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Belgium

Belgium

  • Though Belgium has historically maintained a pragmatic bilateral relationship with Russia, the Kremlin’s destabilization efforts in Ukraine have elicited a strongly critical response from Belgium
  • However, Russian disinformation or other hostile influence operations are not a security priority for Belgium
  • Brussels is the target of extensive Russian intelligence activities, which are a major concern of the Belgian security services

Relations with the Russian Federation


Trying to stay away from the issues. Historical, energy-related or economically special relations with Russia. Neither feels threatened and nor acknowledges the threat, outside the conflict in Ukraine.[1]

Belgium is an integral EU and NATO member state, hosting both EU and NATO institutional centres. Though historically a pragmatist in its relations with Russia, Belgium is growing increasingly aware of the threat that Russia poses to the European Union. The conflict in Ukraine has made Belgium more eager to support Kyiv in the EU context and back pan-European measures to counter Russian aggression. However, the country’s geographic distance from the Russian border, combined with internal political difficulties as well as the threat of Islamist terrorism, mean that Belgium does not perceive Russia as a primary security threat. Nonetheless, Belgium does not deny that Russia poses a serious security challenge to Europe, and maintains a particular concern with Russian intelligence activities within its borders. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 26% of Belgians had a positive view of Russia.

Political acknowledgement of the threat


Disinformation and other hostile influence operations stemming from Russia are not a political priority for Belgium, given its geographic distance from Russia and other pressing domestic security issues. Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, Belgium has noticeably cooled its attitude towards Russia; previously, Belgium maintained a friendly pragmatist stance towards Russia, based primarily on its interests in trade and energy relations. While Belgium is not pursuing any explicit national strategies to combat Russian disinformation and hostile influence, the country acknowledges the threat and supports a unified EU/NATO response to growing Russian aggression. In July 2017, the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Michel emphasized that the dialogue between the Russian Federation and the EU needs to be improved; however, the disinformation issue was not discussed in this context[2].

Government activities against Russian influence & disinformation


With respect to the relationship with Russia, Belgium chiefly advocates multilateral action through the EU/NATO and other European institutions, including the OSCE and Council of Europe. On EU-Russia policy, Belgium consults with the Baltic states, the Visegrad countries, Romania, and Bulgaria, despite strong divergences vis-à-vis historic experience with Russia as well as national interests and preferences.

In its policy focus, Belgium is less concerned with the potential domestic impact of disinformation than it is with the Kremlin’s destabilization efforts in Ukraine. The 2016 Strategic Vision for Defence acknowledges Russia’s hybrid warfare and destabilization efforts in Eastern Europe, and commits Belgium as a NATO member to security efforts in the region.[3] Foreign Minister Didier Reynders declared the Ukraine crisis to be a priority of the Belgian Presidency of the Council of Europe 2014-2015, and visited Ukraine with colleagues from the other Benelux countries, reaffirming Belgium’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In a 2015 speech on the priorities of Belgian diplomacy, Foreign Minister Reynders decisively called on Russia to “respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, but simultaneously stated that “Russia remains an important partner and we think it is important to keep the dialogue open”.[4]

The threat of Russian disinformation and hostile influence in Europe proper remains a secondary concern. However, the events of October 2016 demonstrate that if the information war directly affects Belgium and its international standing, Belgian political leaders are able to defend themselves. Russia claimed that the Belgian F-16 fighter jets took part in the bombing of the Syrian village of Hassadjek near Aleppo, a strike that killed several innocent civilians. Belgian Defence Minister Steven Vandeput rejected this claim and replied that "it is probably a Russian move to sow discord among the coalition members by spreading false information." Similarly, Belgian Foreign Minister, Didier Reynders, also said that "Russia is spreading false information." Even though, this was a clear example of Russian disinformation, it has not drawn the media’s attention; the Belgian diplomats, in order to maintain good relations with Russia, did not emphasize this and issued a statement saying that it is certainly a mistake the Russians will soon recognize and apologize for.[5].

