- Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, constituting the western rim of the EU’s Eastern Partnership group of countries, are at the front line of a heated battle for their own future. They are highly exposed to various threats emanating from Russia, which deploys a set of tools aimed at weakening their sovereignty.
- State cohesion and stability in Eastern Europe are key to wider European security. Building societal and institutional resilience to Russia’s negative influence in the three countries represents a potentially viable strategy for more secure and less damaging cohabitation with the current Russian regime.
- Civil society has an important role to play in building social cohesion, and in insulating the three countries against Russian influence. The ability to recognize Russian interference, design effective responses and prevent damaging trends from taking hold is key to strengthening country defences.
- Ukraine can be viewed as a political ‘laboratory’ in which Russia has tested a variety of measures to exert influence, and at the same time as an example of resilience. Since 2014, many of the levers of Russian influence have weakened as a consequence of civil society mobilization associated with Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’ and subsequent reforms.
- Vulnerabilities remain in Ukraine. These include high levels of insecurity stemming from the Russia-fuelled conflict in the Donbas region; a predatory and fractured political environment (the turbulence from which creates the risk of further internal destabilization); and weak information security alongside susceptibility to Russian disinformation.
- Strengthening and sustaining Ukraine’s resilience to Russian influence is a long-term project. Key opportunities for improvement exist in the wide popular support for Ukraine’s democratic identity; in an ongoing process of administrative decentralization, aimed at improving governance; and in the continued pursuit of measures by the state and civil society to mitigate vulnerabilities related to the conflict. High mobility across the line of contact, and citizens’ openness to some political compromise, offer ample opportunities to prepare the ground for future reintegration of parts of Donbas into Ukraine proper.
- Of all the Eastern Partnership countries, Belarus is by far the most vulnerable to Russian influence. This reflects its structural dependence on Russia in the economic, energy, geopolitical and socio-cultural spheres.
- Alongside structural dependence, Belarus displays other characteristics that allow Russia to have a strong impact on civil society. These include a weak national identity, issues around language, the pervasiveness of Russian information in the media, exposure to Russian information warfare, and the presence in Belarus of Russian government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and the Russian Orthodox Church.
- Opportunities to strengthen Belarus’s resilience at the level of civil society include what can be termed ‘soft Belarusianization’. This self-organized movement seeks to promote national characteristics, using affirmative action in support of Belarusian culture and language. However, civil society activity and the actors involved remain vulnerable to arbitrary repression by the regime.
- In Moldova, the vulnerabilities exploited by Russia to exert negative influence are generally well known. Strong linkages between politics, the media and the Moldovan Orthodox Church render Moldovans a captive audience for Russia’s propaganda. Moldovans’ already low trust in institutions is being further undermined, creating a legitimacy crisis for the state.
- In Moldova, there is a large discrepancy between the level of response from civil society organizations (CSOs) and the more limited efforts of the authorities to address vulnerabilities to Russian influence and propaganda.
- Opportunities to strengthen resilience are limited, but some exist around information campaigns, and measures to promote education and civic awareness. This could help to build what we can term ‘cognitive resilience’ – broadly, developing citizens’ critical thinking, especially in terms of building awareness about Russian disinformation – using the Western-based diaspora as a spearhead for change.
This paper provides policy recommendations principally to donors supporting the development of civil society in the Eastern Partnership countries. It focuses mostly on ‘soft’ elements of resilience, such as people and ideas, with the aim of building inclusion, promoting the circulation of information, and strengthening the leverage of Western assistance.
Among specific policy gaps, there is a need for more inclusive state-building; media reform (including capacity-building for independent media); civil society support; and the linking of financial and technical assistance to tangible progress in policy reforms via ‘smart conditionality’. Encouraging the creation of a cadre of ‘active citizens’ in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova will help increase social cohesion and build cognitive resilience from the ground up.