Europe’s Summer of Violent Discontent?

Is the attempted assassination of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico a harbinger?

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

Early this month the Financial Times’ Sam Jones, John Paul Rathbone, and Richard Milne reported an unsettling story about what European intelligence agencies were predicting from Russia going forward: 

European intelligence agencies have warned their governments that Russia is plotting violent acts of sabotage across the continent as it commits to a course of permanent conflict with the west.  

Russia has already begun to more actively prepare covert bombings, arson attacks and damage to infrastructure on European soil, directly and via proxies, with little apparent concern about causing civilian fatalities, intelligence officials believe.  

While the Kremlin’s agents have a long history of such operations — and launched attacks sporadically in Europe in recent years — evidence is mounting of a more aggressive and concerted effort, according to assessments from three different European countries shared with the Financial Times.  

Intelligence officials are becoming increasingly vocal about the threat in an effort to promote vigilance.  

“We assess the risk of state-controlled acts of sabotage to be significantly increased,” said Thomas Haldenwang, head of German domestic intelligence. Russia now seems comfortable carrying out operations on European soil “[with] a high potential for damage,” he told a security conference last month hosted by his agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.  

The FT story went on to cite specific examples of sabotage and attacks in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The reporters also referenced a February 2024 RUSI report that warned about Russian efforts to destabilize and infiltrate European countries in an effort to weaken the coalition supporting Ukraine:

Russia considers both conventional and unconventional military means to be tools of national power and applies them in combination. It is the conventional threat of escalation that deters retaliation against unconventional activity, thereby expanding the scope of what Russia can get away with. Conversely, it is the unconventional operations of the Russian special services that aim to set the conditions for the successful application of conventional military force….

This report’s most important conclusion is that Russia is using unconventional methods to expand its influence, evade containment, and destabilise and disrupt its adversaries – and is making progress in several directions….

The GRU’s reach in Europe suffered real setbacks from the widespread expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and the exposure of its personnel in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine. There has been some surprise at the limited use of sabotage and other means to disrupt Western supplies to Ukraine; less than after Russia’s original incursion into Donbas in 2014. This is partly because of a desire to manage escalation with NATO, but it is also the result of a lack of capacity. Russia is now actively trying to rebuild the capacity to embark on such operations. As the war in Ukraine protracts, Russia has an interest in creating crises further afield.  The Balkans present a particularly serious set of opportunities for such enterprises

I bolded that last sentence given Wednesday’s news out of Slovakia

Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia was shot five times on Wednesday, in the most serious attack on a European leader in decades. Officials said the act was a politically motivated assassination attempt, stoking fears that Europe’s increasingly polarized and vitriolic politics could tip into violence.

Mr. Fico, a veteran politician, underwent hours of emergency surgery after being critically wounded in a town in central Slovakia. Hospital and government officials said Thursday that Mr. Fico’s condition had stabilized overnight but remained serious.

The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s Wotld would like to stress just how odd it would be if this was an example of Russian interference. For one thing, the AP reportsthat Slovakian Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok characterized the shooter as a “lone wolf,” stating, “I can confirm that this person is not a member of any right-wing or left-wing radicalized party.” For another, Fico has been an extremely pro-Russian politician since returning to office. Assassinating him would seem contrary to Russia’s national interest. 

And yet… writing at Good Authority, Michal Onderco notes, “while [the assassin’s] immediate comments at the police station hinted at his political opposition to some of Fico’s recent domestic policy moves, journalists quickly dug up earlier racist anti-Roma texts, and his earlier affinity with Slovak Levies, a paramilitary group with ties to Russia.” The Slovakian Interior Ministry has pushed back on some of these rumors, but their lack of transparency on the shooter’s identity and motivation has fostered a lot of speculation. 

More generally, if the Russian goal is to sow distrust and discontent in European democracies, well, this assassination attempt has certainly advanced that cause. Politico’s Tom Nicholson reports that Fico’s ruling party sure seems super-eager to blame the violence on the opposition: 

Following Wednesday’s assassination attempt on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, senior politicians across the electoral divide have tried to rein in swirling political passions. But an outpouring of anger from the ruling coalition suggests the genie won’t go back in the bottle so easily….

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ľuboš Blaha, from Fico’s Smer party, claimed without providing evidence that the man who allegedly shot the PM had been politically active at events run by the opposition PS. “We [ruling coalition MPs] are the biggest next targets,” he said.

On Wednesday, after interrupting a session of parliament to announce “the Slovak prime minister has been shot,” Blaha added to opposition MPs: “This is your work.”

Another deputy speaker, Andrej Danko of the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), blamed the attempted assassination on independent media. “Are you happy now?” he asked. “I still can’t believe that someone in society would be willing to cross that line.”

Speaking at a press conference, Danko referred to some journalists as “disgusting pigs” and said that his SNS party saw the attack on Fico as the start of a political war. “I believe that with Robert Fico we’ll handle the situation, but there will be some changes here.”

Hopefully, Slovakia does not boil over. But if European intelligence services are correct, the Fico shooting offers a disturbing harbinger of more destabilizing acts of violence across the continent.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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