Manager, Ukraine Forum, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Events in Crimea and Donbas have exposed the supportive role of Russian non-state actors in fomenting conflict.

A pro-Russian demonstrator shouts slogans during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on 8 March 2014. Photo: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images.A pro-Russian demonstrator shouts slogans during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on 8 March 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Anxious about losing ground to Western influence in the post-Soviet space and the ousting of many pro-Russia elites by popular electoral uprisings, the Kremlin has developed a wide range of proxy groups in support of its foreign policy objectives.
  • This network of pro-Kremlin groups promotes the Russian World (Russkiy Mir), a flexible tool that justifies increasing Russian actions in the post-Soviet space and beyond. Russian groups are particularly active in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – countries that have declared their intention to integrate with the West.
  • Russia employs a vocabulary of ‘soft power’ to disguise its ‘soft coercion’ efforts aimed at retaining regional supremacy. Russian pseudo-NGOs undermine the social cohesion of neighbouring states through the consolidation of pro-Russian forces and ethno-geopolitics; the denigration of national identities; and the promotion of anti-US, conservative Orthodox and Eurasianist values. They can also establish alternative discourses to confuse decision-making where it is required, and act as destabilizing forces by uniting paramilitary groups and spreading aggressive propaganda.
  • The activities of these proxy groups – combined with the extensive Russian state administrative resources and security apparatus, as well as the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, proRussian elites, mass culture and the media – could seriously damage political transitions and civil societies in the region. Events in Crimea and Donbas have exposed the supportive role of Russian non-state actors in fomenting conflict.
  • In the medium term, the contest for the ‘hearts and minds’ of citizens will persist, with the scale and outreach of anti-Western groups continuing to testify to the presence of active networks of genuine believers within this new Russian World. However, greater transparency and deeper engagement with citizens as part of independent civil society organizations could bridge opposing views and help counter the challenge of artificial divisions nurtured by the Kremlin-funded non-state actors.