State cohesion and stability in Eastern Europe are key to wider European security. 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 and over the role of Russia in the region. As Russia’s leadership has embarked on a mission to restore the country’s great-power status, its goals with regard to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova focus on keeping Western influences ‘out’ and ensuring that Russian ones, conversely, have maximum traction.
The concept of buffer zones and spheres of influence persists in Russia’s worldview and in its political calculus towards the former Soviet republics. Limiting the sovereignty of its neighbours is central to its geopolitical thinking and approach to the region. In the cases of Ukraine and Moldova, Russia is determined to obstruct their integration with Euro-Atlantic structures. With Belarus, which is already part of both the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Union State with Russia, the Kremlin is seeking to insulate society from Western influence and ensure that an autocratic system of governance endures.
Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova are highly exposed to various threats emanating from Russia, which continues to deploy a set of tools aimed at weakening their sovereignty, undermining their economic development and impeding institution-building. This paper identifies five areas of vulnerability for the three countries, across the following categories:
- Quality of internal political systems (political parties, government-organized NGOs, prevalence of corruption, interconnection between elites).
- Security, conflicts and Russian military presence.
- Economic interdependence (energy, trade, business ties).
- Media sector (Russian disinformation, public support for pro-Russia narratives, Russian positioning in national media landscapes).
- Identity (history, language, minorities, role of Russian Orthodox Church).
From among these five categories, our research identified the three areas of greatest local vulnerability for each country. The shortlist of top vulnerabilities was identified after extensive desk research, field trips to the target countries, and an expert workshop in London. Each category was assigned a ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ level of threat based on interviews with local experts. Our research also looked at Russia’s impact on civil society in respect of variables such as political polarization (especially along the pro-EU/pro-Russia divide), influence on public opinion, fragmentation of existing ruling coalitions and the political landscape, radicalization and anti-Western sentiment, apathy and absence of mobilization, and populism.
Building the resilience of societies and institutions offers a potentially viable strategy for the three countries analysed in this paper to achieve more secure and less damaging cohabitation with the current Russian regime. With Russia routinely using various measures of subversion in an effort to influence ‘hearts and minds’, the ability of Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova to recognize threats, design effective responses and prevent damaging trends from developing is key to strengthening their social cohesion.
Civil society can play an important role in building this cohesion, and in insulating countries against Russia’s negative influence. Civil society is a key piece of the resilience puzzle worldwide, and in the Eastern Partnership countries – where weak and ineffective institutions prevail – it often drives change and innovation. In Ukraine, for example, civil society resilience was a notable feature of the Euromaidan protests of 2013–14, and a significant contributor to the Ukrainian response during the first phase of Russia’s military aggression in 2014. NGOs and active citizens are often more acutely aware of the risks and implications of Russian influence on the ground. Local groups tend to be more agile and represent a diversity of views that are key to designing effective responses. By building resilience to current crises, moreover, civil society may have a broader and longer-term impact in enabling social transformation that better prepares countries for future disruptive events.
Building the resilience of societies and institutions offers a potentially viable strategy for the three countries to achieve more secure and less damaging cohabitation with the current Russian regime.
What do we mean by the term ‘resilience’? Resilience is the capacity of any entity – an individual, a community, an organization or a natural system – to prepare for disruption, to recover from shocks, and to adapt and grow from the disruptive experience. The concept originated from the need to develop preparedness for natural disasters, but it is increasingly applied to civil disorder and other social turbulence.
Events in Ukraine in 2014 demonstrated the Russian leadership’s readiness to cause serious security disruption in order to obstruct integration into European structures of the countries it considers part of its ‘near abroad’. It is estimated that the economic cost to Ukraine resulting from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing military conflict in the east may be nearly $100 billion in lost assets, should the occupied Ukrainian territory never be recovered. (In comparison, the cost of the damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was an estimated $65 billion.) On top of the economic losses suffered by Ukraine, the conflict has displaced around 1.5 million Ukrainians from annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas. It has also negatively affected around 600,000 people who live along the contact line between Ukrainian-controlled areas and de facto Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.
Despite Western sanctions and Ukrainian political, military and civic mobilization against Russian aggression, Moscow is showing hardly any signs of readiness to change its strategy in the region and beyond. A disruptive Russia means that neighbouring countries must better prepare for a long-term struggle if they want to assert their true independence and develop into prosperous, rules-based societies.
This paper assesses the state of resilience to Russian influence within the societies of Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Awareness in the three countries and among Western donors and policymakers is key to resilience, so knowledge of the main domestic vulnerabilities and strengths in each country can facilitate the development of effective responses. The paper focuses on the top three areas of vulnerability in each country, outlining recent and/or current responses on the part of both the state and civil society. It further identifies opportunities for each country to better manage crises, strengthen resilience, and prepare more effectively for potential future challenges arising from Russian interference. The paper also delivers recommendations: principally for donors supporting civil society development, and to a lesser extent for governments and civil society in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. It proposes ways to leverage resources better, with the aim of unlocking civil society’s potential to boost state resilience in the face of continuing Russian belligerence and subversion in the region.