The Visegrad countries and Russia: how to respond to new challenges?

20.01.2015 | By Mariusz Antonowicz

ABSTRACT: This paper argues that since 2000 Russia’s policy towards the Visegrad countries was guided by its desire to maximize Russia’s influence in Europe. Thus, Russia did not recognise the existence of the Visegrad group and pursued a “divide and rule” policy: it interacted politically with each country on a bilateral basis, offered profitable energy contracts for separate countries and increased each country’s dependence on Russia using energy exports. However, after 2011 Russia’s policy towards the Visegrad countries gained a new threatening ideological element. This paper claims that Russia with its foreign policy actions, public diplomacy and media propaganda advocates for the primacy of ethnicity over citizenship, argues that the current international order is unjust and too Western-biased, fosters anti-Westernism and promotes a conservative cultural and political agenda. All this is based on Russia’s desire to create a new security order for Europe. This paper then reviews how the Visegrad countries responded to this new Russian policy. It admits that this poses great challenges for the Visegrad countries, especially given conservative views held by some segments of Visegrad countries societies, the rise of far-right nationalism and disappointment among the Visegrad countries’ population with their countries socio-economic development. The paper ends by giving recommendations how to tackle Russia’s new foreign policy towards Visegrad countries. It argues for deepening political cooperation among the Visegrad countries on Russia, promotion of the “1989 discourse”, enhancement of counter-intelligence, establishment of information security centres that could disprove Russian propaganda, economic reorientation from Russia and the implementation of economic reforms that could revive the Visegrad countries’ economies and reignite their societies’ belief in their countries’ direction and future.


After demolishing communism in 1989 Poland, Hungary and then Czechoslovakia started their journey towards returning to Europe. Those countries declared their willingness to establish democratic political systems and market economies. They also pursued the aim of becoming members of the European Union (EU) and NATO, and thus establish themselves as full-scale members of the Euro-Atlantic security system. In order to fulfil these goals in 1993 Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia formed the Visegrad group. After the partition of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic remained its members and the group consisted of four countries. The Visegrad group’s main goal was to promote interstate cooperation to speed up Euro-Atlantic integration. By 2004 that goal had been achieved. In 1999 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became NATO members and in 2004 these countries along with Slovakia, which at that time also entered NATO, joined the EU.

Since then the group has lost its significance and lacked a unifying goal to keep the group together. During discussions on Visegrad’s future right after its members’ accession into the EU, cooperation on Russia and EU’s eastern neighbourhood policy were named as potential new goals for the group. Judging from the group’s states geopolitical position this seemed as a logical step. However, during the last 10 years Visegrad’s group cooperation on these issues has never reached the level envisaged by its founding policymakers. The group never spoke with a single voice on matters concerning Russia and the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, rarely managed to create a united coherent policy concerning these issues, did not produce any major regional diplomatic initiatives and there has not a been a single meeting between the Visegrad group and Russia’s high level politicians. As a result, Russia had more room for manoeuvre in establishing its influence in Europe.

The main culprits of this situation are the Visegrad states themselves. However, Russia has played its role as well. In short, its key to success was “divide and rule” policies used against Europe, including the Visegrad countries. But there are increasing signs, showing that Russia’s foreign policy has gained a new ideological element. The key point is the year 2011, when after the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s decision to run for a third presidential term, a mass protest movement against Putin sprung up in Russia. In response to that Russia directed its domestic political system towards Russian conservatism. This shift also became evident in foreign policy and Russia along with its desire to maximise power created a new ideological message. Namely, it declares the primacy of ethnicity over citizenship, argues that the current international order is unjust and too Western-biased, fosters anti-Westernism and promotes a conservative cultural and political agenda.

If Visegrad countries accepted these ideas, they would become participants of Russia-instigated demolition of the Euro-Atlantic security system and succumb to Russia’s power. Hence, the Visegrad countries face a challenge of resisting Russia’s new ideological message and it is the purpose of this paper to explain this challenge and give recommendations on how to cope with it. It is done first by explaining Russia’s policy towards the Visegrad countries before 2011. Then, the paper shall outline the new ideological elements in Russia’s foreign policy. After that, it will describe how the Visegrad group managed to respond to this ideological message. Further, the paper will identify certain challenges that the Visegrad countries face in responding to Russia’s new foreign policy. Finally, recommendations will be given, outlining the best ways for the Visegrad group to counteract Russia’s ideological temptations.

