Part of Central and Eastern Europe, once aptly branded as Bloodlands by an American historian Timothy Snyder is today the most likely potential hybrid war theater. This is the place where the Russian expansion must be resisted.
The land of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, the north-western part of Russia was so soaked in blood in the World War II that all political activities there are based solely on compromise. The clash of the two totalitarian regimes was unprecedented in its cruelty, while the human sacrifices were imperessively enormous. The war had settled permanently in the mass consciousness of local residents, and Russia didn’t waste its chance to use this circumstance now, in early XXI century.
Hybrid warfare primarily involves the fight for the attitude and consciousness of citizens of a state or group of ctates which have become a victim of aggression. Historical memory helps the Kremlin propaganda spin the flywheel and create confrontation between different states. Russian propaganda masterminds seek to achieve their goals, having at their disposal historical archives of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, whose impact on these regions was systematic.
That’s why we could constantly hear the term “fascists” and “punitive units” in the rhetoric of Russian media covering the events of the Euromaidan, the subsequent annexation of Crimea and the Donbas conflict. That’s why the Kremlin has worked hard to discredit Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, and keeps using the issue of a so-called “Volhynia massacre” at every opportunity. Plenty of complex issues of coexistence have remained unresolved in Bloodlands over the decades under the rule of the Communist party and the parties of “people’s democracy.” Today, the Kremlin skillfully inserts red-hot needles of tuned manipulation into the chronic wounds of various nations. There is another factor: the countries of the Old Europe are sometimes to turn a blind eye to what is happening across Baltic-Black Sea arc of traditional instability, because their big business is eager to resume full-fledged relations with Russia.
Ukraine has found itself at the forefront of hybrid war, and today it is paying a heavy price for its own lack of attention to historical problems and to setting up national mentality.
It is extremely difficult to counteract the Russian information machine - it has been finely tuned and graciously funded. Before MH17 was downed over Donbas in the summer of 2014, the Kremlin’s propaganda and the Russian media had skillfully misled world’s opinion by presenting events in the east of Ukraine as a civil war. Today, Moscow is seeking to show the inability of the official Kyiv to hold fruitful talks in the eyes of Ukraine’s Western partners, and to have the sanctions against Russia lifted. At the same time Russia is rocking the the situation within Ukraine’s borders, as candid attack on the internal front is usually preferred in a hybrid war over any linear actions.
Can Belarus remain calm in this situation, given its President Alexander Lukashenka parades his loyalty to the Kremlin? I doubt it, because the logic of waging a hybrid war does not imply excessive independence of geopolitical vassals dependant on a powerful overlord. “Batska” [‘father,’ a popular nickname of Lukashenka], though seemingly unsinkable, should still think about ways to escape from the claws of the Imperial Russian bear.
The one-party power established in Poland after the victory of the Prawo I Sprawedliwosc [Law and Justice Party] in the parliamentary elections, gave birth to numerous temptations of the party leaders. Given traditional sensitivity of the Polish society to the issues of historical memory, it is easy to assume the initiatives to demand an official apology from Kyiv for the events that took place 70 years ago in Volyn region. The problems in Poland’s relations with Belarus and Lithuania may catch also catch up. The issue of the Smolensk tragedy of 2010 is likely to re-emerge, as the Russian side will try to use it for its own purposes. Can such stance of Warsaw be strong and will it to allow Poland to effectively create a Baltic-Black Sea Union and strengthen its position on the continent? These questions seem rhetorical today.
In the Baltic states the local state elites are well aware of the Russian threat. That is exactly why U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel took turns in 2014 visiting the region and that’s why NATO’s combat aircraft, armored vehicles and additional units were deployed in these states.
Hybrid war is a confrontation of symbols. Washington and Brussels should show their flags as it’s important to show that they don’t give up on their allies.
However, the West is not ablr to completely remove Russia’s influence on the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states. Moreover, the European Union, with the assistance of concerned journalists, mostly states the facts of Russian propaganda rather than actually confronts it.
Ukraine has unique experience both as the victim of the Russian information aggression, and as a country that has managed to refute the aggressor, rather unexpectedly for many. Therefore, it needs to seek allies in Bloodlands in order to prevent the spread of this hybrid war deeper into Europe. Today creating a hybrid alliance dominating over the EU and NATO through bilateral relations seems to be a priority to counter Russian propaganda.