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Escalation of hybrid war between EU and Russia: how it will affect Ukraine

Photo: Pro-Russian rally in Germany
Source: Reuters

Along with military aggression against Ukraine, the Russian Federation continues hybrid aggression against Ukraine's European partners. Non-military methods are an important foreign policy tool, which the Russians used during the Soviet Union and keep using today. In particular, this includes energy blackmail, active measures in EU countries, murders of Russian oppositionists and citizens of EU countries in Europe, informational influence, etc. 

After February 24, the European Union introduced a number of measures that reduced the Kremlin's ability to influence the governments and populations of member countries, but has not completely eliminated them. This becomes obvious with the approach of winter, when Russia is increasing the scale of hybrid influence on the European Union. 

Russia's main lever of influence over the EU is energy. As of April 2021, 45% of gas consumed by EU countries was imported from Russia. In April 2022, this indicator was already 31%.[1] The share has decreased, however, dependence still remains. Russia uses this, artificially reduces the supply of gas, stops pumping gas pipelines. The main goal of the Russians is to force Ukraine's partners to reduce their support, as well as to ease the sanctions pressure on Moscow. Due to the increase in energy prices and inflation, European enterprises are at risk of bankruptcy, the share of such firms has increased from 10 to 17%. The more Europeans lose their sources of income, under conditions of rising prices and a general decline in living standards, the more favorable the ground will be for inciting the population to protests against the policies of the current governments. And although the EU countries have limited informational influence, in particular, by banning the broadcasting of a number of propagandistic Russian state TV channels, such as "Sputnik", "Russia Today", " Россия РТР"/"РТР Planet", "Россия 24"/"Russia24", " TV Center International", the Russian Federation still finds opportunities to spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda and attempts to convince Europeans that the economic decline is not the result of Russian aggression, but the result of support for Ukraine. 

False statements by pro-Russian experts aimed at reducing aid to Ukraine are still sometimes heard on the world's leading media, as in the United States, for example, on Fox News, or the German Deutsche Welle. Together with the activation of the fifth column in the EU states, this can lead to negative consequences. It is worth mentioning rather large-scale pro-Russian rallies in Cologne and Prague. At a demonstration in the Czech Republic, participants, in particular, demanded the resignation of the government due to rising prices for electricity, oil and gas. So far, such cases are limited and will not change the decision to support Ukraine. However, in winter, European countries may face more destabilization, which may affect both the position of the current governments and their policy towards Ukraine. Therefore, the economic stability of European states is one of the main factors determining the readiness of European countries to continue resisting Russia. Also, the EU states, together with Ukraine, must continue the line of protecting their information space. In addition to the adoption of relevant legal norms, an important factor is the level of representation of pro-Ukrainian experts on rating political and news programs. 

The Kremlin has been working for years to create pro-Russian groups within European countries: funding political parties, various experts, hiring former high-ranking officials to senior positions in oil and gas companies. According to CNN, Russia has secretly transferred more than $300 million since 2014 and planned to secretly transfer at least hundreds of million more to foreign political parties, officials and politicians in more than two dozen countries and four continents.[2] In addition to officials, Russia has a high level of support among the large Russian diaspora. Unlike other peoples, Russians hardly assimilate, most of them, after moving to a new country, retain the traditional way of life and mentality, many of them do not even learn the language of the host country and communicate in Russian in the overwhelming majority with the same migrants. After the full-scale invasion, the majority of Russians supported military aggression, and there are numerous recorded cases on the Internet of Russians assaulting Ukrainians in Europe. 

High-ranking EU officials, with some delay, changed their attitude towards Russians on their territory and also began to make decisions to limit the travel of Russian tourists and to take measures against the actions and statements of ethnic Russians, related to the justification of Russian aggression. The most active in this regard were the countries of Eastern Europe, which, together with Ukraine, promoted the idea of introducing restrictions on Russians within the EU. The Council of the European Union has already adopted a decision that completely suspends the Agreement on simplification of the visa regime between the EU and Russia. Also, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands no longer accept documents for tourist visas from Russians. Europe no longer has illusions about Russia and its citizens and therefore adopts adequate decisions that will strengthen the ability of member states to counter hybrid threats. 

In the energy sector, there is a complex work of the EU in the direction of stabilizing the economy in order to reduce the negative impact of Russian aggression and achieve previously defined recovery goals. This applies to support programs, issues of creation, modernization of energy infrastructure, diversification of suppliers, interstate mutual assistance, energy saving measures and financial measures. This process began as early as May 18, when the European Commission presented a plan for further reduction of dependence on energy carriers from the Russian Federation under the name REPowerEU. The European Commission then instructed member states to make efforts to reduce total energy consumption by 15% from August 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023. Currently, member states are filling reserves and adapting the gas transportation system to the possibility of reverse supply between EU members, deconserving coal-fired power plants, etc. With a high probability, the European Union will face a complete shutdown of Russian gas this winter, but it will be able to overcome this period, given the well-thought-out comprehensive preparation. 

In the information space, the EU has blocked Russian propaganda channels. Russian propaganda is restricted, while rassists from among the Russian diaspora and tourists are prosecuted, at least in Eastern European countries. However, the Russian Federation still has a voice and the ability to spread its own narratives in the information field, so the European Union remains vulnerable, and the potential of the 5th column in the EU is significant. The further course of the war largely depends on the economic stability of the EU countries, which will affect their willingness to continue supporting Ukraine in the matter of sanctions policy, financial and military aid. Europe is paying a high price for helping Ukraine. However, Ukraine also pays a high price - with the lives of its citizens. At the same time, it is worth remembering that the price of insufficient assistance can be even higher. Any pauses in hostilities will be used to restore forces for further aggression against Ukraine and partner countries, therefore the only strategy for the West should be Ukraine's victory in the war and the restoration of its internationally recognized borders. 

1. Elliot Smith, Europe’s plans to replace Russian gas are deemed ‘wildly optimistic’ — and could hammer its 1 economy, 29.06.2022
2. Kylie Atwood, Michael Conte and Devan Cole, Russia has spent over $300 million on influencing foreign elections since 2014, US officials say, 13.09.2022,