The Free Russia Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental U.S.-based organization, led by Russians abroad that seeks to be a voice for those who can’t speak under the repression of the current Russian leadership.
The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.
We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them, we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.
Your contribution to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.
Each chapter in The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.
If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.
What social groups support pro-Russian parties in Eastern Europe? This paper demonstrates that pro-Russian parties in Eastern Europe tend to have electorates with significantly more Euroskeptic attitudes than voter bases of mainstream parties. Importantly, support for pro-Russian parties is not related to an individual’s ideological (right or left) leanings. Because of their Euroskeptic attitudes, social groups supporting pro-Russian parties are far more susceptible to disinformation and, in particular, the anti-EU narratives spread by the Kremlin.
These findings explain the endorsement of pro-Russian narratives and social attitudes which are indirectly favorable to the Kremlin by political leaders whose electorates harbor anti-Western sympathies. It also sheds light on the nature of Russia’s information operations that seem to be opportunistic rather than ideological in nature, but also limited in scope by the structural conditions in targeted societies.
The third issue of The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly focuses on the malign influence of Putin’s regime in the areas of politics, media, as well as history and culture.
Anton Shekhovtsov’s opening essay examines reasons and agendas behind the attacks of the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov on France and President Emmanuel Macron. The author argues that Kadyrov’s anti-French rhetoric, which included an element of apology towards Islamist terrorism in France, was shaped by political, personal, and tactical concerns. The Kremlin benefitted from Kadyrov’s attacks. By empowering Islamists in France, Kadyrov contributed to religious polarization in France. Moreover, Kadyrov helped Moscow covertly fight another political war, with Istanbul, consolidating its positions in the region and competing with Moscow in different areas.
Alexandra Yatsyk looks at how Russia tried to influence parliamentary elections that took place in Georgia in October 2020. The author observes that, with Russian structures participating in election campaigns of particular Georgian parties, the Kremlin’s overall task was to bring discord into the ranks of Georgian patriots and nationalists and derail the country from its “Western track” of European democracy. However, Yatsyk believes that Georgia has already reached a national consensus with regard to its general direction of development, while the Kremlin’s and its agents’ efforts to generate anti-NATO sentiment in Georgia have predominantly been fruitless.
In his chapter on Belarus, Georgy Chizhov provides an overview of Russian malign influence in Belarus before and after the 2020 presidential election that resulted in the largest anti-government protests in the country’s history. Chizhov shows that, despite the affinity of the two authoritarian regimes, Russia was until recently limited in its ability to influence Belarus, but now it can actively impact the situation in the country. According to the author, the Kremlin pursues two main objectives in Belarus. The first objective is to prevent Belarus from reorienting towards Europe and democratic values. The second objective is to gain control over the Belarusian economy, or at least its key enterprises.
Răzvan-Ovidiu Ceuca analyses various instruments that Putin’s Russia uses to exert malign influence in Romania. He argues that Russia employs sharp power, mimetic power and dark power in Romania. Relating to sharp power, the Kremlin aims to penetrate the Romanian political, social, and information environment by undermining NATO’s role in Romania, seeding fractures between NATO and the EU, and instrumentalizing the “links” between local organized crime and the presence of NATO bases in Romania. Through mimetic power, Putin’s Russia tries to brand itself as a better alternative for Romania, while also blaming NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. Last but not least, when exerting its dark power techniques, Putin’s Russia promotes rhetoric meant to demonize NATO.
Kyrylo Tkachenko’s essay discusses peculiar perceptions of Ukraine in Germany, which make the latter vulnerable to influence of Putin’s Russia. Tkachenko asserts that one of the reasons for the West’s ambivalent response to the events in Ukraine is the persistence of cultural and historic stereotypes connected with a lack of understanding of Ukraine’s history and of the nature of relations between Ukraine and Russia. In his essay, the author shows how Ukraine’s insufficient presence on the mental map of modern German society affected the perception of “the Ukrainian crisis” in Germany and led to the (relative) success of the Kremlin narrative.
Ivan Preobrazhensky gives an overview of Russian malign influence in the Czech Republic that occupies a special place on the list of targets for Russian political warfare. Preobrazhensky writes that, unlike many other countries, which are the ultimate targets of malign Russian influence, the Czech Republic functions as a “hub” that Russian actors use to organize influence operations or subversive activities in other EU countries. Still, however, the Czech Republic itself experiences malign influence of Putin’s Russia. Thus, this small European country has a dual role. The first is as the target of Russian propaganda, “soft power,” and direct subversive actions. The second is as a “hub,” a base within the EU for exerting this influence on other countries and for legitimizing the key tenets of Russian foreign policy.
The concluding chapter by Grigorij Mesežnikov maps the sociocultural and political factors of Russia’s influence in Slovakia, disclosing the ecosystem of local actors that constitute the pro-Kremlin’s lobby, describing their background and motivation. As Mesežnikov argues, Putin’s Russia does not possess attractive social alternatives it could offer to people in Central Europe, hence it focuses on weakening the population’s adherence to values of a liberal democratic regime, lowering the level of trust in the EU and NATO, strengthening positions of illiberal Eurosceptic, nationalist and populist political forces, and attempts to improve its own image damaged by geopolitical excesses.
Before I start describing Georgia as a country and a reform leader in its region – Georgia is, after all, a country recognized for its success on its path toward inclusion in the Euro- and Euro-Atlantic family – I would like to pose to readers of this material the question whether you personally believe that Georgia is an important country for the West or not?
More specifically, I invite you to consider whether you believe that the West needs a strong, secure and reliable partner in the post-Soviet space, a nation which seeks democratic development and closer ties with both the EU and the NATO? Whether Georgia may affect a successful transition from a post-Soviet country to a full-fledged democracy? Whether the West is ready to invest more to achieve this goal?
If your answer is yes to those questions, my next question is what strategy your country has adopted towards Georgia and the South Caucasus region, which is now filled with Russian military forces and other tools the Kremlin uses to put pressure on countries and societies
Russian soldiers are illegally deployed in Georgia (in occupied regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia), Armenia (Russian military base) and Azerbaijan (so-called peacekeeping mission, initiated in the aftermath of the Karabakh war).
If everyone who says “Yes” to Georgia will address the question I just asked, Georgia would have far greater prospects to become in the near term the “strong, pro-democratic” ally the West seeks in the region. Such status will enable the country to further promote cooperation with the European and European-Atlantic structures regionally.
So yes, Georgia is a regional reform leader even now, when Georgia’s democratic development is under great threat in the aftermath of the June 2020 protests and the October 2020 parliamentary elections. In Georgia, 80% of those surveyed choose integration with the EU, and 74% membership in NATO (according to NDI polls published in Jan 2021). This support is strong and consistent notwithstanding domestic political challenges and controversies, the Kremlin’s malign influence and propaganda campaigns, and Russian threats targeting Georgia’s Western aspirations. Yes, the Georgian people are fearful of the Kremlin and consider Putin’s Russia to be a main threat; moreover, 41% of surveyed Georgians believe that Russian military forces are stronger than the U.S. (according to NDI polls in 2018). However, Georgia is still the main non-NATO contributor to the Resolute Support NATO mission in Afghanistan. NATO and EU flags are placed in any cabinet in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.
Because the people of Georgia choose the West. The question is does the West choose the people of Georgia?
Does the West really want to see Georgia as a democracy and a part of the European and Euro-Atlantic family? Is the West really interested in development of the Anaklia deep-sea port, which may not only become a frontier hub for logistics, financial and industrial activities at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, but a port where U.S. and NATO ships may operate if required? Does the West see the increase of the Kremlin’s military and political influence in the South Caucasus region as a problem?
If we give a positive answer to all those questions, the approach of the West towards Georgia and the South Caucasus region changes significantly. The South Caucasus region is going through a very difficult period, prompted by the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 and exacerbated by domestic political crises in Georgia and Armenia and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kremlin is actively using this period to put more pressure on regional countries. Its role in the Karabakh conflict and its aftermath significantly diminished the role of the West.
In 2021, regional communities are not discussing whether to choose between Putin’s Russia or democracy. They discuss whether Russia and Turkey will implement their regional strategies jointly or compete for influence in the Region. Neither of these scenarios promises anything good for the South Caucasus. Regional communities do not discuss NATO membership at all, since Vladimir Putin has effectively blocked NATO membership for Georgia — such membership now nothing more than a dimming light at the end of a never-ending tunnel.
When the Kremlin uses any crisis to undermine neighboring countries by increasing its military and political pressure, the West must approach the same situation by promoting its positive role and the benefits of democracy, and thereby spurring visibly successful cases by investing more time and resources in the post-Soviet space. This will contribute to regional security and stability and promote a Western approach to development in Russia and other countries.
Yes, Georgia is best positioned of the countries in the post-Soviet space to transition successfully from a post-Soviet system to democracy. It is not big, its institutions are partly reformed, it is not greatly affected by corruption, and it experiences relatively fewer conflicts between various interest groups. Aggressive dictators do not rule it. So in parallel with the required increase of support to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, a successful story in Georgia can be written right away. To achieve this goal, the Western approach towards Georgia should be changed from “facilitation and assistance” to “patronage,” targeted explicitly to help Georgia advance its democracy and join the European and Euro-Atlantic structures.
The best reason to initiate this format now is the Georgian government’s recently announced plan to join the EU in 2024. Considering the chaotic developments in Georgia, which we have observed for a few years already, this plan’s success is far from a given. To achieve this goal, the new patronage format should be adopted. This will require new EU and U.S. strategies towards Georgia, based on the proposed approach and taking fully into account Georgian internal factors, as well as the post-Karabakh war situation on the ground.
The U.S. and EU should appoint Special Representatives on Georgia as a first symbolic and practical step toward re-booting Georgian democracy. Such emissaries, working closely with the Georgian people, must address each challenge the country is facing to achieve long-term sustainable success, which may bring Georgia closer to eligibility for admission to the EU and to the NATO. These special representatives, with a fresh view on situation and a mandate from their governments, should suggest new strategies, offer reforms, ensure the proper monitoring and evaluation of results achieved on the ground, control the funds, provided by the U.S. and EU taxpayers to Georgia, and suggest more efficient ways to speed up Georgia’s integration in Western institutions. Together with the Georgian people, they should insist upon the fulfillment of all requirements needed to re-boot and further boost Georgian democracy. This format should be supported by weekly and monthly dialog platforms between Georgian, US and EU communities. It should also be supported by redirecting or investing more funds in the civil society sector and regional projects. Such investments should not go through the government, but should be provided directly to different NGOs and expert groups all around the country, which will work on development of a knowledge- and value-based society resistant to manipulation and propaganda. Georgian society already provides the mandate to the West for such measures, as evidenced by annual public opinion polling showing that the majority of surveyed Georgians choose NATO and the EU.
Georgians want to live in a democratic country, they want more association with the West, and they want freedom and transparency. 64% of surveyed Georgians support the placement of a U.S. military base in Georgia (according to Edison Research, Oct 2020). Any increase of positive engagement from the U.S. and EU sides will be very welcome. If any Georgian government is not ready to work harder together with the Western friends, the partners should inform the society about it immediately, so that the people may address this issue during elections. Free and fair elections should be safeguarded uncompromisingly by cooperation between a unified Georgian society and Western friends of Georgia.
