Europe in the Midst of a War of Influence: the Informational Strategy of Russia’s Political Revisionism

Jean-Marie Reure
PhD Student in "Risk, Security and Vulnerability", curriculum "Security and Strategic Studies"
at the University of Genoa, Italy. Contributor at

More than one year has passed since Russia’s decision to launch a full-scale offensive against Ukraine. The so-called “special operation” decided by the Kremlin, turned into a war of attrition between two sovereign states, as a result, has challenged numerous assumptions held by both scholars and practitioners. The first was that inter-state conflicts were a phenomenon of the past, whilst major threats to the international community were to be found in underdeveloped areas, plagued by instability and internal strife. The second belief was that economic interdependence and globalization were the remedies against political revisionism. The third assumption painted Europe as a heaven of peace. Keagan’s 2003 seminal book Of Paradise and Power uses a colourful metaphor in this regard, describing the Americans as coming from Mars, whereas Europeans come from Venus, in reference to the different understanding of the world held by the decision-makers in the two continents. Whilst US policymakers had a more martial, confrontational understanding of inter-state relations, EU leaders supposedly held a more peaceful, trade-oriented view of these same connections. This illusion has crumbled, once more, after February 24, 2022. The EU now sees itself, somehow forcibly, as a geopolitical entity and a security provider. The Union’s “strategic awakening” comes however with a significant delay, lagging behind long-consolidated strategic policies such as those of the US, the UK and France, one of its Member States. A truly European strategic policy thus has much potential, but also faces many challenges. One of them, largely overlooked by the war in Ukraine, is that of influence.

Russia's influence in the world and its informational ecosystem

The term influence, in the context of International Relations (IR), currently lacks a proper definition. It is a term generally employed with reference to Russia’s hybrid threats against Western interests in the world. One could think of influence as a sort of soft power, although it bears a more confrontational stance. According to Joseph Nye, the originator of the concept, a country’s soft power relies on the attractiveness of its culture to others, on the political values a country lives up to and on the perceived legitimacy (and moral authority) of its foreign policies. Russia, a revisionist state, is currently using its influence not only to undermine western “soft power”, but also to advance its interests. It does so mainly using two means: official channels and supposedly private, non-state actors. Russia’s influence is thus bicephalous. On one hand, it relies on its diplomacy, which essentially takes the form of military/security agreements and arms deals with partner countries. Moscow's foreign policy initiatives are then amplified by state-affiliated media, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, which have an international audience. On the other, Russia employs pseudo Private Military and Security Contractors (PMSCs) – best epitomized by the infamous Wagner Group –, local media and news websites it indirectly controls, and troll farms. Whilst military cooperation treaties and PMSCs belong more to the “hard power” side of the coin, Russia’s informational ecosystem bears a crucial role in its influence strategy.

Russian decision-makers see information as a domain of perpetual confrontation with their perceived adversaries, both in peacetime and in conflict. Accordingly, the Kremlin has developed a collection of official, proxy, and unattributed communication channels and platforms to create, spread and amplify disinformation and propaganda. The term ecosystem underlines the fact that there is no uniformity or coherence in the information Moscow controls directly or indirectly: this conception of purpose-driven information allows greater flexibility and dynamism, in that different and sometimes overlapping messages end-up reinforcing each other, even when they appear contradictory. Russia has thus been investing heavily in this ecosystem to tarnish the image of western countries, undermining their international legitimacy by spreading false and misleading narratives. Although these malicious efforts might seem abstract and distant from “real-world” issues, they do bear practical consequences.

The tangible consequences of Russia's influence

To understand the impact of Russian propaganda and disinformation one could take examples from Central Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, Europe or Africa. Such is the reach of Russia’s informational ecosystem. Focusing on Africa seems however to suit better the aims of this article, not only because the Kremlin’s propaganda has been more effective – and visible – in this continent, but also due to the current “war of influence” waged by Russian proxies against France and other western actors in the Sahel region. The tipping point of Moscow's “Africa policy” was reached during the 2019 Russia-Africa Forum, held in the coastal city of Sochi. The forum officially ended a two decades-long disinterest in African issues, that had characterized Russia’s foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. The crucial role in the organization of the Sochi Forum played by two oligarchs linked to Russia’s informational ecosystem, Konstatin Malofeev and Evgeny Prigozhin, already signaled one of the core characteristics of the Kremlin’s involvement in Africa: the privatization of its foreign policy. The first, successful “hard test” for Moscow’s African policy had already begun two years before the Sochi Forum, in the Central African Republic (CAR). It is a former French colony, a small, landlocked country plagued by internal conflicts and instability. Like other African countries, its wealth consists mainly of natural resources, especially diamonds, located in the north of the country. Russians first enter the country in late 2017, with a large shipment of weapons delivered in derogation of a UN arms embargo. In 2018, Russian military instructors and advisors make their first appearance in CAR: most of them, if not all, belong to the Prighozin-controlled Wagner PMSC. Soon thereafter, a former FSB official (Russia’s Federal Security Service, formerly known under the acronym of KGB), Valery Zakharov, becomes National Security Advisor to CAR’s President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. At the time CAR’s operational environment is already quite dense: MINUSCA (the UN mission in CAR) troops along with the French military are tasked with stabilizing the country, while the European Training Mission (EUTM-CAR) provides strategic advice and training to CAR’s armed forces (FACA). In such a crowded context for Russia’s African policy, it is essential to show effectiveness in quelling CAR’s armed insurgency for two reasons. First, because for the Kremlin is essential to show that Russian forces are capable of conducting a full-fledged stabilization mission. Second, because, in doing so, they will also undermine western credibility to deliver effective results in conducting this kind of operation. For these reasons, Wagner “instructors” soon take on active combat roles, fighting rebels along with FACA forces. In a few months, after a harsh counterinsurgency campaign without much attention being paid to human rights, Russian forces have routed insurgents out of CAR borders. Military actions alone, although successful, are not enough to enshrine Russia’s influence in CAR. Through Lobaye Invest, a Russian-owned company operating in CAR’s mining sector, Bangui’s Radio Lenga Songo receives important funding. A thorough analysis of the radio’s content shows that, upon receiving Russian funds, articles, interviews, and speeches gradually become more critical of the French engagement in CAR. MINUSCA is strongly criticized as being ineffective, whilst Russian forces' operations are eulogized. At the time of writing, reports suggest that several FACA battalions trained by EUTM are under the direct control of Russian contractors, while French troops have completely withdrawn from the country. A strong anti-French sentiment has spread across the country, partly fueled by Radio Lenga Songo.

