In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems that other European states are finally being forced to take action against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime and confront Russian influence both on and off their soil. While in 2014, following the events of the Euromaidan, the subsequent Russian attack and support for separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk were questioned, or p,aps objected to as to the necessity or effectiveness of sanctions. In the case of current events, there is an overwhelming consensus among European countries as to the necessity of sanctions.
The spreading of Russian disinformation is a phenomenon by which Russia is trying to control European countries and undermine the level of freedom there. Mapping trends in the spread of disinformation and proposing possible solutions therefore has an important role to play in countering Russian influence on European levels of freedom and trust in institutions, factors that ultimately affect the overall well-being of these countries. The specificity of the disinformation disseminated with the war in Ukraine is also intended to end Western support for Ukraine and to reduce the level of freedom in that country as well. Preventing the spread of disinformation about this specific event is so important to the overall defeat of Russia as we know it today.
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The massive expulsion of the majority of the so-called ‘Russian diplomats’ (even though they were operating in various European countries in excessive and unnecessarily large numbers for their roles) was also a strong message and a step against Russian influence. Rather than diplomats, these people served as intelligence officers and spies for the Russian Federation, so their expulsion is not only a logical step, but a necessary one.
Although public opinion was strongly on the side of Ukraine in the initial stage of the war, more than a year after the invasion began, a change and a gradual decline in support for Ukraine in European countries may be observed. Even at the beginning, one could see a milder resistance from Hungary – and even Germany – to the speed and decisiveness of certain steps, while Serbia never made a secret its support for Russia, and the same was true for the public opinion in the Serbian society. However, at the moment, the mood in these countries is getting even bleaker, as public opinion is shifting toward support of Russia in countries where, initially, support for Ukraine was strong and the societies were on board with the pro-EU and pro-Ukraine position.
Meanwhile, disinformation, which had already been a common tool of Russian war and power methods before the war even began, has undoubtedly played a significant role in this shift, and its role and quantity increased since then. The motivation behind its dissemination is, undoubtedly, to sway Western public opinion in favor of Russia and against Ukraine, so that voters in Western countries will support those politicians who openly advocate an end to support Ukraine or indirect actions that directly threaten Ukraine’s struggle for freedom. Certain politicians (for example, far-right Marine Le Penn in France, or the Austrian Freedom Party, which was forced out of government because of the scandal over its links to Russian oligarchs) had already been secretly supported by Russia before the full-scale war broke out, and their core electoral clientele and power has, therefore, long been built by Russia.
Nonetheless, the massive spread of Russian disinformation and bribery of politicians is not in itself the real reason why some countries are susceptible to disinformation and Russian influence while others are not. It is only a symptom, not a cause. It is, therefore, crucial to map out the strengths of information dissemination and Russian influence, as well as identify the determinants and consequences of these factors in selected European countries.
A vertical relationship between weak institutions, strength of disinformation dissemination, support for pro-Russian politicians, and lower support for Ukraine can be assumed. Therefore, it is important to examine this hypothesis and its individual parts more closely in selected countries with current particularly low support for Ukraine by public opinion. Only then can possible policy recommendations that could break this relationship and prevent the spread of Russian influence be proposed.