27th Sep 2023


Countering Putin's strategy of disorder

  • Many European officials advocate for 'dialogue' with Putin's Russia. But what sort of dialogue? To achieve which objectives? And at what price? (Photo:

Alexei Navalny's imprisonment, after his poisoning, moved Russian and European publics, but did not induce a significant reaction from the European Union.

Many European officials advocate for "dialogue" with Putin's Russia. But what sort of dialogue? To achieve which objectives? And at what price?

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The recent trip in Moscow of Josep Borell, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, turned to an affront for the Europeans.

As he was talking with Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, Moscow announced the expulsion of three European diplomats, for the sole reason that they had observed pro-Navalny demonstrations.

This additional move is actually typical from Putinism, and should not surprise anybody.

Vladimir Putin pursues his strategy of disorder and tries by all means to divide the West, and in particular Europe.

This is the core of our book's findings on president Putin's strategy of disorder.

We analysed the wide range of methods – including fragments of ideology, historical revisionism, agit-prop intelligence operations or foreign military interventions – mobilised by the Kremlin to preserve and expand its authoritarian order, and expose its worldwide geopolitical application.

The result is stunning.

Exacerbating troubles

Putin is a KGB-trained elite intelligence operative. He built his career on combatting the West through "active measures" to sap its stability and cohesion.

Today, by mobilising 'siloviki', or members of security apparatus, he modernised the techniques and adapted them to an evolving geopolitical environment. But it is only a palimpsest of the same subversive playbook.

In this context, Russia, a heavily-corrupted and bureaucratic country, can't meet the West's standards in terms of social, economic and political efficiency.

As things stand, the Kremlin's only possibility to keep power is to mobilise its society in a forged confrontation with external and internal scapegoats to justify its own inefficiency.

And its only way to win is not to improve, which is impossible with such a political regime, but to undermine the West.

Europe is on the frontline of this strategy, from the coup in Montenegro, to support for Brexit or the 'Yellow Vests', from the attempt to undermine the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia to manipulating refugee issues in Germany or legal status of Catalonia.

Those who refuse to see this reality don't understand Putinism, and dangerously underestimate its threat for the whole Europe.

Everywhere, the Kremlin exports disorder, amplify troubles, and exploit all possible seditions.

Today, there is only a fragile step between agitation and destabilisation. It spread social divide and sap political stability with a clear goal: demolishing European unity, avoiding an embarrassing counter-example and better imposing itself on the continent.

Those who think that the Kremlin would tolerate an inspiring democratic bloc at its doors are wrong. Ask democrats in Estonia and Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, or, first of all, in Russia.

Democracy and autocracy

In this world of tension, where Russia can count not only on China but also on a number of more or less oppressive regimes, from Libya to Venezuela, from Iran to Turkey. The agenda is clear: topple democracy and bring human rights down.

The Kremlin falsely associate democracy to disorder, and autocracy to stability. The Kremlin started on its neighbours' territory, then in Middle East, and now proceeds from Southern Asia to Africa.

When Moscow can't stop democratisation on the field, it does so at the United Nations Security Council.

The historical institution is now paralysed every time democracy is at stake. As latest example, Russia and China blocked the UN Security Council after the coup in Myanmar, as they did many times on Syria.

Europe must enact a new counterstrategy. The political situation in the West is changing. Joe Biden arrives, Angela Merkel leaves. But in front of the peril of disunion, Western powers break and hesitate.

Those who think that the Kremlin's behaviour is not hostile are wrong. A new counterstrategy is needed at the European Union level, gathering all EU members.

The Kremlin feeds its strategy with divergences between three main blocks in Europe: the realists (Baltic countries, Nordic countries, Poland and the United Kingdom), the "pragmatists" (France and Germany) and southern countries keener to work with Moscow.

The realists know the risks and risk the most. Can the reestablishment of military service in Sweden, among other moves, be ignored? The EU can't afford lacking solidarity on this, as it is an existential issue for several of its members, as well as a matter of strategic defence.

Reset don't work. They simply don't. Number of civil servants, military, ambassadors or heads of states and governments tried to in a way or the other, and it always failed. Because it is about power politics, and you don't play power politics with hope and goodwill.

Putin does not hesitate to crush his own people to keep his power. He also prevents any attempts by people neighbouring Russia to get a sovereign democratic regime. He certainly won't play fairly with Western democracies, especially as his strategy of destabilisation benefits from global discontent.

Europe lacks cohesion despite significant assets. Facing Russia, Europe can be strong and efficient. European power just asks to be endorsed collectively and implemented in practice. It has huge assets, first of all its economic might and defence capacities.

Its alliances – with the US, but also with other democracies all around the world – are also a decisive element to consolidate its interests and its principles.

Without its principles, Europe is nothing. Despite its lack of support, European democracy is still inspiring its neighbours, in its southern and eastern neighbourhoods.

But bending in front of Putinism will only favor the collapse of the international order, still based on the promotion of democracy and human rights. It will allow more coercive autocratic models, which do not work and carry substantial instability and aggressive nationalism.

Renouncing to strongly back democracy and human rights is not only a political fault, it is a strategic mistake. It would signify the European disengagement of its own political existence.

Author bio

Isabelle Mandraud is a journalist, deputy head of the international desk at Le Monde, and a former correspondent in Russia. Julien Théron is a political scientist, lecturer in contemporary conflicts and international security studies at Sciences Po in Paris. Together they authored Putin: The Strategy of Disorder.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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