Such patronage will require increased investment from the West, but it will result in long-term success for Georgia and its people; it will help to promote democracy regionally and demonstrate that the West is ready to play a significant positive role in the post-Soviet space, whereas Russia and Turkey are seeking for further expansion. The key issue is permanent attention to Georgia’s development on behalf of appointed representatives and their teams until the moment when all major spheres are reformed and rule of law is ensured.
Georgia today finds itself at a crossroads between the path of Western democratic development and its Soviet and post-Soviet elites. But I would like to ask readers of this material, whether you personally believe that Georgia is an important country for the West or not?
It is a popular misconception that human rights and foreign policy do not coexist. As has been proven time and again by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, such a vision can have dangerous consequences.
In “Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia,” the authors, Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, note that while then-US President Jimmy Carter had initially pledged to put human rights at the top of his agenda in relations with the USSR, he scaled back his promise for pragmatic reasons. The authors imply that this was a good, rational move. It wasn’t.
A close look at history reveals that what followed was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the downing of a South Korean civilian aircraft in 1983, and one of the darkest periods in the US-Soviet relationship in the early 1980s. The US-Soviet relationship improved under Mikhail Gorbachev when human rights were put back on the menu.
While it is hard to say definitively that the West’s firm stance on human rights was the key issue that “caused the Soviet collapse,” it certainly added strong tailwinds to the positive changes that were taking place at the time.
In the early 2000s, when Russia cracked down on democratic freedoms and shifted toward one-party rule, the West responded with concern, but little action. The West viewed Russia as a key global partner on “strategic” issues. As long as Russia had a transactional relationship with the West, its bad behavior would be overlooked in favor of “strategic” considerations. How the Russian government treated its domestic political opponents was not a concern. This was a terrible mistake; one that should never be repeated.
The West’s weak response emboldened Putin. He realized he could get away with disregarding the rule of law. What flowed from this realization was Russia’s attempt to expand its territory by attacking Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Russia’s actions may have come as a surprise to the West, but not to those of us in Russia who realized early (and wasted no time warning our Western friends) that once Putin completes his authoritarian consolidation at home he will inevitably seek to export it abroad. Sure enough, after reinstating Russia as a dominant force in the post-Soviet space, Putin went on to meddle in Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Africa, the list goes on.
A couple of lessons can be drawn from recent history.
First, human rights violations and domestic political crackdowns are early warning signs that a regime has no regard for the rule of law. If not contained, the regime will inevitably seek to export this lawlessness into foreign relations because it is confident that it can get away with such behavior as long as the West’s strategic interests are being met.
It is wrong for “rational strategic thinkers” in the West to expect that Putin will push back when shown a stick and behave when offered a carrot. Such a belief grossly underestimates him. Putin is a wily strategist who knows the West’s weaknesses all too well.
It is only a matter of time before someone in Washington will ask why there is a need to defend Ukraine or Estonia or even Europe against Russia. They may say: “Let’s focus on our ‘strategic interests’ and just withdraw and leave European affairs to the Russians!” Unfortunately, such ideas are not fantastical. They have increasingly been voiced in the US policy debate in recent years.
Putin is patiently waiting for more “rational strategists” to appear on the Western political scene who would be willing to forego human rights, or even allies, for the sake of achieving strategic interests.
The second lesson is that there is enough evidence that Putin has no regard for any rules. He breaches them at will. Putin’s strategy is to outwit the West’s attempts to bring Russia back into the rules-based space, and to erode this effort through attempts to reinstate transactional politics.
Ashford and Burrows wrongly suggest that Russia can be a “reliable” transactional partner on “strategic” issues even if it breaches the rule of law elsewhere. How can anyone seriously suggest that the United States enter into a new “strategic” agreement with Putin that runs the risk of being breached? When was the last time Russia honored its international commitments? To encourage “resets” would give Russia a free pass to continue to disregard the rules-based order.
Ashford and Burrows lightly dwell on false narratives. Take, for example, their assertion that Western sanctions on Russia are not working because they haven’t brought about a policy change. This is a popular misconception in the West. There is a need for a fair and objective review of what the sanctions have (and have not) achieved. But two points are worth noting.
First, sanctions require patience and continuity. Second, sectoral sanctions have virtually cut off Russia’s corporate sector from borrowing in the West; major Western players have withdrawn from key projects, which has contributed to a lack of meaningful economic growth in Russia since 2014; and the economic situation is a key factor in Putin’s plunging popularity and his current domestic political troubles. In the upcoming Duma elections in September 2021, for example, the ruling party faces the prospect of losing a majority for the first time since 2003.
Ashford and Burrows write: “democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for US foreign policy interests.” This echoes talking points often used by Russian government-backed celebrities who turn up on TV before an election declaring “political change is scary because fascists would come, and things will be worse.” This mantra, usually crafted by the Kremlin, resonates with a lot of Russians who fear change.
Ashford and Burrows go on to say: “Alexei Navalny… is an open nationalist who is widely known to agree with Putin on many foreign policy questions; he backed the Russian seizure of Crimea and has made racist and Islamophobic remarks.” In fact, Navalny condemned the annexation of Crimea; he merely said that it will be politically difficult to return Crimea to Ukraine for reasons that were beyond his control. As for the claim that Navalny has made racist and Islamophobic remarks, his comments on immigration policies are often misinterpreted.
While the prospect of democratization of Russia remains an open question, human rights must not be ignored. Ashford and Burrows wrongly suggest policymakers “resist further sanctions” on Russia and shift focus away from human rights. US sanctions are, in fact, a response to Russia’s violations of the rules-based order. Reconsidering sanctions for “strategic” considerations will only embolden Putin to further expand his sphere of influence at the expense of the West.
How the Kremlin Undermines Western Solidarity with the Russian Opposition Using the Left.
Imagine a scenario where two policemen catch a known rapist-killer. As they are about to handcuff him, he says: “I just saw a guy around the corner who jaywalked two days ago putting three cars at risk of crashing. Perhaps you could arrest him”. The policemen forget the task at hand and start discussing whether they should go after the jaywalker. As the discussion heats up, they forget about the rapist-killer, who simply walks away.
In political warfare, the trick used by the rapist-killer in this scenario is called “reflexive control”. It involves conveying particular information to an adversary in order to induce that adversary to voluntarily make a specific decision to their own detriment. Most often, reflexive control is about confusing an adversary, clouding his thinking and making a wrong decision.
The two policemen in our story lose track of a critical and time-sensitive priority—arresting and neutralizing a grave offender. Not veering off into a discussion about whether the jaywalker was real or imagined, whether he deserved to be arrested or not.
The current attacks against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging his nationalistic leanings bear all the traditional markings of a reflexive control operation initiated by the Kremlin. Their goal is to undermine the legitimacy of Navalny in the eyes of the West and paralyze action in his support.
I am unable to shake off a strong feeling of a déjà vu with tragic events that took place seven years ago. As the Kremlin unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, it has successfully crowded the Western media space with anti-Ukrainian narratives in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The leitmotif of this campaign portrayed the Maidan revolution as an ultranationalist putsch that resulted in the rise of an ultranationalist government.
In February-March 2014, as the Russian green men establish a blockade of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and occupy administrative buildings; and as Russia annexes Crimea, in gross violation of a number of international treaties,—a significant bulk of the Western media discourse is evaluating whether the Maidan revolution was instigated by ultranationalists.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goal was not to convince the West that Kyiv was run by a fascist junta. Rather, it sought to distract Western attention from Moscow’s criminal actions and to shift the focus of Western decision-makers to an entirely different issue, whose importance and time-sensitivity was disproportionately low compared to the Kremlin’s gross violation of international norms and post-war order. Putin has successfully executed a reflexive control operation as part of a 4D approach to managing the aggression against Ukraine internationally: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Dismiss the fact of occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, distort the general picture of the situation in Ukraine with the use of disinformation, distract Western attention from the Kremlin’s activities by launching accusations elsewhere, and dismay Western audiences by scaring them with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour.
In the case of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s method is similar.
Over the years, Navalny has published a series of shocking investigations into the mind-boggling corruption of Russian kleptocratic elites. The investigations were highly damaging to Putin’s reputation. Navalny continued his investigative work despite the intimidation by criminal cases fabricated by the Kremlin against him.
Switching its approach, the Kremlin decided to kill Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, in violation of the national law, all democratic norms, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
Miraculously, Navalny survived the assassination attempt and returned home from Germany, where doctors treated him after the poisoning. Upon his arrival to Russia, he was immediately arrested and jailed.
The European Parliament has responded by adopting two resolutions related to Navalny, one strongly condemning his attempted assassination, the other calling for his immediate and unconditional release. In October 2020, while Navalny was still recovering from the poisoning in Germany, the EU introduced sanctions against top Russian officials and a number of entities involved in his assassination attempt.
Moscow’s 4D approach to eroding the European solidarity on the Navalny case has been the following: dismiss accusations of poisoning the leading opposition figure, distort the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s poisoning by suggesting multiple theories of his sickness, distract European attention from Navalny’s attempted assassination sanctioned by the Kremlin, and dismay European politicians by expelling diplomats for supporting the jailed opposition activist.
The “mechanics” of the “distract” element consist of a reflexive control operation involving three phases. First, the Kremlin conveys the narrative (“Navalny is a nationalist”) privately to its agents of influence and publicly via state-controlled media (such as RT) setting up the agenda. Second, Russian “leftists” reproduce the sanctioned narrative in Western national and international left-wing media. Third, the narrative “travels” to more moderate, centrist media space and becomes part of the mainstream discussion, which is Moscow’s main goal of the “distract” element. By “laundering” this reflexive control operation through Russian “leftists”, the Kremlin partially removes traces of its influence in “Navalny’s nationalism” debates among Western left-wing commentators and activists.
Unsurprisingly, Russian mediators between the Kremlin and the Western left feature the very same personalities who advanced Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian campaign.
One egregious specimen is Alexey Sakhnin, a member of the Russian organisation “Left Front”. Introduced to Western left-wing audiences as an opponent to Putin, Sakhnin has been continuously involved in the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine since 2014, as well as in several operations aimed at smearing and discrediting European experts and politicians critical of Putin’s regime. While living “in exile” in Sweden in 2012-2019, Sakhnin was busy packing Sweden’s Left Party and Green Party with pro-Kremlin narratives packaged as genuine left-wing analysis of international relations. Upon his return to Russia, he became a regular commentator for the Russian once leading financial newspaper Vedomosti: shortly before Sakhnin started writing for it, Vedomostihad been sold to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin who needed new authors after the newspaper’s senior staff departed in protest to the loss of editorial independence. Today, as part of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation against Navalny, Sakhnin is targeting left-wing circles not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and internationally. While it may be Sakhnin’s and other Russian “left-wing” contacts’ objective to convince Western left-wing activists and commentators of Navalny’s nationalist political sentiments, it is only an intermediate and not even necessary objective for the Kremlin. With its reflexive control operation against Navalny, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to elevate an irrelevant debate into prominence, undermine Western solidarity with the Russian opposition and let the murderous kleptocratic regime get away with the very real crimes infinitely worse than Navalny’s presumed nationalism.
The Russian Orthodox Church—as a social, organizational, and financial structure – is extremely fragile, and may collapse in the near future, argues this report by Fedor Krasheninnikov.
