Threats posed by paramilitary groups, information war, online trolls and intensive financial support from Moscow. Such topics dominated a meeting with journalists that featured CEPI analysts Jaroslav Naď and Marian Majer, as well as representatives of the Central European Strategy Council (SC) Róbert Vass and Mário Nicolini.

The Strategy Council’s Executive Vice-President Vass stressed that the goal of Russia’s activities is to demoralise Moscow’s perceived “enemies” – the nations of NATO and the EU. The role of Kremlin’s propaganda is to further doubts about the values of these organisations and to disrupt the unity of the West. “There is an intense information war under way. The concept has been elaborated in Russian doctrine as a major approach to demoralise the enemy,” he said.

“President Putin wants to divide the European Union and reduce its member states to a group connected only by economic interest. His aim is to disrupt political unity and solidarity in the EU and the functioning of a common foreign and security policy. Another key interest is to drive a wedge between the EU and the US, which is behind the calls for neutrality that animate public discussion in Slovakia,” said Mário Nicolini.

Political neutrality as an alternative to NATO membership is fiction, argued CEPI senior fellow Marian Majer. “For European Union members, neutrality as a concept has lost its meaning. All these countries are active participants in EU crisis management and its military operations.” In absolute numbers, Switzerland, a favorite example of the neutralist camp, spends €5 bln on defence. Sweden invests in defence 5 times the amount of Slovakia, and Finland 3 times the amount, he added. Moreover, both countries have reacted to Russian provocations in the Baltic Sea by intensifying cooperation with NATO. In Sweden, support for NATO membership has prevailed over support for neutrality for the first time in history.

“The pricetag for neutrality is incomparably higher than the costs of common security, which also led to the unprecedented 60-year period of peace and prosperity in Europe. Moreover, Ukrainian experience shows, that in this geopolitical space it can have fatal consequences if anyone attempts to disrupt it. In such case, you have no one to rely on in security matters,” added Vass.

The media community was also presented with an overview of the immense financial resources being invested into Russian propaganda and gained insight into the means that Moscow has used to promote its worldview in Slovakia. As an example, Naď provided background on the operation of internet trolls, who are regularly paid for promoting pro-Russian positions through blogs, articles, and discussions on the internet.

“According to official estimates, Russia is spending $100 million on information operations, mainly for PR agencies. Even more, money flows through the intelligence services and the so-called alternative media, bringing the lower estimated amount to about seven billion US dollars,” said Jaroslav Naď.

Naď also stressed that Slovakia should urgently recognize the latent security threats relevant for Russia’s “hybrid warfare” doctrine, such as those represented by paramilitary groups. Their estimated membership is up to several thousand militants, with many trained in Russia. It is groups such as these that played a crucial role in the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Ukraine’s East and South.

In the context of the changing security situation, the experts also highlighted the 11th anniversary of Slovakia’s entry into NATO and its benefits to the country as a whole, beyond the military dimension. These have included political reform, an inflow of foreign investment and the stabilisation of neighbourly relations. Participation in NATO helped the Slovak military to professionalise, modernise and develop unique capabilities that have benefited the entire Alliance. Examples include explosive ordnance disposal and CBRN protection, said Nicolini.

The analysts also addressed the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to Bratislava on 4 April, on the occasion of Bratislava’s liberation in World War II, which coincides with the 66th anniversary of NATO. In their view, this is one in a series of activities by which Russia will try to monopolise the 70th anniversary of victory over fascism in WWII. In this context, CEPI said it was crucial to honor the memory of all soldiers fallen in the war, including the extraordinary numbers of Ukrainians and citizens of Western armies. They also pointed out that for half a century under Soviet dominance, up until the fall of the Iron Wall, Eastern Europe suffered a period with no freedom, marked by crimes systematically perpetrated by the communist regimes of the region.

The breakfast with journalists is part of a series of activities by the Central European Strategy Council whose aim is to contribute to a positive change in public perceptions of NATO and the European Union, while at the same time increasing the resilience of society against discourse undermining the anchoring of Slovakia in the family of liberal democracies. We are doing this by promoting open debate, objective information, institution building and civic activism.