Executive Summary: Russia’s Deteriorating Ties with Europe
Team: Collins Alexander, Sydney Brennan, Anastasia Papadopoulou; EUCOM
Week of: May 2, 2021
Russian Embassy in Prague
Several Central and Eastern European countries expelled Russian diplomats and embassy officials in solidarity with the Czech Republic, who recently dismissed 18 Russian diplomats over alleged links to an explosion at an ammunition depot on October 12, 2014. In response, Russia expelled dozens of diplomats from the Czech Republic and other countries who supported them in the following days. Separately, Italy expelled two Russian diplomats on March 31 because the Italian police caught a Russian military officer paying an Italian naval captain to provide classified documents. Russia retaliated by expelling one Italian diplomat on April 26 and summoning the Italian ambassador to Russia. EUCOM assesses that further expulsions are likely, as Russia wishes to express considerable discontent to maintain regional influence. Despite diplomatic expulsions being the standard course for disputes between countries, the severity of the original incident and resulting solidarity between former Eastern Bloc states demonstrates that Russia might be losing influence over former Soviet states.
The recent diplomatic expulsions have illuminated the nature and extent of Russian covert operations, rendering European states more aware and suspicious of Russian activities. European intelligence agencies have linked Russia’s Military Intelligence agency’s (GRU) Unit 29155 to the Novichok poisonings of a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, as well as former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, a coup attempt in Montenegro on October 16, 2016, and the Czech arms depot explosion. Encompassing a range of tactics and countries, Russian operations demonstrate a strong interest and ability in foreign intervention, targeting its military opponents and supporters. Though positive, there is a high probability that other covert operations have not yet been unearthed. However, intelligence services have a greater willingness to share information, including Eastern and Central European states. It is highly likely that European states will be more cautious about discerning Russian operations and less likely to side with Moscow in the near future.
Russia has always desired a buffer zone between itself and the West; thus, it tries to keep Central and Eastern Europe more aligned to its ideals through various methods. A recent example is through distributing its COVID-19 vaccine. By offering its Sputnik V vaccine, Russia gains leverage over European states who are in need of vaccines to mitigate the spread of the virus. The negotiation process helps Russia maintain influence by creating a strain between European member states, who have been strongly recommended by the European Medicine Agency (EMA) not to receive any Sputnik V vaccines. If states agree to receive the Sputnik V, as Hungary has, the action stands in direct opposition between them and the European Union, thrusting them towards Russia. With the Czech Republic citing that Russia has not distributed all of the documentation necessary to formally register the vaccine as safe to use after the diplomatic incident, it is likely that other Central and Eastern European countries will disassociate themselves from the Russian vaccine as well, obstructing the Kremlin’s plans. It is unlikely that Russia will halt covert efforts, which aim to maintain influence over Central and Eastern Europe, over the diplomatic expulsions. However, solidarity among former Soviet republics and with the West threatens Russian control, making Moscow feel more insecure. If solidarity continues, Russia may take more drastic action to defend its perceived security interests, whether through traditional soft power or covert methods.
Simultaneously with the diplomatic rows involving the Czech Republic and Italy, on April 15, the United States (US) expelled ten Russian diplomats following the SolarWinds cyber attack, the alleged interference in the 2020 Presidential election, and for intervening in Eastern Ukraine. While the move was made separately from the Czech Republic, Washington is highly likely to leverage the solidarity of former Soviet states against Moscow to gain favor in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) continuously monitors the latest developments concerning the heightened tensions between Russia and countries of Central and Eastern Europe through intelligence gathering and sharing. The European Command (EUCOM) team will remain actively engaged with developments surrounding Russia's relations with European countries and provide accurate analyses of their international and regional security implications. The EUCOM team brings awareness to authorities, academia, and the general public by providing reliable assessments regarding the significance of countries' clandestine intelligence operations worldwide. CTG will continue to highlight the evolving threats stemming from Russia's hostile behavior and create intelligence products that aim to provide deeper analysis for similar issues.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 Czech Republic expels 18 Russian Embassy staff over 2014 blast, DW, April 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/czech-republic-expels-18-russian-embassy-staff-over-2014-blast/a-57164366
 Russia Expels Italian Diplomat; Rome Calls Move 'Unfounded And Unjust', Radio Free Europe, April 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-italy-expulsion-diplomat/31223452.html
 Czechs says they lack info needed to assess Sputnik vaccine for use, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/czechs-says-they-lack-info-needed-assess-sputnik-vaccine-use-2021-04-29/
 US expels Russian diplomats, imposes sanctions for hacking, AP, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/us-expel-russia-diplomats-sanctions-6a8a54c7932ee8cbe51b0ce505121995