Russia’s policy towards the Visegrad countries before 2011

Russia has never had a separate policy directed specifically towards the Visegrad countries, as it simply does not admit that such a group exists. It rather has a general set of goals that apply to all European countries and pursues additional specific goals in each country separately. Russia aims to create a multipolar world order, where many great powers share the responsibility for international security. Russia perceives itself to be one of such rising great powers. In Russia’s view, the main obstacle to achieving this goal is the dominance of the USA in world politics and the unipolar world order associated with it. Thus, Russia tries to undermine this order and gain as much influence as possible to reach the status of a great power.

In Europe such an agenda means that Russia disapproves of the Euro-Atlantic security order and tries to propose alternative models instead. The clearest example was Dmitri Medvedev’s, then Russia’s president, offer in 2008 to sign a new European security deal, that would abolish NATO and de facto give Russia a veto right over security issues in Europe.

In practice this policy translates into several practical principles. First, Russia opposes USA’s influence as much as possible. Second, it objects NATO expansion, as it perceives it to be dominated by the USA. Third, it refuses to talk with NATO or the EU as a single bloc, as it would create a disadvantageous for Russia power disproportion. Instead, Moscow prefers to pursue relations with each European country separately. Fourth, the Kremlin wants to make Europe economically dependent on Russia. Energy is the most important tool, but it is not the only one. Russia also tries to create business and experts groups, who trade or get funding from Russia, and consequently form a strong pro-Russia domestic lobby group in European countries.

These principles are also applied towards the Visegrad countries. Although Russia, with great reluctance, accepted the Visegrad group’s entry into NATO, it still tries to undermine its significance. This is done by Russia’s diplomatic and public pressure against increasing the presence of NATO in Visegrad countries, opposition towards the installation of the anti-missile defence shield facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, and media campaigns claiming that the Visegrad states, particularly Poland, are USA’s puppets. Moreover, Russia refuses to pursue relations with the Visegrad group as such, and instead talks with each Visegrad state bilaterally. This is accompanied by lucrative energy deals that not only increase Visegrad countries’ dependence on Russia, but also undermine their neighbours’ energy security. A good example is the offer made by Gazprom to Hungary’s MOL to join the South Stream gas pipeline and become its regional gas transit hub. This would be a big blow to EU efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian gas by building its own south-east gas corridor. Finally, Russia is actively working with business, political and expert groups to establish pro-Russia lobbies and gain influence in Visegrad countries. The best example of that is the Czech Republic, where Russia achieved noteworthy results. Its social democratic party is pro-Russian. Czech counterintelligence officers claimed that Russia managed to instigate a media campaign against the construction of US anti-missile ballistic defence sites (Feifer 2010) and accused Czech politicians of ignoring security risks from Russia (The Economist 2014a).

As a result of such “divide and rule” policies, Russia managed to preclude common action by the Visegrad group not only towards itself, but also preclude initiatives at the EU and NATO levels towards the Eastern Neighbourhood. The reason for that was that certain states started to fear that their active involvement against Russia in its neighbourhood or a direct challenge to Moscow could lead to economic losses or energy cut-offs. This Russian policy managed to de-activate the Visegrad group, i.e. it did not pursue its foreign policy goals and the Euro-Atlantic agenda as much as it could. However, Russia’s new foreign policy towards Europe and its ideological dimension could make Visegrad states active promoters of a Russia-led remaking of the European security order.

The new ideological element in Russia’s policy towards the Visegrad countries

Throughout the 2000s Putin was a pragmatist. He did not have any particular ideology. In Russia Putin’s regime promoted a mix of ideologies and ideas – from liberalism, Orthodox Christianity to nationalism, soviet nostalgia and symbols of the Russian empire – to suit as many segments of society as possible. In foreign policy this had an effect on the nature of Russia’s soft power in the post-Soviet space, but it had little influence in other areas, where Russia acted pragmatically to gain power.

