Russia’s cyberattack on America’s Democratic Party was one of its boldest acts of cyberwarfare to date. Yet the Kremlin has been pursuing a quieter, but no less destructive campaign of meddling in Europe for some time now: employing soft-power tactics to stoke political division and bolster Moscow’s strategic interests.
Some of Russia’s most obvious soft-power activities across the continent are centered on support for destabilizing, anti-establishment political parties, usually on the far-right. In addition to loans provided to the Front National in France, Russia is suspected of providing financial assistance to Jobbik (the far-right, nationalist party in Hungary, now the largest party in the opposition), the People’s Party/Our Slovakia (a neo-Nazi party in Slovakia that entered parliament this year), as well as other smaller parties in the region.
The youth organization of Germany’s anti-establishment Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) recently entered a formal partnership with the youth of Putin’s United Russia, the Young Guard. In the recent state elections in the state of Baden-Württemberg, the AfD took as much as 52 percent of the vote among ethnically Russian German citizens.
What does this achieve for Moscow? Simply put: it helps to destabilize the entities Russia views as its main economic and military competitors: the EU and NATO. Whatever one’s views of Brexit, it is well-known that Moscow’s rhetorical support for the UK’s departure was motivated by the belief that the move would redound to Russia’s benefit. As Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told the Washington Post, “Without Great Britain in the EU, no one will so zealously defend the sanctions against us.”
The recent Dutch referendum on Ukraine’s path to EU membership is another example of Russia welcoming measures that isolate its “near abroad” from Europe. The demonstrably false talking points employed by the campaign against Ukrainian membership echoed the messaging of Russian propaganda, and the defeat of the referendum dealt Ukraine a serious blow. And although non-binding, an April resolution passed by the French National Assembly calling for a halt on Russian sanctions was a promising indicator that European politics is softening its stance towards Russian aggression.
The migrant crisis has also proved a useful tool in sowing political disharmony. In Germany, the alleged rape of a teenage girl of Russian ethnicity by one or more “Arabs” was a story peddled strenuously by the Russian media, which presented the German government as unwilling to protect the victim. The story was quickly discredited, yet it continued to be raised in both Russia’s state-owned media, and by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even after it was proven false. The story inspired demonstrations by ethnically-Russian Germans and further inflamed public opinion, already riven with divisions over refugee resettlement policies.
The Kremlin is also making forays into the field of democracy assistance, propping up dubious election-monitoring groups to observe elections. Unsurprisingly, these results of these missions almost always reinforce Russian interests in places including South Ossetia, Ukraine, Transdniestria, the Baltic States and Crimea.
If this trend continues without resistance, it could have an even more corrosive influence on democracies throughout the region. It’s one of the reasons my organization was inspired to form the Beacon Project, a new collaborative initiative aimed at countering this threat through documentation and coalition building.
With the UK’s great schism from the European Union now underway, it is imperative that all leaders in the transatlantic community resist the impulse to turn inward and cooperate to resist the Kremlin’s campaign of lies and manipulation. The integrity of our political systems may just depend on it.Top