Defending and strengthening democracy and society against hybrid threats

History is back. For freedom and democracy’s sake we’d better make sure to be ready, and to act together.

When preparing this talk* I realised that, in a way, the year 2021 is kind of an anniversary, though not a happy one. But I will aim to end my talk on an optimistic note.

In 1989 some thought that history had “ended”: it was the end of communism in Europe, of the Soviet Union and of the cold war. It opened the door to German unification, an unprecedented European Union stretching from Lisbon to Tallinn, and the enlargement of NATO.

While I’m not a historian, based on my observations I would argue that for Europe, history took off again in 2014.

History is back

2014 was a key year for Europe. In particular for Ukraine, but also for Europe as a whole. And in hindsight, 2014 was also a key year for geopolitics and democracy. A quick timeline:

  • Feb 2014: Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea (ongoing)
  • Apr 2014: Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine (ongoing)
  • July 2014: Russia downs flight MH17 in Ukraine: almost 300 innocent people died, almost 200 of them were Dutch
  • Year 2014: the year of trolls and bots. Did you know Russian troll factory had its highest output ever around MH17?
  • Oct 2014: Russia attacks Czech ammunition depot
  • Dec 2014 and Jan 2015: Russia says it wants to bypass Ukraine as gas transit (South Stream and Turk Stream)
  • Feb 2015: Gazprom warns of ‘serious risks’ for gas transit to Europe – sounds familiar?
  • Spring 2015: Russia hacks German Parliament
  • June 2015: Russia starts NordStream2 to bypass Ukraine
  • Year 2016: Russia interferes with: Netherlands’ referendum on EU-Ukraine association; UK’s Brexit referendum; U.S. Presidential election
  • May 2017: Russia interferes with French Presidential election
  • And so on…

Defend Democracy

As a digital strategist working almost 24/7 on the frontline of European geopolitics, I saw trolls, bots, propaganda, disinformation and influence operations in an early stage. By 2016, I was so concerned about Russia’s interference in our democracies that I decided to do something about it. The result is the Defend Democracy foundation. Our mission is to defend and strengthen democracy against foreign, domestic and technological threats. In particular, we aim to contribute to greater civil resilience against hybrid threats to democracy.

Pointing the finger only at the Kremlin is of course too easy. Protecting, strengthening and supporting democracy starts with getting our own house in order. We must “prove democracy works” at home — not just because we want the best form of government to deliver for our people, but also if we want to be credible abroad. And don’t get me started on the many technological threats to democracy, especially social media… These are worth an entire talk in itself.


An overview of research shows that digital platforms are key facilitators of polarisation. Which of course affects democracy. Think about it: if there is one thing that and foreign interference and domestic populism and tech platform business models have in common, it is polarisation. So as long as tech platforms have polarisation as their business model, it can and will be abused by authoritarian adversaries to further polarise our societies. Which means that our public debate, our shared reality and therefore our democracy remain at risk until we change that business model.** So we urge democracies to team up and disrupt polarisation as a business model for tech platforms – and as a vector for hybrid warfare.

Foreign interference

However, while we must also deal with domestic and technological threats to democracy, we can’t let the Kremlin – and other adversaries, including China – get away with malicious interference in our democracies and societies. And we’re obviously not going to succeed by each country acting on its own. We need deterrence and collective counter measures.

The EU and its Member States do not currently have a specific regime of sanctions related to foreign interference and disinformation campaigns orchestrated by foreign state actors. The EU must strengthen its deterrence tools so that malicious foreign actors have to pay the costs of their actions and bear the consequences.

European Parliament

As the European Parliament special committee on foreign interference writes: ‘We need an EU coordinated strategy against foreign interference and adequate financial resources, aimed at equipping the EU and its Member States with appropriate resilience policies and deterrence tools, enabling them to tackle all hybrid threats and attacks orchestrated by foreign countries.’ It says this strategy should be built on: 1) common definitions, critical and ex-post impact assessment of the legislation adopted so far, as well as understanding and situational awareness of the issues at stake; 2) concrete policies enabling resilience-building among EU citizens in line with democratic values; 3) appropriate disruption capabilities; and 4) diplomatic and deterrence responses in a global context.’

Partnership EU and NATO

The good news: NATO and the EU. While NATO is a military alliance, EU is a peace project. But, as the line between war and peace has grown thinner since 2014, NATO and EU are working more closely together. There is now even a dedicated Task Force on EU-NATO relations. It brings together knowledge and expertise from inside the EU’s External Action Service and coordinates with other EU actors to strengthen the EU-NATO partnership.

Civil society

Also very important is the role of civil society. Since warfare has shifted from conventional to hybrid, it’s no longer just soldiers who are involved in a war. It’s now also us: civilians. ‘Protecting democracy — and the constitutional order and the framework of values that underpin it — is a matter of national security to all democratic nations. An active, vibrant and strong civil society is thereby part of what makes democratic nations more secure. This link is even more pertinent in the era of hybrid threats, which are complex, ambiguous and unpredictable. In the current security environment, states and societies must be resilient to multiple stresses and shocks in order to be able to endure hardship and remain functional under duress. National resilience is a popular concept in national security policymaking, and civil society has rightfully emerged as its pivotal component.’ (ICDS, 2018)


NATO, in their June 2021 Summit, also stresses resilience and the role of civil society: ‘We have agreed today a Strengthened Resilience Commitment that sets out further steps we intend to take in the coming years. We will continue to take a whole-of-government approach to enhancing the resilience of our societies, and achieving the seven NATO Baseline Requirements for national resilience, through enhanced civil-military cooperation and civil preparedness; closer engagement with our populations, the private sector, and non-governmental actors; and the centres of expertise on resilience established by Allies.’

Stronger together

Whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready or not: history is back. We’d better make sure not just to be ready, but to act together. Because we are stronger when united.***

* You can also watch the video of this talk, held on 25 October 2021, at a conference about cyber and hybrid threats, co-organised by the Embassy of Ukraine in Belgium.

** Potential solutions: creating public service alternatives or introducing a small fee.

*** Regarding current (January 2022) geopolitical developments — a military build-up on the border of Ukraine and the open threat by Russia of taking military actions if their demands to the U.S. and NATO are not met — EU’s Foreign Policy Chief writes: ‘Faced with Russian threats, the European Union must stay firm, united, and act. [..] This includes being prepared to scale up our work on countering disinformation and cyber threats emanating from Russia [..].’