However, the 2011-2012 protest movement that erupted after Putin’s announcement of his bid to run for a third term as Russia’s president changed that. Putin faced the biggest challenge to his rule and in response reshaped his regime. Following his own convictions he refashioned it on a basis of Russian conservatism and Orthodox Christianity to increase the legitimacy of his regime (Laruelle 2013, p.4), appeal to the largest segment of Russia’s society and marginalise the liberal middle-class. This change had its effect on Russia’s foreign policy as well. It received an ideology which can be described as Russian exceptionalism. Though, it should be noted that the 2011 threshold is partially arbitrary. Elements of this ideology could have already been spotted before, but it is exactly then, that it became apparent and turned into the central element of Russia’s foreign policy. This ideology has a few main features and all of them are relevant for the Visegrad group.

1. The primacy of ethnicity over citizenship. For several years Russia has been promoting the concept of the Russian World (Russian – ruskii mir). It states that all ethnic Russians living around the world belong to one community centred around Russia, which is the guarantor of their rights and is ready to use force to defend them. Implicitly, this means that Russians living abroad are loyal to Russia due to their ethnicity rather than to the country whose citizenship they hold. Russia uses this to challenge the principle established in Europe after WWII, that civic nationalism, not ethnic nationalism, is the basis of European political identities.

There is evidence that Russia would like to extend this new principle beyond Russia. In March 2014 Vladimir Zhirinovsky sent a public message to Poland, Hungary and Romania to divide Ukraine together with Russia on the basis of historical borders and ethnicity (Goble 2014). One should not dismiss these statements as another flamboyant remark by the notorious Duma deputy. Zhirinovsky and his liberal democratic party are under full control of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) (Lucas 2012, p. 81) and Zhirinovsky usually says things that Putin is unwilling to state publicly.

2. Promotion of anti-Westernism, particularly anti-Americanism. Russia argues that the current international security order is too Western-biased. As a result, the West has gained too much influence which it mishandles and abuses in traditionally non-Western geographical areas. Thus, the West is to blame for the majority of the international crises. According to Russia’s state media and experts, the Arab Spring, the Russo-Georgian war, the Yugoslavian war in the 1990’s, the Kosovo crisis in 1999, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2014 were all the result of aggressive Western democracy promotion efforts that are alien to these countries. Other explanations promoted by the Kremlin say that these events were instigated by Western intelligence agencies in order to serve political interests of the West (containing Russia is often named as one of them), and commercial interests of global corporations. The USA is of particular blame. Russia’s state media and propagandists often argue that the USA is controlling all Euro-Atlantic security structures and enforces its will on European states. Implicitly this means, that without the USA, Europe’s relations with Russia would be perfect and there would be far fewer international crises. Hence, Russia promotes the idea of creating a new security order in which the USA would play a very marginal role. This would in effect ensure Russia’s veto over security issues in Europe. In addition, this message is accompanied by harsh critique of Western political institutions and the free-market. It is claimed that they are corrupt, non-universal i.e. alien to Russia and the post-Soviet space, privilege the rich, immoral and bring chaos. With this message Russia aims to counteract international criticism of its domestic regime and encourage other European political leaders to turn away from liberal democracy and by doing so give more international legitimacy to its political order. It is exactly for this reason, that Russia increased its support and cooperation with European far-right parties, the majority of which share this anti-Western message (Бадретдинов 2014). Russia expects that with their help it would be able to spread its message further around Europe and discredit Western political institutions.

3. A conservative cultural agenda. In connection to the critique of Western political institutions, Russia criticises current Western values. Russia argues that the West has gone away from its roots: it betrayed traditional family and Christian values, promotes gender ideology, enforces political correctness and neglects nationality. In response to that Russia presents itself as the defender of traditional Christian, meaning true European, values. It actively promotes homophobia, nationalism, traditionalism and xenophobia (especially against Muslims). This message has receptive audiences in the West, especially in conservative circles, who take Putin’s message for granted and naively forget his repressions in Russia. One of the best examples of such thinking is a leading US conservative thinker Patrick J. Buchanan. (2013). Along with that comes an increasing role played by the Orthodox Church in Russia, which actively supports this agenda and may be used through its branches abroad to co-opt other religious groups to rally support for Kremlin’s policies.

