Russia’s Meddling in the EU Demands Urgent Attention
21 February 2024
Russia’s propaganda machine went into overdrive in 2023, targeting the countries of the Visegrad Four, where the initial broad support for Ukraine’s war effort and its European aspirations hit turbulence ahead of an EU decision in December to open accession negotiations with Kyiv.
The impact of Russian propaganda has been most visible in Hungary and Slovakia, but it has also made inroads in Poland and the Czech Republic. And there are growing concerns over Russian covert influence in the escalating protest of Polish truck drivers and farmers blocking the border crossings with Ukraine.
A recent study presented by Myroslava Markova, a senior analyst at the fact-checking platform VoxCheck, revealed that 8,296 instances of Russian propaganda were identified in the media of six European countries between February and October 2023.
The study focused on media outlets in Germany, Italy, as well as the Visegrad Four – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland – and found that over 900 publications containing Russian disinformation narratives appeared in those countries each month, double the number from a year earlier.
Most propaganda materials were recorded in Poland and Slovakia, followed by the Czech Republic.
In Slovakia, the Russian narratives played a significant role in the September election campaign, where the ultimately victorious Smer party of Prime Minister Robert Fico based much of its election platform on blaming Ukraine and NATO for the war and promises to halt the generous support for Kyiv of the previous centre-right government.
Eduard Heger, one of Fico’s predecessors as prime minister, attributed the election results to the sway of Russian propaganda.
“Fico became prime minister for the fourth time, he is an experienced person, he already has a different credit of trust among the population. If you are a politician of this level, the propaganda you voice spreads like lightning,” he said.
President Zuzana Čaputová, an ardent supporter of Ukraine and an outspoken critic of Moscow, warned in vain her compatriots before the vote that Fico and other leaders were allowing Slovakia to succumb to anti-Western, Russian narratives.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been Russia’s chief EU ally, with government-controlled media often repeating verbatim Russian propaganda tropes while Orbán openly demonstrates his attachment to Vladimir Putin.
In the last two weeks, Orbán has effectively threatened to veto the opening of the accession talks and demanded a “rethink” of the EU’s financial and military aid to Kyiv.
Alarmed by his intransigence, the European Council President Charles Michel travelled to Budapest on Monday to reason with Orbán, but apparently to no avail, setting the scene for a show-down at the 14 December summit.
Ironically, this means Hungary does not even need to be of particular concern for Moscow propagandists – the country does it out of its own will.
In contrast, Poland has been largely resistant to Russian narratives, but economic tensions aid Moscow’s aims of sowing discord between Warsaw and Kyiv. The dispute over grain and now Ukrainian trucks crossing into Poland on their way to European markets has soured relations between the two neighbours.
But the attempts to exploit the grain issue for electoral purposes by the ruling eurosceptic Law and Justice Party (PiS) as well as far-right Konfederacja failed, as the 15 October vote produced a resounding victory for pro-EU, Ukraine-friendly parties.
Their imminent rise to power is a setback for Moscow, which, according to research, has intensified its influence operations in CEE’s largest nation.
According to the Polish news portal OKO.Press, three openly pro-Russian political parties were registered in Poland in 2023, while several hundred Russian-owned businesses formed, including in the transport sector, which coincidentally, is the newest flashpoint between Poland and Ukraine.
In the Polish media space, several main disinformation narratives have been identified by Markova.
The primary focus of the propaganda is the debunked claim that Poland lacks the resources to provide sufficient social assistance to its own citizens because too much is being spent on Ukrainian refugees in the country. The Russian media often portray Ukrainian refugees as an uncultured horde that does not respect their Polish benefactors.
The economic scare-mongering is also rife even though Poland is already benefiting from expanded exports to Ukraine and stands to play a key role in its future reconstruction and integration with the EU.
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In recent weeks, small groups of Polish truck drivers and farmers have blocked road transport at three key border crossings with Ukraine: Hrebenne, Dorohusk, and Korczowa claiming Ukrainian drivers enjoy unfair access to the EU market. Undeterred by the Polish authorities, they stopped and carried out inspections of cargo, including material for Ukrainian defence forces.
Maciej Korowaj, a Polish security analyst and retired lieutenant colonel in the Polish army, says the protest could be useful for Russian efforts to destabilise Poland, provide intelligence on supplies for the Ukrainian forces and drive a wedge between Warsaw and Ukraine.
“All it takes is purposeful propaganda, suggestions, various psychotech operations which could be used on the net and influence decision-makers,” Korowaj told leading Polish news portal Onet.pl.
Our authorities have not picked up on this issue, or the intelligence services have not communicated it the right way. Now it is hard to say how it (the escalation on the border) really evolved. Could this be linked to Russian activities? In my opinion, there is a high probability that it is so.”
The problem on the border, where hundreds of drivers from Ukraine but also Poland and other EU countries are stuck in long queues due to the protests, erupted shortly after the elections.
The outgoing government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has since allowed it to fester and escalate, ignoring pleas from Ukraine and the EU to unblock a vital lifeline for the Ukrainian economy.
Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda, who only six months ago was portraying himself as the chief champion of Ukraine’s cause, have used legal tricks to delay the transition of power to the new majority in parliament, creating a governance vacuum.
As a result, Ukraine and Brussels are reduced to waiting until the new government is sworn in, which is expected around 11 December, when parliament is likely to vote Morawiecki’s cabinet out.
The timing is important as the coalition’s choice for Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, would then be able to participate in the EU summit, which is going to be crucial for deciding the fate of Ukraine’s accession talks as well as military and financial support for Kyiv.
Tusk’s expected clear support for opening the accession talks would be a strong signal that Ukraine’s main western neighbour and the biggest CEE nation returns to its earlier role as Kyiv’s EU advocate.
This article is published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.
The featured photo includes an image from the kremlin.ru photo pool.
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