By now we are all familiar with the Russian disinformation campaigns, designed to undermine democracy and sow distrust, which are present in many Western countries. The many uses of Russian corruption — the companies deployed for the political ends of the state, the banks and oligarchs who sponsor foreign politicians — are well known, too. But they aren’t the whole story. For an underfunded ex-superpower trying to regain influence on the cheap, money and trolls only go so far.
Equally cheap, and in some places equally plentiful, is the supply of young men fascinated by guns, camouflage, judo and paramilitary games played in forests. In the United States and Britain, paintball and airsoft games — involving realistic “weapons” that fire harmless plastic pellets or paint — are played at children’s birthday parties or advertised as team-building activities for business groups. But these groups sometimes attract a more specific, more military-minded clientele. On Europe’s eastern edge, they have also attracted some interest from Russia.
Russia has shown a more than neighborly interest, for example, in Russian-speaking airsoft players, as well as members of martial arts and shooting clubs, in Latvia and Estonia, two countries with large Russian-speaking minorities. Russian trainers with military connections — even special forces connections — have joined some clubs in those countries as trainers, teaching what one observer described as “small unit tactics.” “Fight clubs” which teach “systema,” a form of “practical” Russian martial arts — self-defense but also “choking” techniques and other forms of hand-to-hand combat — openly advertise in Tallinn, Estonia. Latvian authorities were so spooked by the possible intelligence links of Russians who had arrived in the country to judge an airsoft competition that in December, they deported them — and described the planned event as “military tactical trainings .”
The phenomenon is not limited to the Baltic states. In October 2016, a 76-year-old Hungarian neo-Nazi allegedly shot and killed a Hungarian police officer. In the aftermath, it emerged that his small paramilitary group also had Russian links. His group had trained with Russian diplomats and possibly Russian military intelligence, as well. There are more than 60 systema clubs in Germany; many of them openly use the insignia of Russian military or domestic intelligence. A German branch of the Night Wolves, a Russian patriotic biker group, has opened.
Of course, these are tiny groups in otherwise peaceful countries. Far more serious were the reports last week of Russian-trained mercenaries who have allegedly established a paramilitary unit in Bosnia, in order to back a Serb separatist leader. The news originally appeared in a local paper, but it was confirmed by the Bosnian government. One Bosnian former energy minister interpreted the incident in stark geopolitical terms. He bluntly told the Guardian that “this is part of a larger change in the international order”: The Russians “have decided to use their leverage in the Balkans” to restart the Bosnian conflict.
Does it matter? It might be possible to dismiss these cases as isolated and unimportant if it weren’t for the fact that Russia does have a history of using paramilitary groups, along with disinformation, corruption and other tactics, to destabilize its neighbors. The occupation of Crimea was carried out with “little green men” — Russian soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms. But the local men who suddenly became “separatists” in eastern Ukraine emerged out of a murkier, paramilitary milieu. And there are older examples: The sudden appearance of armed local thugs who previously trained in the Soviet Union was part of what made possible the Sovietization of Central Europe as long ago as 1945.
It also matters because the tactics that Russians test and refine in Ukraine or Moldova are often then tried farther West. I note for the record — this aspect of the story hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves — that one of the channels the Russian government apparently used to attempt to contact the Trump campaign involved ties to the National Rifle Association. In December, the New York Times reported that an NRA activist named Paul Erickson wrote to a Trump campaign adviser in May 2016, explained he had been “cultivating a back-channel to President [Vladimir] Putin’s Kremlin” and offered to broker a meeting with a Russian official at the NRA’s national convention in Louisville. According to the Times, Erickson has made a couple of trips to Russia, has links to a Russian gun-rights group and has incorporated a company with a Russian partner — the kind of behavior that, in Latvia, would immediately raise questions. Ominously, according to a McClatchy report Thursday, the FBI is already investigating whether Russian operatives might have surreptitiously funded the Trump campaign, using the NRA.
If this were 2015, we might laugh it off. But in 2016, the Kremlin ran an audacious, Ukrainian-style disinformation campaign in the United States and paid almost no price for it. In 2018 — or 2028 — maybe the Kremlin will start experimenting with Ukrainian-style tactics of a more violent kind.