For us all to know: Master of puppets: how Russia undermines Europe with its allies

20:34 Nov. 16, 2016

Master of puppets: how Russia undermines Europe with its allies

A new Atlantic Council's report on Putin's allies in Europe

Moscow views the West's virtues - pluralism and openness - as vulnerabilities to be exploited, the Atlantic Council authors claim  

The Atlantic Council analytic group published a report titled "The Kremlin's Trojan horses", dedicated to Russia's policy of undermining Europe and the whole West via challenging liberal democracy and promoting nationalist, populist and extremist political movements in the EU as a whole and in its key nations in particular - France, Germany and The UK.

"Despite the threat Russia's revanchist policies pose to European stability and established international law, some European politicians, experts, and civic groups have expressed support for - or sympathy with - the Kremlin's actions. These allies represent a diverse network of political influence reaching deep into Europe's core," writes the group's leader, Polish former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski in his foreword for the report.

The Kremlin uses these Trojan horses to destabilise European politics so efficiently, that even Russia's limited might could become a decisive factor in matters of European and international security, the authors think.

Living by the sword

President Putin increasingly sees that which the West seeks, Europe whole, free, and at peace - not as an opportunity for prosperous coexistence but as a threat to his geopolitical agenda and regime survival, Dr. Alina Polyakova, one of the report's creators, writes.

Western governments have ignored the threat from Putin's covert allies for too long, but finally, awareness is growing that the transatlantic community must do more to defend its values and institutions. To that end, Western governments should encourage and fund investigative civil society groups and media that will work to shed light on the Kremlin's dark networks.

The Kremlin's strategy of influence includes a broad array of tools: disinformation campaigns, the export of corruption and kleptocratic networks, economic pressures in the energy sector, and the cultivation of a network of political allies in European democracies. The ultimate aim of this strategy is to sow discord among the EU member states, destabilise European policies, and undermine Western liberal values—democracy, freedom of expression, and transparency—which the regime interprets as a threat to its own grasp on power.

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                   The map describing Kremlin's friendly political movements in the EU

The hateful neighbour

The full range of the Kremlin's active measures capabilities was on display during the early stages of Russia's intervention in Ukraine following the 2013 Maidan revolution that toppled Putin's close ally, Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych. In Ukraine, Russia's state-sponsored propaganda quickly moved to brand the peaceful demonstrations in Kyiv as a fascist coup intent on repressing Russian speakers in Ukraine. Its agents of influence in civil society attempted to incite separatist rebellions in Russian-speaking regions, which ultimately failed.

And Russia's infiltration of Ukraine's security services weakened the new government's ability to respond, as Russia took over Crimea and sent troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014. The strategy is not limited to what Russia considers its "near abroad" in the post-Soviet space. Through its state-sponsored global media network, which broadcasts in Russian and a growing number of European languages, the Kremlin has sought to spread disinformation by conflating fact and fiction, presenting lies as facts, and exploiting Western journalistic values of presenting a plurality of views.

The aim here, as elsewhere, is to sway, through coercion and corruption, the region's policies away from European integration and toward Russia. The Kremlin does so by strategically exploiting vulnerabilities in Central and Eastern Europe's democracies, such as weak governance, underdeveloped civil society space, and underfunded independent media, while cultivating relationships with rising autocratic leaders and nationalist-populist parties; a web of influence that one report describes as an "unvirtuous cycle" that "can either begin with Russian political or economic penetration and from there expand and evolve, in some instances leading to ‘state capture', the report explains. 

Strings to the web

The web of political networks is hidden and nontransparent by design, making it purposely difficult to expose, the Atlantic Council substantiates. Traceable financial links would inevitably make Moscow's enterprise less effective: when ostensibly independent political figures call for closer relations with Russia, the removal of sanctions, or criticise the EU and NATO, it legitimises the Kremlin's worldview.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, which provoked mistrust in the Western economic model, the Kremlin saw an opportunity to step up its influence operations in Europe's three great powers—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK). Russia has developed well-documented relationships with anti-EU, far-right political parties and leaders. In some cases, such as the National Front in France, the Kremlin's financial support for such parties is explicit.

The UK is more opaque as the UK remains more resistant to the Kremlin's efforts. While the on-and-off leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, is unabashedly pro-Russian. And in Germany, network building occurs through organisational cooperation and cultivation of long-term economic links, which open German domestic politics to Russian penetration.

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French far-right National Front Party leader Marine Le Pen is well-known as the Kremlin's firm ally getting money from it

Be they Putinverstehern, useful idiots, agents of influence, or Trojan Horses, the aim is the same: to cultivate a network of organisations and individuals that support Russian economic and geopolitical interests, denounce the EU and European integration, propagate a narrative of Western decline, and vote against EU policies on Russia (most notably sanctions)—thus legitimating the Kremlin's military interventionism in Ukraine and Syria, weakening transatlantic institutions, and undermining liberal democratic values, the authors note. 

Read the full report here

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