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Green Light for Putin?

U.S. President Donald Trump's siding with Russia at the Helsinki summit could spell bad news for Central Europe and the Balkans, where Moscow's influence is already conspicuous.

by Martin Ehl 24 July 2018

The pictures taken by drone were clear and straightforward. They accompanied a report published by the Slovak daily Pravda on Friday, about a strange place in the village of Dolna Krupa near the western Slovak city of Trnava.


The former agricultural complex is painted in military camouflage. Inside, there are a number of old tanks and armored vehicles, and a driving track, barracks, shooting range, and other facilities that look like the training grounds for a small army.


Officially the property of a Slovak businessman, the venue is, in reality,  the European headquarters of the Russian motorcycle club Night Wolves. The Slovak minister of defense confirmed this week that pro-Russian Slovak paramilitaries had trained there, with professional soldiers.


Yet this surprising discovery is not so surprising in light of the recent meeting and press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki.


The Russians are already extending their influence over Central Europe, and the lack of pushback by the American president is seen as a de facto green light for Russia to try anything possible to destabilize the situation, in a region that Moscow sees as part of its sphere of influence.


The Night Wolves are official supporters of Putin. This is soft power, Russian style. But the Slovak revelations show how easily this soft power could turn into hard power.


In recent times, the Balkans have been feeling Russian pressure even more strongly than Central Europe. This is perhaps because of some significant achievements in the Europeanization of the Balkan region, including the recent deal to rename the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which could fast-track the country for NATO entry.


Yet that does not mean Central Europe is no longer of interest to Russia, nor that it will continue to be overshadowed by the Balkans. In the near future, the Helsinki deals will almost certainly translate into new Russian initiatives – perhaps a hybrid approach – in Central Europe as well, potentially undermining the region’s pro-Western commitment, and unity within the EU itself.


The training base in Dolna Krupa is only one example of provoking the general public through a show of strength, in contrast with a NATO weakened by Europe-wide divisions and Trump's remarks.


But military might and other hard security tactics are only one approach. Many economic opportunities also exist for Russia to cause a disruption or to change local minds. The Czech Republic is in the middle of a debate whether to build new nuclear reactors for two power plants. Russia would like to build them and buy out the Czechs as they did the Hungarians. (Hungary is already considered positive toward Putin.) Slovakia, also, with its weak government and strong pro-Russian public sentiment, could be another easy target.


Poland is currently strongly anti-Russian, but in the long run it must solve its energy problems – especially the consequences of shutting down the coal power stations on which the country almost completely depends.


Meanwhile, the Russians still play their gas games across the region.


One cannot fall into a trap of Russophobia – otherwise Russia could be blamed for anything, including countries' own mistakes. But after the Helsinki meeting, it looks like that situation might change even in the U.S. Congress, where a financial package waits for approval that would strengthen the defense of NATO's eastern flank. And U.S. experts have been assuring their European counterparts of the country's commitment to NATO's mutual defense provision, Article 5.


However, after Trump's signs of weakness, Russia will definitely test the waters again with something new.


The summer has been hot enough so far. Let's hope that the autumn will be cooler. In every sense of the word.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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