Radio Lenga Songo has a limited, local audience. However, somehow surprisingly, some of the articles it produces have been re-published by Russia Today and Sputnik, two Russia-affiliated international media outlets that have a far broader audience. At the same time, Radio Lenga Songo’s content is very similar to that produced by Radio Revolution Panafricaine or Afrique Media TV, two alternative pan-Africanists voices in Africa’s media landscape. Panafrican outlets are among the most effective actors in Russia’s informational ecosystem in Africa: not only do they have a transnational audience without showing any formal affiliation with Russia, but they also have ideological positions that resonate with Russian propaganda. Anticolonialism, critique of the EU presence in Africa, rejection of “colonial monies”, such as the Franc CFA, defence of traditional values and criticism towards Western “moral degradation” are arguments shared by both Panafricanists and Russian propagandists. In this regard, Afrique Media TV has hosted on its platforms one of the most virulent Pan-African activists, the Franco-Beninese Kémi Séba. Mr Séba, together with another Pan-African activist, Nathalie Yamb, also known as “the lady of Sochi” due to her participation in the 2019 Russia-Africa forum, are considered to be African “entrepreneurs of influence[i] working on Moscow’s behalf. The definition of entrepreneurs reflects the fact that these activists assume the inherent risks of their malicious activities. They use their influence as well as their financial and social capital to “invest in a sector” (in this case information) hoping for some kind of reward – be it financial and/or political – by the Kremlin’s decision-makers. This system also guarantees “plausible deniability” for Russia: in case of failure these entrepreneurs could be easily disavowed by Russian authorities, which would thus avoid getting directly involved. Entrepreneurs of influence, therefore, create news outlets and websites, organize influence campaigns on social media and engage in hostile “trolling” to advance Russian interests. Mr. Séba and Mrs. Yamb are thus an integral part of Russia’s informational ecosystem, which actively contributes to fueling anti-West and anti-French sentiments in francophone Africa. This popular resentment, in turn, has caused concrete operational issues: for example, in 2021 a French army convoy transporting weapons from the Ivory Coast to Niger has been blocked for days in Burkina’s northern city of Kaya, because the local population was convinced that the French army intended to deliver weapons to terrorists.

Our values are our strength: a toolbox to protect them

In this context, the EU cannot be a passive spectator. It needs to be able to defend and protect proactively such authority, on its soil and in the outside world, without compromising it. This is possible only if we think about defence as a collective endeavour. Europeans must collectively learn to speak the language of power to continue to favour dialogue over conflict, diplomacy over coercion, and multilateralism over unilateralism. The Union’s values are the fruits of a common enterprise, borne out of the blood spilt on Europe’s battlefields and thus cannot be an excuse for inaction. The 2022 EU Strategic Compass institutes the creation of an “EU hybrid toolbox” aimed at providing a common framework for a coordinated response against hybrid threats, foreign information manipulation and interference. This is an important step in the EU’s “strategic awakening”: its strength resides in European values, that collectively constitute its moral authority. EU moral authority is currently threatened by revisionist actors, that leverage propaganda and false information to increase their influence to the detriment of the EU’s. African countries are indeed strategic partners for the EU, not only because of their importance as trading partners, but also because they play an instrumental role in the security of Europe’s southern borders. Europe therefore cannot afford to lose its influence in Africa, because the stakes are too high. To preserve it, the EU must act in two directions. First, it needs to be able to counter proactively foreign – malicious – influence, and in this regard the “EU hybrid toolbox” is a necessary instrument. Second, it also needs to rethink its African relationships, developing new opportunities for dialogue and cooperation with African states and regional organizations. Much attention has been given to the security side of EU-Africa relationships, whilst the long-term political objectives of EU’s Africa policy have been neglected. This could be just the right time to do so.  We, Europeans, might have landed on Venus, but not before exploring what living on Mars really implies. And that we should not forget.

[i]  The definition of entrepreneurs of influence is taken from Marlene Laruelle & Kevin Limonier (2021) Beyond “hybrid warfare”: a digital exploration of Russia’s entrepreneurs of influence, Post-Soviet Affairs, 37:4, 318-335, DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2021.1936409


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