The Kremlin strikes back in Central and Eastern Europe.

Author:Kostelka, Filip
 
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Infiltration of an opposition demonstration, inciting the demonstrators to storm the country's parliament, then having mercenaries disguised as police massacre them, while simultaneously assassinating the country's long-serving Prime Minister.

The first scene of a Jason Bourne movie? No, an alleged coup attempt planned by Russian spies, thwarted in October 2016, on the day of the elections to Montenegro's parliament. Originally circumspect in his allegations, the Montenegrin prosecutor now openly accuses Russian authorities of having masterminded the plot. Although much remains unclear, there are several developments that give credence to this accusation. But whatever the specific facts, it is but one of many manifestations of Russia's growing appetite for intrusion in Central and Eastern European politics. More than 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Kremlin is rebuilding its political clout in the former Soviet empire.

What does Putin want?

In the early 2000s, many in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as well as in the West, were persuaded that Russia had been transformed into a relatively democratic, if not liberal, country. They believed that Russia's primary objective was to stabilize its institutions, modernize its economy and develop business ties with the rest of Europe. Russia was seen politically as a strategic partner, and economically as a great business opportunity. Among other signs, this optimistic view was supported by the positive attitude toward the West that Russian President Vladimir Putin had adopted on taking office in 1999. For example, the Kremlin did not strongly oppose NATO's expansion into the Baltic states in 2002. Similarly, Russians accepted the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia and, more generally, supported the American war on terror.

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Soon, however, Russian foreign policy was subject to a major overhaul, triggered apparently by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, which followed upon the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia in 2000. This propagation of the "revolutionary virus," replacing pro-Russian authoritarian regimes by more or less pro-Western democratic ones, was increasingly perceived as a threat to Putin's regime. The events in Ukraine in particular were an eye-opener and, according to some observers, a shock comparable to 9/11 in the Western world.

Putin and his entourage suddenly understood that the winds of change were clearly flowing in the wrong direction and that accommodation and openness toward the West had to come to a halt. Such a shift in foreign policy, which implied a more active role for Russia abroad, was facilitated by the favourable economic context brought about by skyrocketing gas prices, along with signs of weakness in the West such as the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the failed constitutional treaty in the European Union.

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The current regime's survival is, without much doubt, the primary motivation for Russia's activism in CEE and beyond. By weakening the West and pro-Western actors in the East, Russia aims to deprive its domestic opposition of material and ideological support. Although Putin seems to benefit from genuinely high approval within Russia--greatly facilitated by the state's tight grip on the media--the mobilization potential of the opposition (as manifested in the nationwide protests on March 26) and the unpredictability of revolutionary movements should not be underestimated.

A major warning came from Ukraine--symbolically, 10 years after the Orange Revolution. The Euromaidan events of 2014, which ousted Russia-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, constituted yet another pro-Western revolutionary upheaval in Russia's backyard. Given that Russia had long felt threatened by the West, it does not come as a surprise that the Ukrainian deja vu provoked Putin's most aggressive and spectacular external action so far: the military campaign in Ukraine. Even though the annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in eastern Ukraine reflect Russia's strategic interests (the importance of Russia's...

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