Africa, including military takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Western officials appear to have kept tightlipped on a potential Moldova coup, but they did conduct multiple briefings last year alleging the existence of sophisticated Russian information operations amplifying online criticism -- particularly of Moldova's economy -- and fermenting violence and political opposition.

The Daily Beast quoted Michael Carpenter, the US Permanent Representative to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as saying last year the aim of the operations appeared to be "trying to create uncertainty ... to create headwinds for the government".

In May and June, US and European authorities sanctioned almost a dozen primarily Russian individuals for "engaging in destabilising activities against the government of Moldova", part of what the US Treasury described as "Russia's attempts to use covert operatives to subvert democracy".

The ISW said such efforts appeared to be continuing, including claims from a Russian military blogger that Moldova was "militarising" to "forcibly integrate" Transnistria into the Moldovan state and suggested Russia might need to respond militarily.

Until relations with the Kremlin and wider Russian military collapsed last year in the run-up to Yevgeny Prigozhin's failed coup, the private Wagner Group he founded had been a Kremlin tool of outreach in both the Middle East and Africa.

None of these fronts is as important to the Kremlin as what happens in Ukraine. As events there appear to be going more Russia's way, the temptation may grow for the Kremlin to step up action on other fronts. Reuters

Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

Peter Apps

Reuters global affairs columnist

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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