Mr. Krasheninnikov observes that after more than thirty years of unrestrained proselytizing lavishly supported by the State, the Russian Orthodox Church still lacks a broad following within the Russian society or even a coherent intellectual core that responds to the challenges of modernity. To the contrary, it has grown desperately beholden to the funding it receives from the government and the oligarchs.
Mr. Krasheninnikov examines the preconditions which led to the current state of affairs, the specific nature of the situation of the Orthodox Church today in Russia, the role that it plays in the life of Russian society, and its prospects in the foreseeable future.
He forecasts that the inevitable collapse of Putin’s regime may also become the downfall of the ROC in its current form, precipitating a schism between its fractions and creating new opportunities for Protestant and Catholic missionaries.
The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.
We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.
Your contribution to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.
Each chapter in The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.
If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: email@example.com. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.
The second issue of The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly continues investigating the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in the areas of the economy, media, religion, civil society, politics, and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following his essay on the Russian coronavirus-related aid to Italy published in the first issue of this journal, Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov looks at the developments around the Russian aid to Serbia. He argues that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić used the pandemic to attack the EU in order to advance his own domestic agenda and praised China for being the only friend of Serbia as it agreed to deliver aid to fight COVID-19. Moscow joined Belgrade in its anti-EU and pro-Beijing propaganda, but failed to follow up quickly with its own medical, financial, and expert assistance to “the brotherly Serbian people,” and, consequently, was unsuccessful to benefit directly from the situation in the country.
In the second and final part of his essay on Austrian-Russian business relations, Dr. Martin Malek focuses on their political framework conditions, as well as side effects and consequences over the past two decades. The author writes that, due to the increasing dependence of Austria and the EU on energy source supplies from Russia, Austrian politicians and managers find it difficult to find critical words about Russia’s domestic, foreign, security, and foreign trade policies. There is a belief among Viennese politicians and businessmen that Russia is “too important” as a power—and especially as a supplier of energy resources—so relations must not be “spoiled” under any circumstances.
Sergiu Tofilat and Victor Parlicov explore how Putin’s Russia uses gas supplies to wield malign influence in Moldova. They argue that, by exercising its monopolistic position as a natural anti-dumping gas supplier to Moldova and by loyalizing corrupt political elites from Chișinău, Russian energy giant Gazprom serves as the main instrument of financing the Russian foreign policy agenda in Moldova. The authors assert that consolidation of Moldova’s energy security by diversification of energy supply options and integration into European energy markets is not only vital for countering Russian malign influence in Moldova, but also key to solving the Transnistrian conflict, which affects regional security.
In her essay on the French editions of Russian international media, Anastasia Kirilenko discusses the question of how these media manage to impose themselves in the media landscape of France. She demonstrates that Russian media in France polarize the French society by advancing racist narratives, undermine trust towards the ruling elites by supporting anti-establishment movements, and discourage critics of the Kremlin’s politics by filing lawsuits against them. Ironically, however, the journalistic community defends RT France and Sputnik in the name of the freedom of speech.
Georgy Chizhov exposes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) as one of the most effective instruments and mechanisms of Moscow’s malign influence on Ukrainian society. He argues that the UOC MP is an organization dependent on the Russian Orthodox Church on all ideological and political matters, and supports in its followers the identity of “the united people” (with Russians), a negative attitude toward democratic values, and a cautious perception of their own Ukrainian state.
Alexandra Yatsyk’s chapter focuses on the Russian government’s agents of influence in Estonia after 2014. She identifies three clusters of agents of Russian influence. The first group is represented by the Russian state institutions and Estonian entities supported by the Russian government. The second group consists of local activists who harshly criticize Estonia as allegedly systematically violating the very principles of liberal democracy. The third group incorporates those local agents who spread pro-Russian and anti-Estonian messages via mass media.
In her turn, Alisa Volkova analyzes a variety of methods used by Russian-affiliated forces to influence public opinion and politics in North Macedonia. The author asserts that Russia attempts – sometimes successfully – to penetrate the country’s economy and politics spreading its malign way of doing business, but the volume of resources, people involved, and lack of significant economic interest show that this Balkan country does not seem to be a priority for Russia for maintaining its influence.
Melissa Hooper explores how Moscow can indirectly spread malign influence in Europe by looking at the developments in Poland. She argues that Russian influence schemes in Poland are generally weak and ineffective because of the long tradition of Polish skepticism towards Russia. However, the Law and Justice government has borrowed laws, methods, and messaging from the Kremlin. In particular, the government waged war on meritocracy in ministries, the military, and the judiciary; routed critics from institutions such as free media and civil society; fanned the flames of conspiracy theories; and increased polarization and tensions in the country.
5. Austria’s Role in the Nabucco and South Stream Pipeline Projects
The Nabucco pipeline was the EU’s flagship project with regard to the energy resources of the Central Asia and Caucasus Region. It could have brought gas from the Georgian-Turkish and/or Iraqi-Turkish border, respectively, to the gas hub in Baumgarten without passing through Russia. OMV was the head company of this project; the other partners were the Bulgarian Energy Holding, Turkey’s Botas, Germany’s RWE, Hungary’s FGSZ (a 100 percent subsidiary of the oil and gas group MOL), and Romania’s Transgaz. As initially assumed, Nabucco would cost an estimated EUR 8 billion, a figure revised to EUR 12–15billion. The 3,300-kilometer-long pipeline should have gone into operation in 2013 and reach a capacity of 31 billion cubic meters of gas (10 percent of EU-27 gas imports in 2005) by 2020. But especially since the fall of 2011, prospects for Nabucco appeared to be dwindling due to several reasons. Thus, the amount of non-Russian gas needed to fill Nabucco did not materialize; so several alternative projects, with a reduced Nabucco West pipeline among them, were under consideration.
Moscow did not want Nabucco to be built from the very beginning and did its best to derail it. An important initiative in this context was the South Stream pipeline, intended to transport gas from the Central Asian and Caucasus region. This pipeline, with a capacity of 63 billion cubic metres of gas per year, is proposed to run from southern Russia under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, then bifurcate to cross several other countries for Italy and Austria.
Russia’s opposition to Nabucco was, of course, well known throughout the entire EU. Austrian Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann (Social Democratic Party) assured then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in November 2009 in Moscow that Nabucco is not directed against Russia.
Moscow wanted to involve Austria in South Stream at all costs, and Vienna did not take long to be persuaded. In April 2010, an Austrian-Russian intergovernmental agreement and a Gazprom-OMV cooperation agreement to bring Austria into the project were signed. Putin made it clear in Vienna it would be “realized no matter what.” At the occasion of Austria’s accession to South Stream, Russian news agency RIA Novosti highlighted a “big victory for Russia and a major blow to Nabucco”—which, again, left no doubt that South Stream was, above all, planned as a “Nabucco-stopper.” On 21 February 2011, Gazprom’s CEO Aleksey Miller announced in Moscow that his company and OMV had officially registered a joint venture to build and operate the Austrian section of South Stream. Its planned Austrian route practically duplicated Nabucco’s (and therefore the EU’s) envisaged route, from Hungary to the Nabucco terminal at Baumgarten.
The main supply planned for Nabucco was to be Shah Deniznatural gas field in the South Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan. But after the Shah Deniz consortium took the decision to prefer the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline over Nabucco for its exports, the Nabucco plan was finally aborted in June 2013.
South Stream was expected to cement Gazprom’s influence over south eastern European gas deliveries. EU member-states Bulgaria and Greece are heavily dependent on Russian supplies. In 2014 the European Commission challenged South Stream on the basis of the EU’s Third Energy Package (according to this legislation, adopted in 2009, a gas company cannot own a pipeline that supplies its gas) and threatened legal action against Bulgaria. This led to the cancellation of South Stream. The Commission accused South Stream of violating EU law regarding the access of competitors to the pipeline. After the cancellation, Gazprom quickly unveiled an alternative route. The new pipeline, called TurkStream, was designed to deliver 33.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas—half of which is intended for the Turkish market while the other half is slated for the Balkans and further to Central Europe. The new Russian pipeline through the Black Sea to Turkey was inaugurated on 8 January 2020 at a lavish ceremony in Istanbul. Austria’s Baumgarten gas hub could be a key European transit point for Russian gas that flows through the TurkStream pipeline to Turkey (circumventing Ukraine) and on to the EU. Before TurkStream gas can end up in the continent, however, Gazprom will have to build a pipeline that connects this pipeline to the EU network.
6. RosUkrEnergo, Firtash, Mogilevich, and Raiffeisen
In 2004, the Centragas Holding AG, registered in Vienna and controlled by the pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, teamed up with Gazprom to establish Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo, or RUE, to exclusively import Central Asian gas to Ukraine. Firtash and Gazprom roughly split the ownership of RUE. Firtash’s share was held in trust for some time by the Austrian Raiffeisen Investment AG, or RIAG (a subsidiary of Raiffeisen Zentralbank). Given that Gazprom was then and still is controlled by the Russian Government, observers speculated that Firtash had cultivated strong ties to Putin’s inner circle in order to make RUE operational.
RUE then bought billions of dollars’ worth of cheap natural gas mainly from Turkmenistan, mixed it with expensive gas from Russia and resold it at significantly marked-up prices inside Ukraine. Critics, however, pointed out there was no purely economic reason to use the services of an intermediary in the gas trade between the former Soviet republics. It soon became clear that RUE was nothing more than a shell to siphon off profits. And the press started to speculate about ties of alleged gangster boss Semion Mogilevich to RUE. In April 2006, Raiffeisen International CEO Herbert Stepic “strictly” denied that “we came close to organized crime.” According to him, there was no “proximity [of Raiffeisen] to Mr. Mogilevich.” At this occasion, Stepic, however, declined to say for whom RIAG held its share in RUE. But he insisted that all relevant authorities in the Ukraine and Russia would know who was behind it.
Raiffeisen had RUE checked by Kroll Inc., a renowned US consulting firm with good links to the intelligence community. The bank had been certified that the business relationship was unobjectionable. But finally, Raiffeisen severed all ties with RUE. As to the “relevant authorities” in Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchinov, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, was convinced that RUE was indirectly controlled by Mogilevich. Ukraine’s then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (a gas-business insider in her own rights) said after 2006 repeatedly that she had “documented proof that some powerful criminal structures are behind RUE company.” In 2009, Ukraine and Russia agreed to stop using intermediaries, referring to RUE, which was liquitated between 2014 and 2016.
The contacts between Firtash and Mogilevich were discussed for a while in some Austrian and international media outlets. According to a cable from the US Embassy in Kyiv on 10 December 2008, Firtash admitted at a meeting with Ambassador Bill Taylor, which had taken place shortly before, that he had “ties” with Mogilevich, but they were “not close.” Later Firtash denied having said this and assured that he had been “misunderstood.” Be that as it may, in 2010, Ukraine elected pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych president. Firtash was one of the main Ukrainian oligarchs who had financed Yanukovych’s campaign, which was also supported by the notorious US lobbyist and political consultant Paul Manafort.