The approach of intelligence agencies to Russian interference


Belgium hosts international institutions such as the EU and NATO, which Russia considers an important element of the bilateral relationship that separates Belgium from other small EU member states.[6] Given this unique position, Brussels is also the target of Russian intelligence activities. The Belgian state security service regularly reports on Russian “interest” in Euro-Atlantic defence policy, EU political decisions, EU economic policy, and the Russian-speaking community in Belgium.[7] Spy scandals are also not an infrequent occurrence.[8]

According to the 2011 Annual Report of the Belgian State Security Service (VSSE), clandestine activities of intelligence officers under diplomatic cover and journalistic cover remain at a high level. Investigations led to the identification of several Russian intelligence officers who, for many years, operated in Belgium and/or abroad using falsified Belgian or other non-Russian identities, sometimes dating back to the 1960s. Several Belgian nationals were recruited and manipulated by the Russian intelligence services. Political developments (electoral fraud, protests) in Russia and the region are closely monitored by the VSSE, as they may have consequences for the Russian and Russian-speaking diaspora in Belgium, the legitimacy of the future president, and bilateral relations.[9]

Activities of the non-governmental sector


Think tanks are the primary non-governmental actors in Belgium involved in research and counter-strategy vis-à-vis Russian disinformation and hostile influence operations. These include the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, Royal Higher Institute for Defense, and Ceci n’est pas une crise.

In the last three years, several NGOs (e.g., Bridge EU-Ukraine, Promote Ukraine) have emerged seeking to raise awareness about Russia’s destabilization efforts in Ukraine, as well as to increase public support for Ukraine’s future as a “progressive, European, and democratic society”.[10] These NGOs collaborate with Belgian universities and think tanks to organize educational events about the situation in Ukraine and Russian influence operations.[11]

The Belgian NGO sector acknowledges the danger of disinformation (though not necessarily that related to or stemming from Russia) and tries to educate Belgian society and boost media literacy. Média Animation ASBL, a prominent media education resource founded in 1972 and sponsored by the Belgian Ministries of Education and Culture, targets media literacy in schools as well as amongst politicians and other decision makers.[12] There is also an awareness centre, Child Focus, that offers children, parents, teachers and other professionals advice and tips about how to avoid risks when using the internet and take advantage of its potential. In collaboration with actors from Flanders and the French speaking community, Child Focus initiated an expert consortium the Belgian Better Internet Consortium in creating a Belgian platform of collaboration between all Belgian actors and stakeholders involved in e-Safety and online media literacy[13]. The Knowledge Centre for Media Literacy, the Flemish project partner of Child Focus, held its first Congress on Media Literacy in Belgium in October 2017[14].



[1] “How do European democracies react to Russian aggression”. European Values. 22 April 2017. Available at: http://www.europeanvalues.net/russia/ 
[2] http://www.brusselstimes.com/belgium/politics/8690/open-discussion-between-charles-michel-and-sergei-lavrov-on-ukraine-and-the-rule-of-law 
[3] Strategic Vision for Defence 2030 (2016). Ministry of Defence, Kingdom of Belgium.  http://www.vandeput.belgium.be/en/aiming-smaller-more-modern-defence-strategic-vision-2030    
[4] Speech by Minister Reynders on the Priorities of the Belgian Diplomacy, 17 January 2015. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Belgium.  http://diplomatie.belgium.be/en/Newsroom/news/press_releases/ foreign_affairs/2015/01/ni_190115_speech_minister_reynders  
[5] http://deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws.english/News/1.2798294# 
[6] Casier, T. (2013). “Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands”. National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making? David, M., Gower, J. & Haukkala, H. (eds). Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 118-131.
[7] Clerix, K. (2012). “Espionage in Belgium: Recent Cases”. EU Observer. 18 September 2012.  https://euobserver.com/secret-ue/117564
[8] Rettman, A. (2012). “Belgian Diplomat Suspected of Being Russian Spy”. EU Observer. 5 October 2012.  https://euobserver.com/justice/117772 

“Russia Involved in Spying Scheme in Belgium’s Consulate in Casablanca”. Morocco World News. 23 March 2015.  https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2015/03/154624 
[9] Annual Report (2011).  State Security of the Kingdom of Belgium.  http://justice.belgium.be/sites/default/ files/downloads/VSSE_rapportannuel2011_FR_web.pdf 
[10] See  http://en.eu-bridge-ua.org/ ;  http://www.promoteukraine.org/about-us.html 
[11] See  http://www.vesalius.edu/role-of-civil-society-of-belgium-in-promoting-peace-in-the-ukraine/ 
[12] See  http://www.media-animation.be/A-Media-and-multimedia-education.html 
[13] https://www.betterinternetforkids.eu/web/portal/practice/awareness/detail?articleId=1082641 
[14] http://www.mtseducation.eu/congress-on-media-literacy-in-belgium/ 

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