by Hugo Spaulding
Russia continues to aggressively posture against NATO from both Ukraine and Syria while casting itself as a constructive actor in both conflicts. U.S. European Command (EUCOM) accused Russia of destabilizing Europe by violating international norms and named deterring Russian aggression as its strategic priority. Moscow announced plans to form three new military divisions in western Russia to counter NATO. Russia is also reportedly developing an airbase near the Turkish border in northwestern Syria, an expansion of its military footprint in the Middle East that threatens to reignite its conflict with NATO member Turkey. France and the U.S. nevertheless signaled their intent to lift sanctions against Russia this year if it fulfills its commitments under the February 2015 ceasefire agreement in Ukraine. The U.S. held senior-level talks with both Ukraine and Russia to discuss plans for elections in separatist-held southeastern Ukraine, a key Russian demand within the ceasefire agreement. Russia has used superficially democratic tools to cloak its aggression throughout its Ukraine campaign and again seeks to use controlled elections to legitimize its occupation of Ukrainian territory. Western pressure on Kyiv to support the separatist elections as new Russian hardware reportedly enters the conflict zone reflects the additional leverage Moscow has gained by intervening in the Syrian Civil War and posturing as a partner against ISIS.
Russia is courting anti-EU and anti-NATO opposition parties across Europe in order to assert itself as a rival center of power on the continent. Congress ordered the U.S. Director of National Intelligence to conduct an investigation into the Kremlin’s connections with far-right and far-left opposition parties in the EU that are opposed to Brussels. Russian efforts to cultivate ties with European opposition parties extend beyond the EU. Moldova’s pro-Russian opposition launched a wave of anti-government protests on January 20 calling for snap elections and the resignation of the newly-appointed pro-European prime minister. The Kremlin, which reportedly hosted Moldova’s pro-Russian opposition leaders in the buildup to the protests, likely seeks to capitalize on the corruption scandals plaguing the ruling pro-European faction in order to reverse the former Soviet republic’s Western geopolitical trajectory. Russia has made similar overtures to the anti-NATO opposition in Montenegro, where the pro-European government faces a possible vote of no confidence on January 27. Russia’s deputy foreign minister met with opposition leaders in Montenegro to discuss the promotion of a possible referendum on the Balkan country’s planned NATO accession. In tandem with its efforts to revise international norms in Ukraine, Russia’s outreach to anti-EU and anti-NATO opposition movements advances its strategic objective of expanding its sphere of influence in Europe at the expense of the U.S. and allied governments.