In 2013, Firtash was charged by the US Justice Department with having overseen a criminal enterprise which paid millions in bribes to both state and central government agencies in India in order to obtain mining licenses. He was arrested by Austrian police in Vienna weeks after Yanukovych had fled Kyiv on 22 February 2014. Firtash’s contacts in the Kremlin must have been excellent because the bail of EUR 125 million, which was due for his release, came from Russia: it was within a few days (!) paid by Russian billionaire Vasily Anisimov.Therefore, it was not really surprising that Firtash remained pro-Russian also in view of Putin’s war against his homeland Ukraine.
Firtash is still in Vienna after six years and fighting against his extradition to the United States—with the assistance of a “cohort of attorneys, PR consultants and lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic.” The best-known jurist working for Firtash is Dieter Böhmdorfer (2000–2004 Austria’s Minister of Justice, nominated by the Freedom Party, of which he was not a member).
7. Former Austrian Top Politicians and Managers at the Service of Russia
On 14 February 2005 then German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (Social Democratic Party) received Oleg Deripaska for a dinner with German and Russian entrepreneurs, although the German Foreign Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND) had expressly warned against the Russian oligarch. An official of the German Federal Chancellery noted: “According to BND reports there are indications of [Deripaska’s] links with organized crime that go beyond the ‘normal level of dubious business methods’ for top representatives of the Russian economy.” In 2007 Deripaska, who at times was Russia’s richest person and is noted for his close ties with Putin, acquired a large stake in Vienna-based Strabag, one of the largest construction companies in Europe. Its then boss Hans Peter Haselsteiner responded very emotionally to the question about Deripaska’s—benevolently formulated—controversial reputation: “Europeans and Americans have no reason whatsoever to point the finger [at Russia]: Russia has completely redistributed its national wealth in less than twenty years, without bloodshed. America has needed three generations of lawlessness and a great civil war for this; Europe has needed two revolutions and two world wars.” And addressed to the then US vice president (who wasn’t actually up for discussion at all), Haselsteiner declared: “I’d rather do business with Oleg Deripaska than with Dick Cheney,” who, however, has not been known to have wanted to cooperate with Haselsteiner. Haselsteiner’s position regarding Putin’s Russia was also, and especially, fuelled by his desire to do profitable business there. Strabag then built the Olympic Village and the airport for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, among many other things in Russia. According to figures from 1 January 2019, 25.9 percent of Strabag was owned by Cyprus-registered Rasperia Trading, which belongs to the Deripaska-controlled diversified industrial group Basic Element.
The Chairman of Strabag’s Supervisory Board is Austria’s former (2007–2008) Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (Social Democratic Party), who had no experience in the construction business prior to this appointment in 2010. Another interesting member of this Supervisory Board is (since June 2018; he will leave in 2020) the Russian national Oleg Kotkov, a Soviet and Russian military officer-turned-banker. He graduated from two Soviet Military Academies. From 2003 to 2007, he was Military Adviser at the Permanent Mission of Russia’s Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, in Vienna. From 2016 to 2018, he was adviser to the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Russian PJSC Asian-Pacific Bank.
Haselsteiner was a MP for the Liberal Forum from 1994 to 1998 and financed it afterwards, as well as the liberal party NEOS, which is represented in the National Council since 2013. The ideology of these parties was and is respectively very far away from Putin’s or Deripaska’s. Nevertheless, Haselsteiner declared to “admire” Putin, whom he has met several times. Haselsteiner’s willingness to converge on opinions that he considered to be widespread in Russia was reflected, among other things, in his statement about a “Jewish network” among Russian oligarchs in which he “did not want to interfere.” Such statements, which were largely ignored in Austria, can hardly be read otherwise than by the intention to “fish for compliments” in Putin’s Russia. In Austria, at least publicly nobody noticed that Haselsteiner and then Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, regardless of the enmity between them (Haselsteiner believes that for Strache he represents an “enemy image”), share the same—largely favorable—opinion about Putin’s rule.
In interviews Haselsteiner considered it a serious mistake that the EU had “allowed” NATO’s “rapid eastward expansion.” Instead, an attempt should have been made to bring Russia into the EU. “Putin could have been won over. That would have made Europe great.” But all this, Haselsteiner believed, had been thwarted by “the Americans and NATO,” and “the Europeans” had followed suit “in their naivety.” For the United States, there were two very bad scenarios: “A united Europe including Russia” and a functioning euro. Haselsteiner thus disclosed a complete ignorance of even the basic concepts of Russian foreign and integration policy, distorted the facts (for example, EU and NATO are completely different organizations, so one cannot prevent the enlargement of the other; and post-Soviet Russia has at no time shown any interest in joining the EU, which would be completely unrealistic anyway due to the size of the country), and propagated conspiracy theories. But at least, one learned from such interviews what Haselsteiner “geopolitically dreamed” of—namely a “united Europe together with Russia,” which is opposed to the US. And coincidence or not, this is also one of the most important goals of Putin’s foreign and military policy.
Only exceptionally did Haselsteiner express somewhat more sceptical views about Russia: “I very much regret that the Putin regime is moving further and further away from the rule of law [. . .] and leaves us no choice but to impose sanctions.” But “nevertheless Russia remains an important European nation and a promising market for the construction industry.” Haselsteiner continued that this is in his interest and has “nothing to do with Russian efforts to strengthen the [political] right in Europe, destabilize Europe and denigrate the EU.” This was, according to Haselsteiner, reprehensible despite the economic interests. And he, of course, maintained his cooperation with Deripaska.
Siegfried Wolf is one of the most internationally renowned Austrian managers. For him, Deripaska is an “upright, obliging and good entrepreneur.” Wolf had introduced Deripaska to Strabag in Vienna. And at Deripaska’s request, Wolf became a member of Strabag’s Supervisory Board in 2007 and remained there until 2015. Also in 2007, Deripaska joined Magna International Inc. of the Austrian-Canadian industrialist Frank Stronach (who met Putin personally and gave him the highest praises), but already the following year—officially due to the financial crisis—he had to sell his share (20 percent of the stocks with 43 percent of the voting rights) to those banks that had previously helped him to handle the 1.5 billion dollar deal. In 2010 Wolf moved from Magna to the industrial conglomerate Russian Machines (which belongs to Basic Element): He became Chairman of the Board of Directors there (where he remained until 2018) and had to cooperate with Colonel General Valery Pechionkin, (in Soviet times he was a staff member of the Soviet Committee for State Security, or KGB, and from 1997 to 2000 Deputy Director of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB), who in 2018 became Basic Element’s CEO. Wolf is also chairman of the Supervisory Boards of GAZ, located in Nizhny Novgorod and part of Basic Element, and of Vienna-based Sberbank Europe AG, a European subsidiary of Sberbank.
In interviews Wolf always defends Putin against any criticism. Thus, Wolf said that human rights violations occur not only in Russia, but “also in other countries.” Russia, according to him, needs a “strong leadership.” And: “I can only report positively what I have experienced with Mr. Putin.” Wolf declared at the beginning of 2014 that in Russia “a more liberal society will emerge in the next few years” (in reality, exactly the opposite happened, M.M.). According to Wolf, Europe needs a “very, very close relationship with Russia.” Needless to say, he is massively opposed to EU sanctions against Russia.
Wolfgang Schuessel, from 1995 to 2007 was head of the People’s Party, during and after his tenure as Austrian Federal Chancellor (2000–2007), repeatedly praised Putin. In June 2019 Schuessel (who occasionally devoted his spare time to Russian icon painting) joined the eleven-member Board of Directors of Russian Lukoil, one of the largest publicly traded, vertically integrated oil and gas companies in the world. In 2018, Schuessel became one of nine members of the Board of Directors of the largest mobile operator in Russia and the other post-Soviet republics, Mobile TeleSystems, or MTS, with 110 million clients; it belongs to the Russian conglomerate AFK Sistema,headed by CPSU-member-turned-billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov. At the end of May 2019, however, it became known that Schuessel would lose this mandate: His name was missing from the list of candidates for reappointment. On it, however, there was another well-known person: Valentin Yumashev, who from 1997 to 1998 (under President Boris Yeltsin) was Head of the Presidential Executive Office. He and his wife were granted Austrian citizenship in 2009, which was what the Magna Group had stood up for.
The leader of the Social Democratic Party Christian Kern, during his short tenure as Austrian Federal Chancellor (2016–2017), made himself popular in the Kremlin by polemicizing against the EU’s Russia sanctions, for example, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2017. Kern has been CEO of the Austrian Federal Railroads from 2010 to 2016. In this position, he spoke out in favor of a broad-gauge (1,520 mm) railroad project to Vienna initiated by Russia. In July 2019 Kern joined the Board of Directors of the state company Russian Railroads, where he currently is the only foreigner. One of Austria’s best-known political journalists, Hans Rauscher, commented on this, referring to Putin’s military campaign against Ukraine: “This is not a good time for a former Austrian Chancellor and Social Democrat to become a lobbyist for Russian interests.” But such statements, of course, did not change anything about Kern’s financially rewarding commitment in Russia.
Austrian banks have always been strongly committed to Russia. As of 2014, Raiffeisen Bank International and Bank Austria alone had EUR 36 billion in loans in Russia. Raiffeisen remained strongly represented on the Russian market even as many other Western banks have pulled back due to the impact of EU sanctions and assertiveness of Russian state-owned competitors. Deripaska’s companies had been Raiffeisen clients in Moscow for many years before he and the (1994–2012) Advocate General of the Austrian Raiffeisen Association (in German: Generalanwalt des Österreichischen Raiffeisenverbandes; an important position in the Austrian banking landscape) Christian Konrad met personally; Haselsteiner had introduced them to each other. In 2007 Konrad said: “I have no fear of contact with Russians: Raiffeisen is active in many business areas in Russia. [. . .] Deripaska has my respect. As far as I know so far, he is an incredibly direct and straightforward guy, acting in an understandable way with comprehensible reactions.”
Stepic, who met Putin personally and was head of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society from 2001 to 2003, resigned as head of Raiffeisen Bank International in 2013 and then acted as Senior Adviser to the Board of the bank. He continued to give interviews in which he (as before) made no secret of his political views mixed with conspiracy theories. For example, in June 2014 (i.e., shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the start of the fighting in Donbass) said that he would “continue to defend Putin,” because “the media coverage of the conflict [in Ukraine] was totally one-sided, the formation of opinion is determined by New York and London.” The EU had wanted to conclude an Association Agreement with Ukraine “quickly,” “without talking to the Russians” (as when Russia “talks” to Ukraine before concluding any agreements, including with the EU). Stepic also justified the Russian military intervention against Ukraine with a US antimissile system in the Czech Republic and Poland (which, however , had less than nothing to do with the Russian war against Ukraine). Under “Yushchenko and Tymoshenko” a “pigsty” (Saustall) had ruled in Ukraine, but “successor Yanukovych had stabilized the country.” At least Stepic confessed that Yanukovych, at the same time, had “stolen everything so that nothing remained.” And for Stepic, the annexation of Crimea could be explained by the fact that “the West has annexed Ukraine” (!) “Russia’s goal was not to get NATO to its borders. This is the main concern.” And Putin is “light years ahead of the EU in implementing his plans—quite simply because he can decide for himself.” The EU, as Stepic supported Haselsteiner’s views, should have “moved closer to Russia”—because “the US never liked the EU as a structure.” One does not need to speculate about the main reason for such opinions, as Stepic spoke out: According to him, over the past two decades Russia had been the market where the most money could be made worldwide.
