Analysis & Opinions - Washington Quarterly

Europe’s Authoritarian Challenge

| Dec. 20, 2019

Europe is at the center of two defining trends in international politics today: renewed great power competition and the resurgence of global authoritarianism. Migration, the rise of extreme nationalism, Brexit, and fractured ties with the United States all increasingly make European countries more vulnerable to Russian and Chinese authoritarian influence—a spectrum of overt and covert activities that range from benign state tools such as public diplomacy to more malevolent efforts including direct interference in electoral processes—that presents a growing set of challenges to European cohesion and stability.

Russia sees European democracy, prosperity, and particularly the European security order as inherently aimed at weakening Russia. Putin has, therefore, taken steps to expedite its decline. China, on the other hand, prefers a stable Europe that can serve as a trading partner, albeit a fractured one willing to operate on Chinese terms. Despite differing capabilities and tolerance for risk, Russia and China share underlying objectives in Europe: undermine democratic norms, weaken European institutions and cohesion, and capitalize on fissures in the transatlantic relationship. Their strategies are carried out at the expense of free and open societies, but Europe has been slow to forge a coherent counter-strategy.

A key reason for this latency is that the distinct vectors of Russian and Chinese influence are difficult to piece together into a coherent threat assessment, not least because Moscow and Beijing frequently rely on deniable tools and tactics that are not overtly linked to promoting an authoritarian ideology. However, these separate channels of influence add up to a comprehensive effort to weaken democracy’s appeal and ability to function effectively in Europe.

Russian and Chinese authoritarian tactics explored in this article include four channels of activity:

  • malign finance and economic coercion;
  • political subversion;
  • information operations; and
  • cyberattacks.

Through these tools, both Russia and China endeavor to shape the information environment, discredit critics, cultivate influence through proxies, and make coercive investments. Their efforts tend to be “clandestine, deniable, and invasive;” opportunistic; exploitative of loopholes and other weaknesses; and pursued as a matter of course. Growing synergies between Russia and China and their activities in Europe are also having a compounding effect on the continent’s democratic processes, even if those activities aren’t fully coordinated.

Moving forward, it will be incumbent on European policymakers to avoid looking at any one vector in isolation and to close vulnerabilities across their political systems, economies, and societies. But first, both policymakers and the public must see the forest through the trees and acknowledge the effects that Russian and Chinese influence is having on European democratic institutions and norms.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Taussig, Torrey and Jessica Brandt.“Europe’s Authoritarian Challenge.” Washington Quarterly, December 20, 2019.

The Authors