The main aim of these messages is to discredit Western political institutions and cultural values and let Russia become the main player in European politics. The danger for the Visegrad group is not simply accommodating Russia’s economic and energy interests, but participating in the demolishment of the European post-Cold War international order. Thus, it is important to review how the Visegrad countries have responded to Russia’s new ideological message.

Visegrad countries’ response to Russia’s new policy

So far, it can be said that only Poland stands firm against Russia’s ideological attack. The reason for that is Poland’s political elite’s and experts’ understanding what lies behind Russia’s ideological message, strong expertise on Russia and a historically rooted distrust of Moscow.

However, the situation in other Visegrad countries is worse. Numerous examples show that the political elites of these countries accept the Kremlin’s worldview on international politics and are eager to support it. For instance, the Czech president Miloš Zeman argued for the acceptance of the occupation of Crimea and the abandonment of EU sanctions against Russia. The latter was also promoted by the Czech prime-minister Bohuslav Sobotka.(Kołtuniak 2014). He also rejected the idea of stationing NATO troops in the country in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine (The Economist 2014). Media outlets, close to former Czech president Vaclav Klaus floated the idea of partitioning Ukraine (Goble 2014). Klaus himself defended the idea of the annexation of Crimea (The Economist 2014). Slovakia’s prime-minister Robert Fico sees the crisis in Ukraine as a US-Russia battle and argues for the West not to intervene. Moreover, he compared NATO allies to the Soviet occupation forces in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Lucas 2014a). He also opposes additional military spending and the permanent stationing of NATO troops in Slovakia (Gniazdowski et al 2014). Hungary’s prime-minister Viktor Orbán also floated the idea of partitioning Ukraine when talking about Hungarians living in Ukraine (Goble 2014), praised Russia’s domestic political model and opposed EU sanctions against Russia.

The main reasons behind such actions are the Visegrad states’ economic dependence on Russia, corruption and ideological motives of their political elites. Even if these statements do not reflect the whole spectrum of views in the Visegrad group and Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary did take several actions in support of Ukraine, there are some factors present in Visegrad countries’ societies that could make them more receptive to Russia’s ideological message, and consequently make their political leaders accommodate Russia even more and further aggravate the stability of the European security order.

Challenges for Visegrad countries

In Visegrad countries, as in all democracies around the world, politicians respond to voters’ demands and represent views held by them. However, sometimes these views are detrimental to state interests and dangerous for the survival of the state. There is a similar situation in the Visegrad group at the moment where certain developments in these societies contribute to the promotion of Russia’s ideological message. Three of them are particularly visible.

1) Conservative views held by some segments of the population. This trend is related to two factors. The first is religion. Over 90% of Poles, 45% of Hungarians and 70% of Slovaks declare themselves to be Christian. A notable exception is the Czechs: only 10% of them declare to be Christian.1 Thus, a large segment of the population has conservative views regarding family, social issues and individualism. The second factor is the soviet occupation. During it the Visegrad states were cut off from social and political developments in the West, especially those associated with student movements in 1968. Consequently, Visegrad states’ societies are less tolerant towards sexual minorities, immigrants and the language of political correctness. The problem is not that these people are conservative. The problem lies in the fact that these people are dissatisfied with the current social and ideological evolution of the EU, which they criticise. Russia expresses the same criticism and this poses the threat of the conservative segment of the Visegrad states’ population falling prey to Russian propaganda. It portrays Russia as the speaker of this “silent conservative majority” (Laruelle 2013). The key for religious leaders and conservative political thinkers is to emphasise that European values are defined first and foremost by political and civic liberties, which Russia lacks. It is exactly for this reason why Russia cannot be an ally in the quest to reform Europe.