8. Austria and the EU Sanctions Against Russia
The Austrian Economic Chamber constantly lamented the impact of the EU sanctions on the business of its members in Russia, although it was and is limited. And the homepage of the Austrian Embassy in Moscow literally states: “Austrian-Russian trade has developed extremely dynamically in recent years.” Therefore, EU sanctions do not stand in the way of this “dynamic.”
The head of the Economic Chamber from 2000 to 2018, Christoph Leitl (People’s Party), always gave Putin a very warm welcome in Vienna. Leitl, since 2009 a knight of the Russian Order of Friendship, from the very beginning opposed the EU sanctions against Russia (the Austrian public was not really interested in the fact that he was involved in two companies in Russia that produce insulation materials). And Christoph Matznetter, Deputy Head of the Economic Chamber (2005–2007 and since 2009), Deputy Head of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society and long-standing Member of the National Council, has made it repeatedly clear that he, as well as a “broad majority” in his Social Democratic Party, wants to see the sanctions terminated—as wants the EU-skeptical Freedom Party both in the opposition and, between December 2017 and May 2019, in the government. Notwithstanding this, Freedom Party-nominated Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl during her tenure always agreed to the six-monthly extension of EU sanctions against Russia.
According to statistics from the National Bank (Austria’s central bank), Russian direct investments in Austria have increased two and a half times since 2013 to around EUR 25 billion in 2018, which made Russia the second-largest investor in Austria. This gave some observers reason to suspect that the EU sanctions were being circumvented via Austria: “Given Russia’s limited corporate footprint and the lack of tangible projects that would necessitate these investments, it appears Austria is used mostly as a hub or throughput for Russian investments across Europe and as a point of repatriation of capital from Russian subsidiaries in Europe.”
In May 2019, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen noted that Austria is participating in the sanctions against Russia as a loyal member of the EU—“regardless of what the Austrian position really is.” Translated into plain language, this means that “in reality,” “Austria” is against the sanctions. And Leitl in his capacity (since 2017) as president of Eurochambres (the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry, representing over 20 million companies) went on to demand an abolition of the EU sanctions. According to him, they “had no use whatsoever.” Russia is “a partner with whom Europeans should engage in dialogue on economic, political, cultural and sporting issues.”
9. Conclusions and Outlook
Austrian politicians and managers find it difficult to say “no” to Russian officials and/or to find critical words about its domestic, foreign, security, and foreign trade policy. Austrian media outlets have paid some attention to increasing authoritarianism and the huge corruption under Putin, but Viennese politicians and businessmen rarely raise this issue. Instead, it is a widespread argument that Russia is “too important” as a power—and especially as a supplier of energy resources—so relations must not be “spoiled” under any circumstances.
There are no significant political forces in Austria which could be labelled as “anti-Russian” by Moscow-based politicians and/or media. Truly, nobody in Austria’s political elite wants to “argue” with Moscow. The governments in Vienna and Moscow like to emphasize that they are “very close” in most of the issues of international politics, that there are very few (if any) differences between them, that their relations are “trouble-free,” “cordial” etc. It is therefore not surprising that representatives of most parties and important interest groups (as the Economic Chamber) have been calling for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia practically from the day they were imposed.
Natural gas and oil are “nonrenewable” resources which are imported into the EU and to Austria to a considerable extent from conflict regions and/or undemocratic states (such as Russia). There is no resistance whatsoever in Austria’s politics, media, and public against the fact that OMV portrays an increasing dependence of Austria and the EU on energy source supplies from Russia as a “guarantee of supply security.” Russia does not grant a “stable and secure gas supply” for Austria and the EU, but just the opposite: Moscow, especially since 1999 when Putin rose to power, has on several occasions demonstrated its capabilities and willingness to use gas and oil supply as a political leverage and a “geopolitical weapon” in order to subdue and/or punish “disloyal” states. It is irresponsible in the sense of a sustainable energy policy to make oneself dependent on the whims of the Kremlin.
If one wanted to give a very brief forecast on Austrian-Russian relations, it is totally obvious that there will be no change in the conditions described—regardless of the composition of the Austrian Government. The opposition hardly offers any alternatives with respect to the policy towards Russia, as all the major political forces in Austria have so-called Putin understanders (Putin-Versteher) among their ranks. And what all Austrian parties and special interest groups have in common is a total lack of understanding for the functional mechanisms of Russian domestic, security, foreign, and economic policy.
 “Putin Hails Russia’s Gas Reserves as Austria Joins South Stream Project,” Sputnik, April 24, 2010, https://sptnkne.ws/3BcY.
 Andrei Fedyashin, “Vladimir Putin Goes to the Land of Strauss and Schnitzel,” Sputnik, April 23, 2010, https://sptnkne.ws/pacK.
 Christine Zeiner, “Raiffeisen steigt aus russischer Gasfirma aus [Raiffeisen Withdraws from Russian Gas Company],” Wiener Zeitung, April 25, 2006, https://www.wienerzeitung.at/archiv/117286-Raiffeisen-steigt-aus-russischer-Gasfirma-aus.html.
 Luke Harding, “WikiLeaks Cables Link Russian Mafia Boss to EU Gas Supplies,” Guardian (US edition), December 1, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/01/wikileaks-cables-russian-mafia-gas.
 “Ukraine: Firtash Makes His Case to the USG,” WikiLeaks, December 10, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KYIV2414_a.html.
 Stefan Melichar, Michael Nikbakhsh, and Christoph Zotter, “All the President’s Men,” Profil, no. 43 (2019): 35.
 “Schröder empfing 2005 dubiose Gäste aus Russland [Schröder Received Dubious Guests from Russia in 2005],” Spiegel Online, May 4, 2015, https://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/vorab/schroeder-empfing-2005-dubiose-gaeste-aus-russland-a-967403.html.
 Renate Graber, “Die russische Wende [The Russian Turnaround],” Der Standard, June 4, 2007, https://derstandard.at/2857801/Die-russische-Wende.
 Renate Gruber, “Da lachen ja die Hühner, Herr Hofer” [“That’s a Good Laugh, Mr. Hofer”] [interview with Hans Peter Haselsteiner]. Der Standard, June 29–30, 2019, 23.
 “Haselsteiner: Russland in der EU ‘hätte Europa groß gemacht’ [Haselsteiner: Russia in the EU ‘would have made Europe great’] [interview],” Die Presse, September 20, 2017, https://www.diepresse.com/5288922/haselsteiner-russland-in-der-eu-hatte-europa-gross-gemacht.
 “Haselsteiner will sich Auftragsvergabe bei Westbahn anschauen [Haselsteiner Wants to Take a Look at Contract Awards for Westbahn],” Die Presse, May 20, 2019, https://www.diepresse.com/5631337/haselsteiner-will-sich-auftragsvergabe-bei-westbahn-anschauen.
 Jakob Zirm, “Siegfried Wolf wechselt von Magna zu Oleg Deripaska [Siegfried Wolf Moves from Magna to Oleg Deripaska],” Die Presse, September 14, 2010, 15.
 Miriam Koch and Andreas Lampl, “Putin ist der richtige Mann” [Putin’s the man] [interview with Siegfried Wolf],” Format, no. 5, (2014): 22–25.
 Yumashev’s daughter from his first marriage, Polina, in 2001 had married (and in 2018 divorced) Deripaska.
 Hans Rauscher, “Neuer Job für Kern: Russian Connection. Es sind bereits etliche ehemalige Top-Politiker in Putins Reich engagiert [New Job for Kern: Russian Connection. Several Former Top Politicians are Already Employed in Putin’s empire],” Der Standard, May 1, 2019, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000102353840/neuer-job-fuer-kern-russian-connection?fbclid=IwAR3eeZ4VLlmX3-h87hpnMKPAZftnO0NOr3A2FGpdV1lETGjxCM2r7NbQ5X0.
 The headquarters of UniCredit Bank Austria AG (which is its full name) is located in Vienna, but it has not been “Austrian” for a long time, as it is almost entirely owned by the UniCredit Group based in Milan, Italy.
 “Deripaska ist ein gerader Bursche [Deripaska is a straight guy] [interview with Christian Konrad],” Der Standard, June 4, 2007, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2859447/deripaska-ist-ein-gerader-bursche.
 Martina Salomon, “Stepic: ‘Putin ist EU um Lichtjahre voraus’ [Stepic: ‘Putin is light years ahead of the EU’] [interview],” Kurier, December 6, 2014, https://kurier.at/wirtschaft/stepic-putin-ist-eu-um-lichtjahre-voraus/70.074.860.
 Cf. Otmar Lahodynsky, “Schwein gehabt [Had Good Luck],” Profil, no. 12, pp. 56-60.
 Österreichische Botschaft Moskau, Wirtschaftsbeziehungen zwischen Österreich und Russland [Austrian Embassy Moscow, Economic relations between Austria and Russia], https://www.bmeia.gv.at/oeb-moskau/bilaterale-beziehungen/russische-foederation/wirtschaft/ (accessed 30 May 2020).
 “The Winner is: Zar Wladimir [The Winner is: Czar Vladimir],” Trend, no. 46 (2016): 21.
 Cf. “Strache fordert Ende von Russland-Sanktionen [Strache demands end to Russia sanctions],” Die Presse, June 2, 2018, https://diepresse.com/home/ausland/aussenpolitik/5439865/Strache-fordert-Ende-von-RusslandSanktionen.
 Heather A. Conley et al., The Kremlin Playbook II. The Enablers, Center for Strategic & International Studies, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 50, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/190327_Conley_KPII_interior_v3_WEB.pdf (accessed 30 May 2020).
 Jutta Sommerbauer, “Van der Bellens und Österreichs ‘wirkliche’ Russland-Position [Van der Bellen and Austria’s ‘real’ position on Russia],” Die Presse, May 15, 2019, 4.
 Christoph B. Schiltz, “Europäische Wirtschaft ruft zur Abschaffung von Sanktionen auf,”Die Welt, December 9, 2019, https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article204148482/Europaeische-Wirtschaft-ruft-zur-Abschaffung-von-Sanktionen-auf.html?fbclid=IwAR0cMRb_u5mEhqAsdqNihEliLnzmfQLaSKl9KR4jl65L9SjS3_XN8Ub8Pvo.
Over the last 200 years, the main part of the territory that today constitutes the Republic of Moldova switched sovereignties six times between the Russian Empire, the USSR, the Ottoman Empire, and Romania, which explains why Russia treats it as a less loyal territory, compared to Ukraine or Belarus. With the last change in 1991, the Republic of Moldova proclaimed its independence and, on March 2, 1992, gained official recognition by the UN, in the borders of the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, including the Transnistrian region, inhabited by a more pro-Russian population as compared to the rest of the country. On the day of official recognition of the Republic of Moldova within UN, a military conflict sprang in the Transnistrian region, initially involving police forces and civilians and later the regular army. The Russian Army stationed in Transnistria (the former Soviet 14th Guards Army) supported the Transnistrian side, first unofficially then officially, which determined the outcome of the war. The war ended by a cease-fire agreement signed between Presidents of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Moldova—Boris Yeltsyn and Mircea Snegur, reconfirming the direct involvement of Russia in the Transnistrian conflict.
