In July, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that Ivan Savvidi, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, was actively funding politicians and protestors in Macedonia to spark unrest over the country’s September 30 referendum to change its name to “North Macedonia.” The referendum could settle a decades-long dispute with Greece over the country’s name, removing the primary obstacle to Macedonia’s membership in NATO and an impediment to its European Union accession. Complementing efforts by Russian diplomats to agitate against the deal in Greece, Savvidi passed at least €300,000 to groups in Macedonia to incite violence and stir chaos surrounding the referendum. Russian efforts to undermine the Macedonian referendum — and, correspondingly, the country’s accession to NATO — follow a well-worn playbook. The Kremlin has used asymmetric tools like disinformation, covert support for extremist political groups and organizations sympathetic to Russian policies, and cyber-attacks throughout the Western Balkans and across Europe in attempts to keep countries out of Euroatlantic institutions.
The Russian government has always been hostile to the enlargement of the NATO Alliance. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Kremlin grudgingly accepted the accession of much of Central Europe and the Baltic states into NATO. Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed concern that NATO enlargement was being used to encircle the Russian Federation, but could do little more than protest. Under President Putin’s regime, Moscow has taken deliberate steps to try to derail enlargement. Most notably, the Russian military invaded Georgia and Ukraine, where it still supports separatists and occupies parts of both countries that NATO pledged would join the Alliance. However, across Europe, the Kremlin has more subtly utilized its arsenal of asymmetric foreign policy tools in an attempt to hinder enlargement.
Disinformation has been a key tool in the Russian government’s efforts to undermine NATO enlargement. For example, in Finland, the Kremlin led media attacks against the government in 2016 with an aim to “make citizens suspicious about the European Union, and to warn Finland over not joining NATO,” according to Markku Mantila, who was then director of communications for the government. Similarly, in neighboring Sweden, the Russian government directed efforts to manipulate public opinion with a flood of disinformation during a time of heated national discussion over Sweden’s potential NATO membership in 2016. In the lead-up to Montenegro’s accession to NATO, the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency, which was indicted for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, used social media to target U.S. citizens with disinformation intended to discourage U.S. support for the move. Broader Russian efforts across the Western Balkans were documented in a 2017 report from the OCCRP, which exposed Russian disinformation campaigns supporting Moscow’s policy goals in Macedonia dating back to 2008. The report also documented more general anti-NATO efforts in the region, such as Moscow’s goal of creating “a strip of militarily neutral countries,” to include Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia.
As the Kremlin has done in Macedonia in the run-up to the referendum, the Russian government has also provided covert support to domestic political groups or for activities that have directly or indirectly tried to obstruct NATO accession in other countries. Nowhere were these interference efforts more egregious than in Montenegro, where, in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in October 2016, the Kremlin “funneled money to opposition parties,” sponsored demonstrations, and even “set up or co-opted friendly media outlets and ‘influencers’” to undermine the pro-NATO ruling government. After the pro-NATO party won the election (in spite of the Kremlin’s efforts), two Russian intelligence operatives planned a coup to assassinate the prime minister and install an anti-NATO government. Even after the plot was foiled, Russian officials continued to provide political support for an anti-NATO referendum organized by a Montenegrin opposition party.
State-sponsored cyber-attacks are another common tool employed by the Kremlin when trying to obstruct or discourage NATO enlargement. In 2017, Montenegro fell victim to hundreds of cyber-attacks, including several by the hacker group APT28 or Fancy Bear, which has close ties to Russia’s military intelligence agency. The attacks — which occurred in January, February, and June 2017 — are believed to have been motivated by Montenegro’s accession to NATO in June of that year. In 2016, Sweden was also hit by cyber-attacks linked to Russian hackers during a time of key domestic discussion on NATO membership. The attacks, some of which continued for five days, took several of Sweden’s largest news organizations offline, while Kremlin propaganda networks concurrently flooded the information space with false narratives vilifying NATO.
Due to the implications of Macedonia’s name-change referendum, it is unsurprising that the Kremlin is employing its asymmetric toolkit to attempt to manipulate public opinion against it. These actions reflect consistent efforts by Moscow to impede NATO enlargement, violate the sovereignty of European states, and interfere in democratic processes across the continent. Macedonian authorities and their Western partners should be wary of future attempts to meddle in the accession process and should implement additional precautionary measures to protect against further interference. In particular, Macedonian officials should focus on publicly exposing Kremlin influence efforts, and should promote transparency and open communication with citizens to help to inoculate the Macedonian people against the threat of foreign interference. On a broader scale, policymakers across the transatlantic community should learn from the Kremlin’s tactics in obstructing NATO enlargement, as they mirror larger efforts to undermine the unity and cohesion of individual nations as well as transatlantic relations.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.