Alex Carpenter made contributions to this article.
During his visit to the U.S. last week, Slovak Defense Minister Martin Glváč announced plans to create an education and training center for NATO’s counterintelligence activities. Dubbed the Centre for Excellence for Counterintelligence, it’s the first of its kind, signalling a shift to long-term, strategic thinking on NATO’s part against Russian influence and operations in pro-West, European countries. Many NATO countries have noticed an increased level of Russian intelligence activity throughout Europe in the past year.
“[R]egarding the changed security situation [with Russia], we and our Polish partner opened the discussion on this topic in NATO and we succeeded to push it through,” Glváč said in Norfolk, Virginia. According to Radio Poland, officials last Wednesday agreed to go ahead with building the Poland-based training center.
Ten nations are slated to join the effort this year, including Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Croatia, and Slovenia. In 2016, Great Britain, the U.S. and France are expected to get involved. Although widespread cooperation may be the intent, it’s nearly impossible that all 28 member nations of NATO will come together in support of the project.
What’s more likely is that the Centre for Excellence for Counterintelligence is being spearheaded by a few concerned nations – namely Poland and Slovakia – who feel less capable of suppressing Russian intelligence activities and influence within its borders. Earlier this year, senior defense officials in Poland made their concerns very known, accusing Russia of having aspirations to punish Poland for their alleged support of Ukrainian Maidan fighters.
The agreement also shows that many NATO countries are ill-prepared to deal with increased Russian interest throughout the region, as well as an expectation that Russian operations will be a persistent threat. It’s unknown just how much information sharing will happen, as counterintelligence information is generally too classified to share, even among NATO partners.
In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying, “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
If that’s any indication of how Putin views the former Soviet republics and her bloc nations, then his desire to re-incorporate them into Russia is also very telling. And that’s probably the most troubling part for NATO countries with minority, pro-Russian demographics.
Consider, for instance, that about 25% of Estonia’s population is ethnically Russian. Estonia has been a NATO partner nation since 2004, and its nation’s leaders are quite right to be concerned with Russia’s westward expansion into Ukraine. One of the tenets of Russia’s new hybrid warfare strategy is to use Russian populations in neighboring countries to provide cover for Russian operations. Other NATO nations with significant Russian populations include Latvia and Lithuania, both of which were Warsaw Pact nations.
Estonia and Latvia, like Ukraine, both border Russia, making the ethnically-Russian regions of these countries potential targets for annexation, as was seen with Crimea. Luhansk and Donetsk, both oblasts (regions) of Ukraine, are contested territory after pro-Russian insurgents, aided by Russian forces, took control of the local governments and declared their independence from Ukraine.
Neutralizing further Russian threats in the region, which is heavily dependent upon intelligence, is the center’s most likely strategic goal. “The idea of creating such an institution is well-founded, well-timed and far-sighted,” Glváč said. “We are ready to take responsibility for creating adequate conditions for educational and training activities.”