Since 1991, the goal of Russian policy towards Moldova was to prevent Moldova from fleeing the Russian sphere of influence, and especially to maintain the Russian military base in Tiraspol and prevent Moldova’s adherence to NATO. Transnistrian authorities served as proxies for Russia in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, Russia’s control over Transnistria being juridically recognized by the European Court for Human Rights. However, maintaining the “statehood” of Transnistria required major financial support, and the energy sector played a crucial role in Russia’s financing of separatism in the Republic of Moldova.
During Soviet times, the energy infrastructure was constructed in such a way that the energy system in the former Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic was dependent on critical infrastructure placed in the Transnistrian region:
the largest power plant—Moldovan State Regional Power Station (aka Kuchurgan Power Station, also known under the Russian acronym MGRES), with total installed capacity over 2.5 GW
six out of seven interconnection points between Moldova and Ukraine on high-voltage (330 kV) lines, four of these lines being tied up in a transformer substation on the territory of MGRES
four out of five entry points on gas transmission pipelines of regional importance, including all three entry points on the Trans-Balkan pipeline system
the main gas compressor station on the Trans-Balkan pipeline system between Ukraine and Bulgaria, located near Tiraspol (the administrative center of Transnistrian region)
Thus, by 1992, the energy security of the Republic of Moldova almost entirely depended on Russia and its proxy regime in the Transnistrian region. Less than 10 percent of the country’s needs could be covered by electricity generation located outside the Transnistrian region. Import of electricity from Ukraine could not avoid high-voltage lines and transformation stations located in the breakaway region. Moreover, even the limited amount of generation controlled by constitutional authorities was mainly based on natural gas as fuel, while Gazprom was the only gas supplier and physical continuity of gas supply depended on infrastructural elements located in the Transnistrian region.
Since then, Russia has taken advantage of its energy leverage in relation to Moldova several times, generating crises, some of them politically reasoned[CD1] . Thus, electricity supply to the main part of Moldova was limited or even halted in 1998, 2004, and 2005, while natural gas supply was interrupted in 2000.
How Gazprom took control of Moldova’s gas infrastructure
The gas price has long been used by Russia as a political tool in promoting its foreign policy in the countries largely dependent on Russian gas. The former Soviet countries are particularly vulnerable due to poverty, corruption, and weak regulation of the energy market. The Kremlin administration exploited these weaknesses to gain control of gas supply systems via Gazprom, as it happened in countries like Moldova (1995), Armenia (1997), and Belarus (2007), and only partly succeeded in other countries. The energy sector has always been a copious source of illegal enrichment for corrupt politicians. In the case of Moldova, during 1994–1998 [CD2] the gas supply complex was twice exposed to hostile takeovers. Following a series of actions such as artificial debt swelling and undervaluation of assets, undertaken in conspiracy with Moldovan government officials, Gazprom gained control over companies that owned critical gas transmission and distribution infrastructure.
The trans-Balkan pipeline that crosses Ukraine and Moldova (including the breakaway Transnistrian region) has been used by Gazprom to supply about 20–25 bcm of gas annually to Balkan countries. The gas transit was one of—if not the only—negotiating tools for Moldova in relation to Gazprom. However, the corruptibility and lack of vision of Moldovan political elites allowed the Russian holding to acquire, at derisory prices, the majority stake in Moldova’s gas transmission system (1995) and distribution pipelines (1998) via debt-to-equity swaps. Prior to the acquisition, Gazprom had used its dominant position as a sole gas supplier to impose discriminatory conditions on the Moldovan side, thus artificially increasing the gas debt, as thoroughly analyzed in our 2007 research. Beginning in 1994, Gazprom increased the gas price for Moldova from USD 38.5 to USD 80 for one thousand cubic meters. During that period, Gazprom supplied gas on the European market at an average price of USD 72.8, although the share of transportation costs in the final price for EU countries was higher than for Moldova. At the same time, Gazprom supplied gas to the neighbouring Ukraine at a price of USD 50, which remained unchanged until 2005 for political reasons, aimed at retaining Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. Besides the abusive price increase for Moldova, Gazprom requested advanced payments and imposed a fine of 0.35 percent per day on the amounts due (equivalent to 127.8 percent per annum in hard currency), which was seventeen times more than for other countries of the former USSR. Moldova’s debt was further increased by the fact that the Transnistrian separatist region stopped paying for gas consumption after the 1992 Transnistrian conflict, when the separatists were backed by the Russian [CD3] 14th Guards Army. Consequently, in 1994 alone, Moldova’s gas debt increased from USD 22 million to USD 291 million, including USD 100 million in fines and USD 91 million of debt from the separatist region. Moldova was under threat to remain without [CD4] gas supply due to the immense debt. In order to avoid this, in 1995 the government agreed to cede in favor of Gazprom a 50 percent+1 share of the newly formed company Gazsnabtranzit, in whose capital the transportation pipelines were transmitted. The transaction was made both with deviations from the legal norm and to the detriment of the public interest, and as a result Moldova was prejudiced with over USD 416 million for the benefit of the Russian concern.
The government of Moldova admitted similar abuses in 1998 at the founding of JSC [CD5] Moldovagaz, in which Gazprom received a 50 percent share. The equity of the newly created enterprise was determined on the basis of the so-called preliminary estimate of both transmission and distribution pipelines. In 1999, the assets of the gas complex were to be revalued in order to rectify the ownership quotas in the share capital of Moldovagaz, with the corresponding correction of the gas debt. However, this provision has not been executed by the government. The share capital and the gas liabilities remained the same. These and other frauds were investigated in 2000–2001 by the Moldovan Court of Accounts (Supreme Audit Institution in Moldova) at the request of the Parliament. However, following Parliamentary elections on February 25, 2001, the pro-Russian Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) took over power, and already in March 2001 the team leader of auditing team, Mr. Tudor Șoitu, was ordered to finalize the investigation ahead of schedule. Despite the report containing pertinent proofs of frauds committed by high-level government officials and management of gas companies in favor of Gazprom, it has not been heard in the Parliament. Moreover, Mr. Șoitu was placed under accusation by the Prosecutor’s office and fired from the Court of Accounts. The data and confirmative documents that constituted the base for the report were partially published later, within policy papers produced by IDIS “Viitorul” think tank in 2007, 2017 and in Watchdog.md in 2019.
Gas debt and the financing of separatism
The supply of Russian gas to both Moldova and the self-proclaimed Transnistria has been carried out under contracts signed by Gazprom with entities registered in Moldova and officially recognized (initially it was Gazsnabtranzit, afterwards—Moldovagaz). Under such a contractual scheme, the gas debt of the separatist region is accumulated by the Moldovan side. This was possible due to the fact that Transnistria’s gas infrastructure was included in the capital of the Moldovan gas supplier under the pretext of paying the gas debt. Thus, Gazprom supplies gas to Moldovagaz, while the latter supplies gas to Moldovan consumers and to Tiraspol-Transgaz from Transnistria. De jure Tiraspol-Transgaz is a subsidiary of Moldovagaz, but de facto its assets were nationalized by the separatist authorities. Currently the outstanding amount owed by Moldovagaz to Gazprom at the end of 2019 totalled USD 7860.6 million (including USD 1201.2 million to its subsidiary Factoring-Finans).
Tiraspol-Transgaz resells the gas at subsidized tariffs to local Transnistrian households and enterprises, including to MGRES (Молдавская ГРЭС) power plant that supplies Moldova with electricity. The obtained revenue is accumulated on the so-called special gas account and is transferred directly to the separatist budget as loans from Tiraspol-Transgaz. Between 2007 and 2016, the separatist region received a USD 6 billion “gas subsidy,” out of which USD 1.3 billion was converted into budgetary funds. In this way the self-proclaimed Transnistrian authorities covered 35.3 percent of the total budgetary expenditures for the respective ten-year period. The amount of “gas subsidy” generously provided by Gazprom is equivalent to 48 percent of the self-proclaimed Transnistria’s GDP for that period. These findings point out that the unconstitutional regime in Tiraspol would not be sustainable without the permanent support of the Russian Federation. Given the subsidized tariffs, many people in Transnistria are unwilling to rejoin Moldova because they would have to pay more for gas consumption.
The largest gas consumer in Transnistria is MGRES power plant (generation capacity of 2520 MW), controlled by Russian energy holding Inter RAO UES. MGRES generates electricity from gas provided by Tiraspol-Transgaz and supplies 80 percent of Moldova’s electricity consumption. Using Moldova’s dependence on Russian gas, including for electricity generation, the Russian Federation has imposed a contractual scheme whereby Moldovan consumers are forced to finance separatism in their own country by purchasing energy from MGRES located in Transnistria and accumulating gas debts.
Although Gazprom mentions in all its financial reports that Transnistria does not pay for gas consumption and it leads to the increase of Moldova’s gas debt, gas supply to the region still continues. From an economic point of view, the supply of gas without recovery of value is in fact a subsidy. In other words, Gazprom’s activity in Moldova does not have an economic purpose, because it would never recover the gas debt from Moldovagaz, whose assets are below 20 percent of the total gas debt. In fact, Gazprom and senior Moldovan officials compel Moldovagaz to legalize the financing of the unconstitutional regime in Transnistria by supplying gas “on credit” and passing the debt to Moldovagaz. Moreover, according to contract provisions, Moldovagaz cannot interrupt the gas supply to the Transnistrian region without the written agreement of Gazprom. It is probably the only case in history when legalization services of financing the separatism are not paid, but are provided in exchange for debt accumulation.
Even if Gazprom takes over all Moldovagaz assets to recover the debt, we estimate their value at almost USD 1.4 billion, which is under 20 percent of total gas debt. Therefore Gazprom’s activity in Moldova has nothing in common with genuine economic interests, but rather serves as a tool to promote the strategic agenda of the Kremlin administration in Moldova. This geopolitical agenda can be summarized as follows: strengthening Russian influence in Moldova by financing separatism and maintaining the role of mediator of the Transnistrian conflict in its own interest.
Russian “gas subsidy” converted into benefits for Russian businesses
Since the 1990s, consumers in the Transnistrian region have benefited from heavily subsidized gas prices. The main beneficiaries were the large industrial enterprises—MGRES and the Moldovan metallurgical plant, also known under its Russian acronym MMZ. These companies consume a lot of energy and gas, and have been, or continue to be, controlled by Russian capital. Subsidized gas and energy tariffs provided them with significant competitive advantages compared to other companies in the region. At the same time, they exported the production at market prices, collecting strong currency. Respectively, the subsidies obtained by these factories through Russian gas were converted into real income.
The MGRES power plant is 100 percent owned by the Russian concern Inter RAO UES. As mentioned, the power plant is the main consumer of gas in the separatist region, using it as a basic source for electricity production. MGRES benefited from a subsidized tariff that covered between 28 percent and 68 percent of the real cost of gas. Based on the financial reports of Inter RAO UES, during 2008–2015, the Russian investors obtained a profit of USD 291.8 million only through MGRES.
The separatist authorities have established subsidized tariffs for the MMZ metallurgical plant as well, through secret decisions. In the period 2005–2015 MMZ was part of the MetalloInvest holding controlled by the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. The plant paid only 11.5 percent of the real gas price and was sometimes generally exempt from paying for gas. In the period 2007–2015, the plant reported sales of over USD 2.3 billion according to the data published by the so-called central bank of Transnistria. However, the real market prices for metallurgical production in Ukraine were 65–85 percent higher. We assume that this margin is explained by the fact that MMZ sold its production through traders affiliated to the MetalloInvest group, where the group accumulated most of its profits. Based on this assumption, we estimated that in the period 2007–2015, the profit related to MMZ production, accumulated by MetalloInvest traders, amounted to over USD 1.5 billion.
