IN THE past few weeks, a parade of senior Western officials has streamed through Skopje, the modest capital of the tiny republic of Macedonia, which is smaller than Maryland and boasts a population of barely 2 million.
The most recent VIP, on Monday, was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who called Macedonia “a reliable security partner and a valued contributor to global peace and security.” Why all the fuss? On Sept. 30, citizens will vote on whether to change the country’s name to North Macedonia, to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece and to open the way for membership in the European Union and NATO.
That choice, in turn, has touched off another geopolitical joust between the West and Russia, which is doing its best to undermine the Greek-Macedonian agreement and, thus, block another NATO expansion. What’s striking is the difference in tactics: While the democracies are wooing Macedonians with appearances and speeches by the likes of Mr. Mattis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia is conducting a veiled propaganda campaign, flooding social media with fake news and subsidizing local extremists who have organized protests. “No doubt that [the Russians] have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns,” Mr. Mattis said.
Moscow’s operation resembles those it conducted in the United States, Britain and other democracies before recent elections. A principal feature is fake social media accounts disseminating poisonous — and blatantly false — information. The New York Times quoted Western diplomats as saying that dozens of new pages were appearing daily on Facebook urging a boycott of the referendum; some tell people to burn their ballots. They peddle lies about police attacks against opponents of the name change. One civil society activist told the Times that a photo of a famous singer who was assaulted in a domestic incident was circulated with the claim that she had been injured while protesting.
The determination of the regime of Vladimir Putin to wreck the Macedonian deal, even at the expense of harming friendly relations with Greece, is instructive. Macedonia does not border Russia but is surrounded on three sides by NATO member states. It poses no conceivable threat to Russia, but its entrance into the transatlantic alliance and European community will help stabilize a historically volatile corner of Europe. Moscow’s spoiling campaign is another reminder that Mr. Putin views relations with the West in stark zero-sum terms: Any gain by the democracies, however small, is regarded as a mortal threat.
For now, it looks as though the open appeals of the West will trump Russian subterfuge. Polls show the referendum proposition passing, which would give the Macedonian parliament the basis to approve the necessary constitutional change. But whatever the outcome, one message from Macedonia is clear: Mr. Putin remains bent on undermining the West and its institutions whenever and wherever he can.