According to the report of a 16-month study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the Sofia, Bulgaria-based Center for the Study of Democracy, Moscow had co-opted sympathetic politicians, strived to dominate energy markets and other economic sectors, and undermined anti-corruption measures in an attempt to gain sway over governments in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia, and Slovakia.
"In certain countries, Russian influence has become so pervasive and endemic that it has challenged national stability as well as a country's Western orientation and Euro-Atlantic stability," the authors of the study have found.
U.S. officials said they concur with the findings on Russia's involvement in Eastern Europe.
"The Russians have been engaged in a sustained campaign to recapture what Putin considers their rightful buffer in Eastern Europe, and to undermine not just NATO and the EU, but the entire democratic foundation of both institutions," Reuters quoted a U.S. official who has studied Russian behavior since before the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 as saying.
The official requested anonymity because, he said, the White House has ordered officials not to publicly discuss hostile Russian activities.
Those activities, he said, include bribery, propaganda, disinformation, "the occasional" assassination of Kremlin critics at home or abroad, and now using the internet to undermine opponents and weaken Western institutions.
The study lists a series of Russian efforts to expand its writ in central and eastern Europe. They range from "megadeal" projects such as the EUR 12.2 billion contract to build two new nuclear reactors in Hungary, awarded to Russia under opaque terms, to the cultivation of pro-Russian businessmen who gain political office and then shield Moscow's interests, it said.
In Bulgaria, for instance, Russia's economic presence is so strong, averaging 22 percent of GDP between 2005 and 2014, "that the country is at high risk of Russian-influenced state capture," the report said.
Heather Conley, the former U.S. official and lead author of the report, said in an interview that the study was intended to highlight a challenge that has received insufficient attention from American and European policymakers.
"The first step is to acknowledge that which is happening," said Conley. "What is at stake here is how we view ourselves and the functioning of our democracy.”
The report proposes measures to curb what it calls an "unvirtuous cycle" of covert Russian influence. They include more focus on illicit financial flows and revamping U.S. assistance programs to stress strengthening governance and combating Russian influence.