The so-called gas subsidy and respectively the subsidized electricity price in self-proclaimed Transnistria continue to be exploited by Russian cryptocurrency businesses as well. Igor Chaika, the son of the Russian ex-Prosecutor General, not only expressed openly his interest to invest in mining farms in Transnistria, but also his organization Delovaya Rossiya (Business Russia) helped the separatist government to develop the legislation on blockchain technology. At least a part of the mining equipment was supplied through Moldovan customs. In December 2018 the separatist authorities announced their plans to increase the output capacity of MGRES power plant by 100 MW by suppying energy to the mining farms.
Cryptocurrency and Russian subversive operations overseas
Cryptocurrency has been used by Russian hackers for various cyber attacks in recent years as a part of the “hybrid warfare,” following the rise of the political tension between Russia and Western countries after the annexation of Crimea. Cryptocurrency transactions are difficult to trace and this fact allowed the perpetrators to hide their identity and the source of funds, in order to circumvent the sanctions or the Know-Your-Client (KYC) procedures applied by commercial banks. The GRU-linked hackers used cryptocurrency to attack the German parliament in 2015, and the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016. Cryptocurrency-funded cyber operations also targeted FIFA, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), and the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2016.
Hard-to-trace cryptocurrency became a common tool in Russian subversive operations. In October 2017 Russian president Vladimir Putin even issued five presidential orders on the legal framework for digital currencies and mining. Shortly after that, a spike in cryptocurrency mining activities has been observed in several pro-Russian breakaway regions. Besides Transnistria, the mining of virtual currency has also expanded to Donbass and Abkhazia, with the aim of creating a virtual trading platform in Crimea and providing services to the unrecognized pro-Russian territories. Moreover, acccording to Ukraine’s Deputy Prosecutor General Anatoliy Matios, cryptocurrency mined in Ukraine has been used to buy military equipment, weapons, and ammunition for the separatist groups fighting in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Given that, the trace of the cryptocurrency mined in the pro-Russian breakaway regions becomes necessary to prevent and expose the subversive operations conducted by the Kremlin in its attempt to achieve political goals in other countries.
Russian gas “subsidy” stimulating corruption of Moldovan political elites
Although Moldova was ruled by parties of different geopolitical orientations, since its incorporation in 1998, Moldovagaz remained a dangerous territory for control bodies. Throughout this period, Gazprom along with Moldovan decision-makers tolerated and even facilitated fraudulent schemes in the energy sector to the detriment of the national interests of Moldova. At the same time, investigations of alleged fraud in the gas sector turned against their initiators and none of them finalized with proper prosecution of decision makers from Moldovagaz or Moldovan officials. Moreover, despite catastrophic dynamics in Moldovagaz’s financial situation, two of its top officials were decorated with the Glory of Work presidential award: Mr. Alexandr Gusev, President of the Administration Council (2012) and Mr. Iacov Cazacu, Vice President of the Administration Council (2017). This suggests that some of the illicit proceeds from these schemes were used to bribe Moldovan politicians. Thus, each of the parties pursues its own interest: Moldovan political decision-makers aim for personal enrichment from corruption schemes, while Gazprom executes the Kremlin’s agenda on financing separatism and increasing Moldova’s dependence on the Russian Federation.
As mentioned above, the Court of Accounts’ attempt to verify the activity of Moldovagaz in 2001 resulted in an open criminal investigation against the head of the audit team, Tudor Soitu. However, the situation did not change even after the so-called pro-European coalition came to power in 2009. In 2012, the National Energy Regulation Authority (ANRE) issued four inspection reports on procurement irregularities at Moldovagaz’s subsidiary. Frauds worth MDL 243 million (approximately USD 20 million at that time) were found in the purchase of goods at prices that exceeded 3–4 times the market price. This time the control ended with the assasination attempt on one of ANRE directors just two weeks after the first inspection report was issued. Despite its odiousity—the explosion of a grenade under the car of a senior official, appointed by Parliament—this assassination attempt remains uninvestigated until present.
In 2014, following a conspiracy between Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and self-proclaimed Transnistrian President Yevgheny Shevchuk, the electricity produced by MGRES (owned by Russian Inter RAO UES) was supplied to Moldova through an intermediary company, Energokapital. The electricity was supplied at the same price as previously, while the internal gas tariffs for electricity generation in self-proclaimed Transnistria were decreased by 15 percent. The illicit margin was syphoned off via Energokapital, whose beneficiaries are hidden behind a Scottish limited partnerships. An investigation conducted by the Blacksea.eu revealed that Energokapital has a complex series of off-shore owners connected to the “theft” of a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks. Undoubtedly the energy supply scheme via Energokapital was coordinated at the highest levels in Gazprom and the Russian government, given the visit of the Deputy Prime Minister Andrian Candu to Moscow in September 2014, just two weeks before the incorporation of Energokapital. Moreover, in 2016 civil society watchdogs publicly presented copies of payment orders for transfer of dividends by Energokapital to its offshore mother company worth over USD 19 million and solicited the Prosecutor’s office to verify whether these were made in compliance with anti-money laundering legislation. Instead of investigating the facts, after just 2 weeks, the Prosecutor’s office issued a press release claiming that “experts did not present any documents that would confirm the illegalities.”
In March 2019 Moldova’s Prime Minister Pavel Filip secretly sent a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart, in which he called for the removal of the Transnistrian metallurgical plant MMZ from the sanctions list and the termination of the antidumping investigation against MMZ. Why would the Moldovan prime minister lobby for the metallurgical plant located in the separatist region? The reason is obvious if we follow the money. MMZ is the main customer of the state-owned company Metalferos, which has a monopoly on the collection and export of scrap metal from Moldova. In 2015–2019, the payments from MMZ to Metalferos amounted to at least USD 127 million, a part of which was embezzled to offshore companies directly controlled by Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, the former leader of the Democratic Party to which Pavel Filip belongs. The Prosecutor’s office started the investigations at Metalferos only after Plahotniuc left the country. In exchange for insignificant personal benefits and acting to the detriment of national interests, Moldovan political elites ensured the temporary registration of MMZ in Moldova and allowed its exports to be made through Moldovan customs and the state-owned Railway company.
The large-scale corruption in the energy sector poses a real threat to economic and energy security, and even the territorial integrity of Moldova. Even today the Moldovan government continues to support the large energy-consuming enterprises in Transnistria, despite the fact that it leads to the increase of the gas debt. In March 2020 the Commission of Emergency Situations canceled the energy procurement tender and the state-owned trader Energocom signed a new agreement with MGRES power plant from Transnistria.
How to take a country hostage for USD 1 billion in 27 years
As mentioned above, by the end of 2019 the total debt of Moldovagaz to Gazprom and its subsidiary Factoring Finans Ltd amounted to USD 8 billion, including about USD 7.5 billion related to gas supplied to the Transnistrian region. These figures are based on contract prices of gas, however the cost of natural gas supplied by Gazprom in the Transnistrian region via Moldovagaz is much lower than the invoiced amounts. According to Gazprom’s officials, in 2016 the average cost for natural gas extraction was around USD 20 per one thousand cubic meters, including taxes. Before switching to the “European price formula” in 2006, Gazprom supplied natural gas to Ukraine at USD 50 for the same amount, which included the cost of transmission services to the border.
Between 2007 and 2016, the average gas consumption in the Transnistrian region was 1.8 billion cubic meters per year. Taking into consideration the cost of transit services on Ukrainian territory, one thousand cubic meters of natural gas delivered to the Ukrainian-Moldovan border (Transnistrian segment) cost Gazprom approximately USD 65 per one thousand cubic meters. Thus, the total costs incurred by Gazprom with financing the Transnistrian separatism over twenty-seven years are slightly more than USD 3 billion. In the mean time, at least around USD 2 billion have been recovered by just two Russian corporations (Metalloinvest and Inter RAO) by benefiting from subsidized gas prices in the Transnistrian region. Thus, the bottomline costs for Russia with maintaining Transnistria as its main instrument of influence in Moldova was at most USD 1 billion—not too expensive for twenty-seven years of influence in a European country of 3 million people.
Thus, by exercising its monopolistic position as a natural anti-dumping gas supplier to Moldova and by loyalizing corrupt political elites from Chișinău, Gazprom served as the main instrument of financing the Russian foreign policy agenda in Moldova.
This malign influence can only be countered by consolidating Moldova’s energy security and eliminating dependency on critical energy infrastructure controlled by Russia via its Transnistrian proxies. However, little has been done in this respect since 1991, despite the fact that the need for diversification has been acknowledged and even included in all energy strategies. Thus, the Energy Strategy until 2010 adopted in 2000 mentions diversification of energy supply sources and routes five times, while the Energy Strategy till 2020 adopted in 2007 mentions it six times and the Energy strategy till 2030 adopted in 2013 refers to it nine times. De facto, despite strong political and financial support provided by the European Union and other international development partners, no major progress has been achieved until the second half of 2019!
In terms of natural gas supply diversification, the largely publicized Iași-Ungheni interconnector started in 2014 still cannot be operated at its full capacity. Moreover, even after finalization of all works around this interconnection route, its capacity (1.5 bcm per annum) won’t be sufficient to cover the winter peak consumption in Moldova even except Transnistrian region. Also, the southern part of Moldova would still remain fully dependent on the traditional natural gas supply route—the Trans-Balkan pipeline system—where the flow of gas could be disrupted by Transnistrian authorities. In the mean time, Gazprom has finalized the Turkish Stream project and is able to supply natural gas to Turkey and other Balkan countries bypassing the Ukrainian and Moldovan part of the Trans-Balkan pipeline. The breakthrough in terms of natural gas supply options for Moldova has been achieved only in the second half of 2019, and mainly due to external factors. Uncertainties around the gas transit contract through Ukraine after 2019 forced Gazprom to look for alternative scenarios for supplying gas to the Balkans. The only feasible emergency alternative was to upgrade the Trans-Balkan pipeline system to be able to operate in reverse mode, which would enable Gazprom to supply gas to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Moldova via Turkey. Thus, in just about six months, this project of strategic importance was implemented. It is worth mentioning that civil society experts signalled the strategic importance of the reverse flow on the Trans-Balkan pipeline system and its priority compared to the Iași-Ungheni interconnector since at least 2014.
The implications of the Trans-Balkan reverse flow for Moldova cannot be overestimated as it also reverses the balance of power between Moldovan constitutional authorities and the Transnistrian proxies of Russia in the gas sector: presently, should Moldovagaz solicit Gazprom to supply natural gas to Moldova’s southern border (instead of the eastern, as previously) the Russian supplier would have to comply with it. In this case, if Transnistrian authorities maintain the practice of nonpayment, the supply of natural gas to the secessionist region could be physically limited or even completely interrupted at Căușeni measurement station. The main risks associated with this scenario is on the electricity side: not only would it leave Moldova without its largest source of electricity, which is MGRES fueled by natural gas, but it is also highly likely that Transnistrian authorities would respond by shutting down high-voltage (330 kV) lines that would become critical for importing electricity from Ukraine thus leaving the entire country dependent on a single high-voltage line. Therefore, the next and the last logical step on the path of eliminating the risk of energy blackmail on behalf of Russian proxies in Transnistria is securing the electricity supply by interconnecting with the Romanian electricity transmission system in an asynchronous mode.
