Russian active measures, particularly the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, generally focus on exploiting existing faultlines within and between societies. Throughout history, countries, regions, and settlements in Central and Eastern Europe went through several changes in allegiance or borders, especially in the 19th century. Thus, several nations ended up with a considerable number of ethnic minorities from neighboring countries.
The administrations of the “home” nations of these minorities, naturally, seek to protect them from real or perceived threats and secure the legal protection of their rights. These efforts are often interpreted by host nations as foreign interference in their affairs.
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Moreover, in host nations, local minorities are often the targets of legal initiatives seeking to prove the nationalist credentials of political forces, often resulting in restricting minority rights. One example of such an attempt is Romanian President Klaus Iohannis’s claim that the opposition would “give Transylvania to Hungarians”1.
These factors often led to open conflict between the host and home countries, offering Moscow an opportunity to advance its own agenda by focusing on sowing discord in the international community.
Ever since tensions started to escalate between Moscow and Kyiv over the Maidan Revolution in early 2014, Russia’s leadership has been actively courting far-right organizations and extremist figures in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), prompting them to pay more attention to geopolitical issues, such as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Such far-right groups often express revisionist views, seeking to revert post-World War I territorial developments. Extremist groups from Ukraine and its neighbors, pro-Kremlin NGOs and intense disinformation campaigns have been used by Moscow to provoke ethnic conflicts between the Ukrainian majority and minorities living in the country.
Russia is courting organizations whose goals are in line with the Kremlin’s strategy of the destabilization of the CEE region via direct influence (e.g. political and business ties) and indirect action (e.g. spreading misleading narratives via official Russian media).
The NGOs, extremist groups, individuals approached by Russia, in turn help amplify the Kremlin’s messages and attempts to stir up intra-state and interstate conflicts2.
Additionally, Russia has also been working on exploiting tensions between the government of Ukraine and those of neighboring nations, especially Hungary and Poland, which Kyiv itself fueled by approving a highly controversial education bill in 2017 and the corresponding language bill in 2019 that can potentially restrict minority language rights.
One of the main instruments in these efforts of sowing discord, is using disinformation to turn Ukrainian public opinion against minorities living in the country.
1 Barberá, M.G. (2020) Romanian Opposition ‘Giving’ Transylvania to Hungarians’, President Claims. Available [online]: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/29/romanian-opposition-giving-transylvania-to-hungarians-president-claims/