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This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 7 February 2023.
Russia is likely to continue hostile operations in Europe this year. The aim of these appears to be to pressure Europe into scaling down its support for Ukraine. There have already been several incidents over the past year that the Western authorities suspect have links to Russia, including letter bombs in Spain and gas pipeline explosions in the North Sea. Future actions will probably include physical and cyber sabotage, mail campaigns, bomb hoaxes, and social influence operations.
Several clients have asked in recent weeks which countries are most likely to be targeted in future operations. Czechia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the UK are at the highest risk, in our assessment. This is based on key indicators that raise a country’s profile as a possible target. These include the extent of aid provision to Ukraine, if any, and evidence of operations by Russian foreign military intelligence (GRU) agents.
Russia is highly likely to try to avoid a direct conflict with NATO. We also assess that it will try to avoid triggering formal Article 4 discussions on a possible collective defence response. This is particularly while its military progress in Ukraine remains hampered and costly. NATO has said that high-impact incidents targeting a member state’s critical infrastructure would lead to a ‘united and determined response’. But the Nord Stream explosions did not trigger Article 4 or 5, which suggests there are many actions – including low-impact attacks – that Moscow can take while avoiding NATO retaliation.
The timing of Russia’s hostile actions in Europe seems to be retaliatory and reactive. Over the past year, incidents that the Western authorities have attributed to Russia came after sanctions on Russia or aid packages to Ukraine. These operations seem intended as retaliation against Europe’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and to weaken Europe’s resolve on material and political support. Such actions are also in line with Russia’s long-term strategy in Europe of attempting to undermine regional unity. Similar European actions, particularly those that are highly publicised, are likely to raise the risk of disruptive action.
In light of this action-reaction dynamic, Czechia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the UK are at the highest risk. These countries scored highest in our model examining five indicators that, in our assessment, raise a country’s profile as a target for possible Russian actions of this type. These indicators are, in no particular order:
There is a range of hostile actions Russia is likely to take in 2023. These provide it with deniability to avoid major retaliation. These would probably target strategic locations such as embassies, government offices, military installations, critical infrastructure, airports, or strategic manufacturers. This is based on Russia’s objectives and operations last year. Actions include, but are not limited to:
Countries in which Russia already has some established capability to mount these actions score higher in our risk model. Examples include any Russia-linked history of:
Agents already positioned close geographically, and in some cases, strategically to a sector, individual or location they plan to target provides them with a better opportunity to do so.
Image: Czech president-elect Petr Pavel (R) said on February 2 there should be ‘no limits’ on military aid to war-ravaged Ukraine, urging allies to show more courage. Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images