Putin’s war against Europe had already begun
By invading Ukraine, President Putin has united Europe. The far-reaching sanctions the EU has adopted, European arms deliveries and record investments in defence were unimaginable a few weeks ago. European leaders seem to have realised and lived up to the new geopolitical reality.
Yet, they do not fully grasp that Putin’s war had already begun. Russia was already conducting a conflict in the heart of Europe long before the invasion of Ukraine, by financing political parties, with troll factories that were spreading disinformation on a large scale, with cyber operations and by fueling discontent among citizens. The European Parliament has now taken the lead and proposed a wide range of solutions to tackle modern, hybrid threats and attacks.
However, for many years interference and hybrid threats was not taken seriously. Gerhard Schröder’s move to join Gazprom was regarded as a private matter. Meanwhile, our energy dependence on Russia has grown to unacceptable heights. Donations to political parties are only financial transactions, but in the meantime extremist parties from the left and the right are sowing hatred and discontent. Troll factories that were able to stir up anger, dissatisfaction and hatred with manufactured nonsense and cold messages were dismissed as ‘nothing new under the sun’.
We let President Putin get away with his wars, human rights violations and meddling in our domestic affairs and elections. That our passivity probably made him overconfident is a responsibility we now have to bear in Ukraine. The lack of initial response and consequences gave Putin the means to further escalate, because why not continue if you are not punished anyway?
He fueled conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and South Caucasus to create “buffer states” where Russia could exert influence and ensuring at the same time that these countries could not link up with the West. Instability became the oxygen for the Putin doctrine. He therefore used international conflicts in Syria, Mali, Libya and the Central African Republic to expand his sphere of influence, but also to test his equipment and capabilities. Cyber operations, information operations and military equipment have been extensively deployed in these areas, to make the Russian army fully ready for combat.
But Europe and the United States have also been targets for years. Not with tanks and missiles, but through hybrid means such as daily cyber-attacks, attempts to influence elections in France, assassinating political opponents in Germany, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom, bribing far right and far left politicians and by conducting disinformation campaigns to sow internal divisions among European citizens.
Russia was prospering. Ex-politicians such as Schröder, Fillon, Le Pen, Salvini, Baudet and Orban were in Putin’s pocket and the Corona crisis was simply used to start a propaganda offensive to create as much internal unrest as possible. The European energy dependence on Russia was maintained because its European political friends blocked any attempts to reduce our addiction to Russia’s oil and gas. Brexit and the election of Trump were used as an opportunity to manipulate the information on which voters cast their votes.
But the problem is bigger than Russia. Other autocratic countries such as China, Turkey and Iran are also trying to weaken our free and democratic society from within.
Europe must arm itself against this malign interference. That is why the European Parliament has voted for a report calling for a ban on donations to political parties and politicians from outside the EU, stricter rules on political advertising, the labeling of deepfakes on social media and a new sanction mechanism against cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns. The Parliament recommends that the Council should be able to decide on sanctions, as a response to cyberattacks and disinformation attacks, through majority voting instead of unanimity.
Although the examples of the hybrid conflict in which we find ourselves are many and convincing, there is still a lack of overview. As a European Union, we therefore propose to set up a European Center for Interference Threats that will coordinate these activities and also conduct research to get a comprehensive view on the problem. From overview, to insight to action.
Let this war, and its prelude, be the wake-up call to make our continent more resilient and to better protect our democracies. Let us strengthen our Union. Europe has never been so united, sadly thanks to President Putin.
Nathalie Loiseau, Bart Groothuis, Morten Løkkegaard, Maite Pagazaurtundúa, Sandro Gozi, Petras Austrevicius, Anna Donath and Barry Andrews are Members of Renew Europe and Members of the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation of the European Parliament