2) Disappointment among the Visegrad states’ populations with their countries socio-economic development. In 1989 Visegrad countries’ societies had great expectations regarding their future prosperity. However, not all of them materialised. Compared to Western Europe, the Visegrad group still lags behind in terms of its living standards and civil rights. This lagging behind and people’s overrated expectations are turning into frustration and disappointment about the Visegrad countries’ socioeconomic development. Over 60% of Poles believe that the situation in their country is moving in the wrong direction (PAP 2014). Similar attitudes are seen in Hungary (Sadecki 2014). This disappointment is also demonstrated by huge emigration outflows from the Visegrad countries, which cannot be explained by lower living standards alone (Lucas 2014b). Such disappointment often transforms into disillusionment with democracy and free market institutions. This eases the democratic regress, that has already taken place, for instance, in Hungary and Slovakia in the wake of the 2008-2009 Euro crisis (Basora 2013). Such disaffected people are easy prey for Russia’s propaganda, that disapproves democracy and the free market, and they could see putinism as an alternative to the Visegrad countries’ current socio-political model.

3) The rise of far-right nationalism. The above mentioned factors significantly contribute to the rise of far-right nationalism in the Visegrad group. There are several examples, that prove this point. The Hungarian far-right “Jobbik” party has a strong presence in the Hungarian parliament. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have recently witnessed the spread of violence against Roma communities and anti-Roma rhetoric, which was instigated by far-right groups. In Slovakia a far-right party last year won its first regional election (Rousek 2013). In Poland far-right groups are increasing their presence and spreading their discourse as well. The best proof of that is the Independence March organised each year on Poland’s Independence Day by nationalist groups. Moreover, mainstream parties often employ nationalist rhetoric to attract the nationalistically minded voters’ support. This is the case with Poland’s “Law and Justice” and Hungary’s “Fidesz” parties. Furthermore, far-right nationalists exploit the theme of compatriots living abroad and of historical territorial grievances towards their neighbours. Poland’s far right groups constantly exploit the theme of “Kresy” (Eastern Borderlands). They question the legitimacy of Poland’s eastern border with Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine and accuse the government of abandoning the Polish minorities in these countries. A similar discourse is employed by Hungarian far-right groups, when they talk about “Greater Hungary” and express territorial pretensions towards Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine. These claims are completely in accordance with Russia’s promoted principle of ethnicity over nationality and Visegrad states’ far-right groups see Russia as their ally. Russia clearly knows this and tries to play with such feelings to its advantage. One example of such policy is Putin’s supposed offer for Poland’s former prime-minister Donald Tusk to divide Ukraine and let Poland take Lviv (Newsweek.pl 2014). Moreover, these groups support Russia’s non-tolerant approach towards ethnic and sexual minorities inside the country. Thus, far-right groups have become the promoters of Russia’s political agenda.


Despite the aforementioned trends and Russia’s foreign policy and ideological challenges, the Visegrad countries can take several measures to counter Moscow’s agenda. The key to success is to admit that today, especially after the Russo-Ukrainian war, Russia has become the key threat to European security. This idea should underpin Visegrad group’s thinking and actions, several of which can be named.

1) Deepening of political cooperation among the Visegrad countries on Russia. One of the main reasons why Russia managed to increase its influence in Central-Eastern Europe is the lack of foreign policy cooperation between Visegrad countries to resist Russia’s expansion. This cannot last if these countries want to guarantee their security against Russia. Cooperation should be renewed on two levels. The first is the regional one. Visegrad countries should strengthen military cooperation to prepare for the event of a military confrontation or a regional crisis caused by Russia. The creation of a joint Visegrad battle group is a step in the right direction. Moreover, Visegrad countries should upgrade cooperation in energy security by building gas, electricity and oil pipelines links between each other. The second level is cooperation on Russia on the EU and NATO level. The Visegrad countries should aim to present a joint position at EU and NATO summits regarding questions concerning Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood and consistently defend it. This cooperation on the political level should be accompanied by increased communication among experts, academics, student exchanges and regional civil society partnerships.

