Until recently, Russian and Chinese influence across Europe generally reflected their distinct strategic aims. But their interests increasingly converge. Common to both Vladimir Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s strategies is the decoupling of the United States and Europe. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic will have to act in concert – and fast – to forestall an even greater corrosion of the democratic norms that have kept the peace – or helped restore it, in the case of the wars in the former Yugoslavia – for three-quarters of a century.
Russia and China have made particular inroads in Central and Southeastern Europe in recent years. Putin’s government identifies dissatisfied segments of the public and the political class and maliciously exploits vulnerabilities via disinformation and related propaganda to exacerbate divisions, hinder democratic institutions, and generally neutralize the European space, particularly in the Balkans and the “Visegrad Four” countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Xi’s multiple and insidious charm offensives, on the other hand, have been comparatively apolitical, being less concerned about democratic or authoritarian governance and more aimed at bolstering the Chinese Communist Party’s global legitimacy, especially among political, business, and intellectual elites.
Neither Moscow’s nor Beijing’s approaches and tactics are mutually exclusive. Russian state, military, and religious leadership affirmatively engage aligned or sympathetic elites, while China uses media proxies to steer public discourse in its favor on its priority issues — Hong Kong’s autonomy, Taiwan’s de facto independence, and the human rights of China’s Uyghur and Tibetan communities.
To the delight of both Russia and China, the gradual weakening of U.S.-European ties over the last two decades is accelerating due to mutual neglect, miscommunication, and diminished policy coordination in a post-Cold War world. It hasn’t helped that the Trump administration’s approach to resolving inequities in NATO member defense-spending commitments or aspects of transatlantic trade relations has been nearly all vinegar and little wine. The result is rapidly diminishing support for partnership with America in key ally states such as Germany. According to a Pew Research poll in April, almost as many Germans prioritized their country’s relationship with China – 36 percent – as with the United States (37 percent). That was a significant change from a year earlier, when 50 percent of Germans preferred a closer partnership with the United States, compared with 24 percent favoring better ties with China.
Washington’s unhelpful bellicosity understandably alienates many Europeans, making it all the more difficult for their elected leaders to work jointly even on common interests. This reciprocal disengagement between Washington and key European capitals leaves room, in turn, for adversarial interventions by Russia and China.
Filling Political and Economic Vacuums
Take Victor Orban’s Hungary: As relations with Brussels and the Obama White House soured through the 2010s, Russia and China moved quickly to fill newly vacated political and economic spaces. Years of warming relations led Russian energy giant Gazprom to hike its natural gas exports to Hungary by a whopping 57.7 percent year-on-year between 2017 and 2018. During this same period, Hungarian authorities rejected a key U.S. extradition request in favor of Russian demands, while further permitting the opening of a Russian bank with links to Russian intelligence and whose staff was curiously granted diplomatic immunity by the host government. Beijing, meanwhile, expanded its economic footprint in Hungary, situating Bank of China’s regional headquarters in Budapest, acquiring a large chemical manufacturer for $1.5 billion, and forming a Belt-and-Road strategic partnership between the Communist Party of China and Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in 2017.
The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant uncertainty, confusion, and fear present Russia and China with rich, new opportunities to turn public opinion in their favor — and against the United States. Eager to promote a narrative of American weakness and withdrawal, Chinese and Russian messaging is converging along with their shared interests. China’s “mask diplomacy” in Central and Southeastern Europe involves ensuring that any shipments of personal protective equipment or medical crews flown in to a given European state are greeted with presidential red carpets and slavishly flattering press conferences that are then promoted by the China Global Television Network (e.g. Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic and Czech Republic President Milos Zeman, among others).
At the same time, Russia continues to sow seeds of confusion and distrust broadly, through traditional and social media, over the coronavirus. It also engages in direct intimidation, as we saw recently in Prague. In the Western Balkans, for example, Russian fabrications include false tales of Italians en masse replacing European Union flags with China’s; lies saying Russian aircraft are being banned from using NATO airspace to deliver supplies to Italy; and conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus outbreak in Europe to NATO’s “Defend Europe 2020” exercises previously scheduled for this spring.
Barring concerted political action by the transatlantic community, the situation looks grim for defenders of its democracies. The economic contractions in COVID’s wake are draining the coffers of poorer Europeans, making their leaders even more vulnerable to manipulation from the east. For instance, 18 percent of Croatia’s GDP relies on tourism; Albania’s share is 25 percent. Given that the inevitable budgetary deficits, easy Chinese credit, or sovereign purchasing power may prove too alluring to forego, regardless of the strings attached. Beijing is so well-poised for even greater entrenchment in European markets that EU leadership has called for aggressive state intervention to prevent Chinese takeovers.
A Joint U.S.-EU Response?
How should the United States and the EU structure their responses? As the Eisenhower administration planned for the coming Cold War, one of the key objectives of the U.S. government was to prevent a Moscow-Beijing axis. That is exactly what the strategic objective should be today. Our Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy proposes three streams of policy measures.
First, transatlantic democracies need to better document the threat so that more policymakers understand the urgency. Disconcertingly, there is little research and analysis publicly available on this early phase of the Russia-China influence nexus. Most specialists are siloed in their geographic region, working either on Russia or China. Their distinct expertise needs to be conjoined.
Second, Western institutions and expert communities need to advocate for the growing nexus of Russia-China influence to be a national security priority. While America’s intelligence, diplomatic, and military communities have been sounding the alarms of the significant threats posed by Moscow and Beijing in recent years, the conflation and coordination between their adversarial agendas demands greater attention. Time is of the absolute essence. If the democratic West fails to consolidate its political and operational responses to Russian and Chinese malign interventions in Europe, autocratic leaders and their fellow influencers stand to win the battle of ideas among core constituencies.
Third, history has shown that dictatorships respect power first and foremost. Many European elites maintain that affirmative engagement will lead to more responsible behavior from Russia and China. But the limitations of this approach have become apparent, whether it be Russia’s indiscriminate use of force in Syria or Beijing’s efforts to strip Hong Kong of what remains of its autonomy. EU leaders, for example, refused to pursue sanctions against Russia in the wake of the atrocities in Aleppo, Syria; nor have they undertaken even symbolic measures against Beijing regardless of its gross disregard for Chinese citizens’ human rights. Yet the belief persists among many European policymakers that affirmatory approaches to dictatorships will catalyze responsible behavior, regardless of a record of inefficacy.
The time has come for a greater willingness for transatlantic leaders as a community to cooperatively and more readily employ the proverbial stick along with the carrot. Leaders of Western democracies need to unequivocally communicate to Putin and Xi that if they want to be respected, observance of international law and established norms is non-negotiable. Where engagement and communication fail, collective action needs to be taken. To this end, more transatlantic democracies would do well to adopt their own Magnitsky-inspired human rights law, a transparency register for foreign-funded lobbying, and foreign investment screening measures. The U.S.-Europe alliance – with the myriad benefits it confers — will be all the stronger for it.
IMAGE: A billboard shows Chinese President Xi Jinping next to the National Assembly building in Belgrade on March 30, 2020, as Serbia has introduced a curfew from 5 pm to 5 am (from 3 pm to 5 am on weekends) for the entire population except those authorized and night shift workers, in a bid to fight the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Located in the centre of Belgrade, the billboard bears President Xi Jinping next to the words “Thank you brother Xi,” a message paid for by a pro-government tabloid. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)