Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, arrives during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4, 2022.

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, arrives during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4, 2022. Carl Court/Getty Images

Russian hybrid operations on the rise in Estonia, Moldova

Similar Russian attempts to exploit ethnic divisions in democratic nations have preceded more aggressive action.

Russia recruited about 10 people to attack the cars of an interior minister and a journalist in Estonia last year, Estonian officials said Tuesday—a bizarre incident that shows the changing texture of Moscow’s efforts to undermine neighboring democracies.

Russian agents used social media to find Estonian citizens or Russian citizens living in Estonia willing to attack government officials’ property for pay.

“The fee was not significant, and certainly not worth the risk. It was a matter of specifically targeted orders to attack a specific object," Internal Security Service Director General Margo Palloson said in a statement. "It is a broader trend today that both Russian and Chinese special services are approaching people through social media. It was also agreed there what the charges are for attacking different sites.”

A bit of car vandalism in Tallinn sounds insignificant compared to Russia’s relentless assault on Ukranian targets just a few miles away—except that a healthy percentage of the Estonian population, like that of Ukraine, identifies as Russian. In that context, the attacks fall within a broader pattern of Russian exploitation of ethnic divisions to destabilize public support for democratic governance. 

“We know the Kremlin is targeting all of our democratic societies. Our answer: be open and reveal their methods. This is the way to deter harmful actions and make us resilient,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas posted  Tuesday on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

The alleged attacks are an example of hybrid warfare, which NATO defines as “an interplay or fusion of conventional as well as unconventional instruments of power and tools of subversion…blended in a synchronized manner to exploit vulnerabilities of an antagonist.”

Russian hybrid operations aren’t new. They helped set the stage for Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia by pitting ethnic Russian Georgians against their countrymen and against the state. 

In 2014 in Ukraine, pro-Russian “protesters” guided by Russian intelligence and military actors seized Ukraine's security service's office in the eastern city of Luhansk, creating a situation in which the Ukrainian military appeared to crack down harshly on pro-Russian Ukrainians. 

NATO has since become more aware of these tactics, but they persist. Before Russia began bombing shelters in Mariupol, it tried to convince the world that Ukrainians and Ukrainian authorities were cracking down violently on Russian-speaking activists and protestors in Eastern Ukraine. 

“The objective was to promote general insecurity, further the idea that Ukraine was repressing local ethnic Russians,” one State Department official told Defense One at the time. Russia’s goal was to “highlight supposed humanitarian issues in Ukraine that Russian ‘intervention’ could solve.”

Estonia is not alone as a recent target of Russian hybrid operations. The Institute for Study of War last week said Russian government officials are also targeting Moldova, seeking to sow the narrative that the government is withholding funds from regions that are hesitant to integrate into the European Union. 

“Kremlin officials and mouthpieces have been attempting to set information conditions to justify possible Russian efforts to destabilize Moldova and prevent its integration into the West,” ISS noted. “The timing of a possible Russian hybrid operation in Moldova is unclear, but the Kremlin is setting informational conditions to make it possible soon.”