2) Promotion of the “1989 discourse”. The year 1989 not only marked the end of communist rule in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It also meant that these countries chose to become Western democracies and by doing so return to their European roots. This idea underpinned the anti-communist revolutions of 1989 and was expressed by their leaders, who called for the respect of civil and human rights, free elections, freedom of speech and conscience and tolerance. These ideas and values form the basis of the democratic states of the Visegrad group. However, as time moved, many people forgot this experience or it was overshadowed by economic and social issues. Many young people, who were born after 1989, do not have this experience at all. Thus, it is important for the Visegrad states to promote the “1989 discourse”, that would remind society of that experience and its values. This could be done by marking anniversaries of the revolutions, sponsoring research, publications, TV and radio shows, public debates and discussions. These should be accompanied by strong campaigns against nationalism. The key thing to remember is that despite economic hardship the Visegrad states are free countries and that is what strongly differentiates them from Russia.

3) Enhancement of counter-intelligence. Russia would not be able to spread its ideological message, create lobby groups and establish close links with the European far-right parties without its agents working in Visegrad countries. Hence, it is important to increase counter-intelligence to expose those agents and neutralise their destructive actions. Publicity should be an integral part of this effort. Intelligence agencies should not be afraid to name Russian agents and their working methods. Also, intelligence agencies should publicly identify politicians on Russia’s payroll and expose far-right parties’ links to Russia. This would discredit many pro-Russian politicians and diminish their influence.

4) Establishment of information security centres. The Kremlin propaganda is broadcast not only by Russian media. It is very often transmitted by Western media that reprint stories from Russian media, using its definitions and concepts or giving voice to experts with a dubious reputation. This happens for several reasons: Russian money, inability to distinguish objectively between a balanced story and sheer incompetence. However, the Visegrad countries should not tackle this problem by enforcing media restrictions. The best way to handle this issue is to establish information security centres, that would monitor the country’s media, identify and name instances when Russian propaganda gets into the country’s media. This should help readers to be more resilient towards Russia’s propaganda.

5) Economic reorientation from Russia. For the last 10 years many in the West hoped that expanding trade and financial ties with Russia would serve a constraint on its international behaviour. However, this proved to be wrong: there are more cases when Western countries adapt their behaviour to please Russia in order to maintain economic deals. There are two reasons for that. First, Russia avoided international obligations and tried to turn its economic relations of interdependence into dependence on Russia. Second, since Russia is not a democracy it can easily use economic policy for political means without fear of discontent from the wider population that suffers its consequences. A similar situation developed in Visegrad countries and they need to reorient their economies from Russia more towards the EU, the USA and new emerging markets. This does not mean simply diminishing Russia’s share in trade and investment statistics. Rather, it means eliminating Russia’s tools of economic leverage, diversifying economic links and pursuing economic cooperation with Russia on EU rules.

6) Implementation of economic reforms. One of the main reasons of the Visegrad group societies’ disappointment with their countries socio-economic development, democracy and the free market was their poor economic performance. Therefore, Visegrad states have to implement economic reforms that would ensure growth, balance their economies and solve their financial problems. This is important to reignite Visegrad societies’ belief in their country’s direction and future.

7) Last, but not least, while performing these actions it is worth emphasizing, they are directed strictly against the Russian government and its political regime, but not against the Russian people per se. The Visegrad countries must make sure, that their political confrontation with Moscow does not turn into an anti-Russia hysteria. This is important so as not to antagonize the opposition-minded Russians, not to hinder the integration of economic and political Russian migrants in Europe and preserve ties that would later become the foundation of cooperation between Russia and Europe. The main goal of the Visegrad group is not to humiliate Russia, but make it act according to European rules, so that it would finally become a benign force in European security.

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picture: Julie R

About Author

Mariusz Antonowicz

He completed his BSc studies at the University of Warwick and holds an MA in international relations from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University. He has been involved in Polish-Lithuanian academic and civic activity. Professional experience at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (Vilnius) and Centre for Eastern Studies (Warsaw). Research interests are Russia’s foreign policy and domestic politics, Belarus’s foreign policy and domestic politics, Poland’s foreign policy.