Russia is rebuilding capacity to destabilize European countries, new UK report warns

LONDON (AP) — Russia is rebuilding its capacity to destabilize European countries and extend its influence in the Middle East and Africa, posing a strategic threat to NATO as its members focus on the war in Ukraine, a U.K.-based think tank said Tuesday.

In a sweeping report, researchers at the Royal United Services Institute argue that Western nations need to do more to counter Moscow’s use of unconventional warfare if they are to succeed in turning back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“As the war in Ukraine protracts, Russia has an interest in creating crises further afield,’’ authors Jack Watling, Oleksandr V. Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds wrote, citing the Balkans as a region that is ripe for mischief.

“Russia also has an active interest in destabilizing Ukraine’s partners, and with a slew of elections forthcoming across Europe there is a wide range of opportunities to exacerbate polarization,’’ the authors said.

The 35-page report by the think tank, founded in 1831, was released only days before the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While Russian efforts to destabilize countries such as Moldova failed due to security lapses and the mass expulsion of Kremlin operatives, the Russian military is now strengthening its ability to launch unconventional attacks, the report says.

Using documents obtained from Russian secret services and interviews with official bodies in Ukraine and some European states, the report weaves a narrative of Russia’s efforts to extend its influence beyond the present conflict in Ukraine.

The threat “extends beyond Ukraine and the active collaboration of those states that are being targeted," it said and urged for “sustained vigilance” over a range of issues.

Russia has also been expanding ties with African and Middle Eastern states, displacing Western interests in those regions. This new “Russian colonialism” seeks to create what the authors call an “Entente Roscolonial’’ — a group of states that "actively seek to assist Russia, while also becoming increasingly subordinate to Russian influence,’’ according to the report.

The “entente” posed a serious threat to Western interests because of a “strong and bitter sense” that the U.S. and NATO act differently in Ukraine than they do in places like Gaza and Tigray, the region of northern Ethiopia that has been devastated by conflict, the report said.

“Similarly, the apparent contrast in Western language and rhetoric between how it described the destruction of Aleppo or Mariupol, and how it has excused Israeli operations in Gaza, leave many on the continent perceiving a gap between Western rhetoric about values and the values practiced by those who have, for so long, imposed constraints on the policies of African states to enforce values-based norms.’’

The new colonialism, the report said, was intertwined with the formation of the Wagner Group, a nominally private company that provided mercenaries for wars in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine, giving the Russian government plausible deniability about its role in these conflicts.

Following the death of the Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, these units have been brought more directly under the control of the Russian military. This new Expeditionary Corps is now offering a “regime survival package” to authoritarian governments in countries like Mali and the Central African Republic.