Similar to “diversification” efforts on the gas side, construction of electricity interconnections with Romania are being long delayed. Civil society experts have already lost track of all technical and feasibility studies commissioned in the last more than ten years around interconnection options. So far, despite about 250 million euros allocated for these purposes by international partners (World Bank, European Investment Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), including a 40 million euro grant from the European Union, construction has not even been started. The only plausible explanation is that the entire process is being sabotaged by Russian agents of influence among Moldovan decision makers.
In conclusion, consolidation of Moldova’s energy security by diversification of energy supply options and integration into European energy markets is not only vital for countering Russian malign influence in Moldova, but also key to solving the Transnistrian conflict, which affects regional security.
 For more details on historical background and evolution of transnistrian war see Christopher Borgen, “Thawing a Frozen Conflict: Legal Aspects of the Separatist Crisis in Moldova: A Report from the Association of the Bar of the City of New York,” Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Vol. 61, 2006, pp. 13-24.
 “Case Ilașcu and others vs Moldova and Russia. (Application no. 48787/99)”, European Court of Human Rights (website), July 8, 2004, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-61886.
 IDIS Viitorul, “Energy and politics: the price for impunity in Moldova”, Apr 2017, https://bit.ly/2Nss3Yh
 Community Watchdog.MD, “Moldovagaz – 20 years of massive fraud under the protection of shareholders and state institutions”, Sept 2019, https://bit.ly/37M7z5P
 IDIS Viitorul (2017), Supra note 16 at chapter 3
 Order no. 723 from Oct 13, 2005, of the self-proclaimed President of Transnistria, https://bit.ly/2YgkDgO
 Gazprom financial report for Q4/2019 at page 83, https://www.gazprom.ru/f/posts/77/885487/gazprom-ifrs-2019-12m-ru.pdf
 Gazprom financial report for Q4/2005 at page 47, http://www.gazprom.ru/f/posts/91/747099/repiv_2005.doc
 IDIS Viitorul (2017), Supra note 16 at page 15.
 ECHR, case Ilascu v. Moldova and Russia, Annex: Witness Y, §261, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-61886
 Gazprom financial report for Q1/2020 at page 55, https://www.gazprom.ru/f/posts/05/118974/gazprom-emitent-report-1q-2020.pdf
 Rise.md, (2016) „Confidential contract: Gazprom empire in Moldova”, Agreement no. 1 to the Contract of gas supply no. 1GM-07-11, §2.8, https://www.rise.md/contract-confidential-imperiul-gazprom-in-moldova/
 IDIS Viitorul (2017), Supra note 16, chapter 4.
 MGRES technical indicators for 2019, https://bit.ly/2BtiV2t
 Kommersant.ru, ”Приднестровье примайнивает инвесторов”, Feb 2018, https://bit.ly/2UYnoS0
 Novostipmr.com, ”Начало большого пути. […]”, Dec 2017, https://bit.ly/3didSPC
 Anticoruptie.md, “The cryptorepublic”, Apr 2019, https://bit.ly/2YhYjUc
 Netzpolitik, “Digital Attack on German Parliament”, Jun 2015, https://bit.ly/3155DT7
 Mueller indictment from Jul 13, 2018, https://bit.ly/2NPPpGf
 Indictment of the Western District of Pennsylvania, § 21 and 22, https://bit.ly/30hnE1t
 Kremlin press release from Oct 21, 2017, http://kremlin.ru/acts/assignments/orders/55899
 BBC, “”Морячок” из ДНР купил биржу криптовалют и начал охоту на сокровища Винника”, Dec 2018, https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-46444479
 Abkhazia signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Russian Association of Crypto Industry and Blockchain (RACIB), Bitfeed.ru, “Абхазия разрабатывает нормативную базу для регулирования майнинга”, Dec 2018, https://bit.ly/2UZ92Rl
[CD1]Another word that will also work here is motivated.
[CD2]Number ranges are separated by an en dash. Hereafter this change will be made silently (i.e. without track changes on).
[CD3]On p. 1 you describe this army as former Soviet. For consistency, and to avoid confusion for the reader, it helps to be consistent with terms. Please make the necessary changes so that these terms match.
[CD4]Was Moldova already not having gas supplied (as is suggested by the word, remain)? If this is correct, leave as is.
If this is not the case, this phrase could be simplified to of losing
[CD5]Please spell out this abbreviation (joint-stock company?) and insert the before it. E.g. …the joint-stock company…
Since it is only used once it is unnecessary to include the abbreviation in parentheses.
Pandemics always provided fertile soil for conspiracy theories, as facing global disasters often disempowers people and makes them susceptible to conspiratorial explanations of the sources of calamities. Global disasters are also often used by world powers to advance political objectives either domestically or vis-à-vis other nations.
In the 1980s, when AIDS started to spread across the globe and became the “the first postmodern pandemic,” the Soviet Union ran a covert international campaign to convince the world that AIDS was a result of the Pentagon’s experiments aimed at creating new biological weapons. At that time, while the Soviet leadership was convinced that the US was preparing a nuclear strike against the country, the Soviets realized that they could not compete with the West in the technological and military spheres. However, political warfare was a much cheaper means of competition with the West, and the Soviet Union became especially active in this particular area.
Today, observing the confrontation between Russia and the West, one can see similarities and dissimilarities with the Cold War, but one analogy with the later period of the Cold War is obvious: due to its economic weakness, Russia is unable to match Western technological advances and increasingly relies on various instruments of political warfare in order to damage the West by subverting transatlantic relations, undermining trust in the EU and NATO, and sowing discord between Western nations.
As COVID-19 spread from China to the rest of the world and became a pandemic, Moscow used the disaster to intensify its political war against the West. Despite the fact that the pandemic hit Russia too, Vladimir Putin’s regime seems to have refused an opportunity to scale down political confrontation with the West by ending aggression against Ukraine and discontinuing attempts to destabilize Europe. On the contrary, the Kremlin decided to exploit the pandemic and target European countries that suffered the most from the deadly virus. Italy became one of these countries.
“From Russia with love”
On March 21, 2020, Putin spoke with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and the same day Putin ordered the Russian Ministry of Defence to form “an air grouping for a prompt delivery to Italy of help for fighting Coronavirus.” The help, as the press release of the Ministry of Defence read, would consist of “eight mobile brigades of expert virologists and military medics, automobile systems for aerosol disinfection of transport and territories, as well as medical equipment.”
At that time, there were over 42 thousand active cases of COVID-19 in Italy and almost 5 thousand people had died of the virus. Of all European states, Italy was hit the hardest, and, already on 10 March, Maurizio Massari, Italy’s permanent representative to the EU, made an appeal for help and European solidarity. According to Massari, in February Italy asked the European Commission to activate the EU Mechanism of Civil Protection “for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection”; the Commission forwarded the request to the EU Member States but by the time Massari wrote his article, no EU nation had responded to the Commission’s call.
At the same time, China had responded bilaterally and on 12 March, a Chinese aircraft brought to Italy nine medical experts and unloaded “31 tons of medical supplies including intensive care unit equipment, medical protective equipment, and antiviral drugs”—they were sent by the Chinese Red Cross. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had been accused by some Western experts, journalists and politicians, for mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak, the help to Italy was clearly an attempt to shift the international focus from blame to humanitarian response.
With Putin’s offer of help, the Kremlin apparently did not want to miss out on demonstrating its seeming goodwill against the background of the allegedly selfish EU countries. In the period between 23 and 25 March, fifteen Russian aircrafts landed on the Pratica di Mare military airbase delivering military experts and special equipment. At the same time, Russian Defence Ministry “made an extraordinary effort to communicate the mission”: it sent 18 press releases on the subject between 21 and 24 March. On 25 March, the Russian military formed a convoy consisting of 22 military vehicles—carrying stickers saying “From Russia with love” in Russian, English, and Italian—as well as buses with military experts. The convoy travelled 600 kilometers to the Orio al Serio airport in Bergamo, “where the joint Italian-Russian headquarters for the fight against coronavirus infection will be stationed.”
For Russian state-controlled international media such as RT and Sputnik, Moscow’s help to Rome was the beginning of a long anti-EU campaign. With headlines saying “Italians praise Russia, deride EU after Vladimir Putin sends in coronavirus aid,” or “EU left Italy ‘practically alone’ to fight coronavirus, so Rome looked for help elsewhere, incl Russia,” “With united Europe MIA in its Covid-19 response, worst-hit nations turn to ‘evil’ Russia & China for help,” the message was clear: the EU showed no solidarity with Italy, while Putin’s Russia demonstrated its goodwill despite the fact that Italy—along with the other EU nations—imposed economic and political sanctions on Russia. In the eyes of the Western audience, videos and pictures showing Russian military vehicles flying Russian flags and driving through Italy apparently had to project an image of Russia as a self-avowed savior of Italy and a mighty military force rushing to the rescue where NATO was feeble. And there were other Russian specialists who were in charge of promoting such an image: Russian journalists from the Zvezda TV network run by the Russian Defence Ministry who arrived in Italy together with the Russian military.
The entire operation appeared to be a successful publicity coup for the Kremlin. Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio personally welcomed the Russian aid at the Pratica di Mare airbase. Italian Chief of the Defence Staff General Enzo Vecciarelli was present at the airbase too and “thanked the Russian people for lending a helping hand.” Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent a letter to his personal friend Vladimir Putin saying that the Russian aid was “a real sacrifice made for friendship and love for Italy and the Italians,” adding that Italians would “not forget it.”
The visuals were important too. Russia’s Ministry of Defence published a photo, which was later republished by dozens of media outlets across the world, in which Russian General Sergey Kikot, who led the Italian operation, showed something on the map of Italy to the representatives of the Italian military thus creating an impression that Russians had command power in a NATO member state. Russian media resources also talked about ordinary Italians replacing EU flags with Russian ones and showed a video of an Italian engineer who did this while showing a piece of paper thanking Putin and Russia.
However, soon after the arrival of the Russian aid, details started to emerge suggesting that the operation “From Russia with love” had much more to do with political theatrics rather than with Moscow’s philanthropy.
The darker side of Russian gifts
The logistics of the delivery of the Russian aid alone pointed to a hidden agenda of the operation: why had the aid been delivered first to the Pratica di Mare airbase and then driven 600 kilometers to the Orio al Serio airport if the Russian airplanes could have delivered the aid directly to any of the four airports around Bergamo capable of receiving Russian military cargo airplanes? There are two possible explanations for this. First, the Russian military wanted to impress the public and the media with a long convoy of over 20 military vehicles symbolically conquering a NATO member state. Moscow would not have achieved such an effect had the aid been delivered straight to the destination point. Alexander Sladkov, a Russian military journalist working for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, called the operation “‘a humanitarian axe’ run into NATO’s chest.” He also likened the Russian operation in Italy with the forced march of Russian forces to the Pristina International Airport in the aftermath of the Kosovo War in June 1999: the Russian military arrived in the airport ahead of the NATO forces and occupied it. Yet another possible explanation for the apparently unreasonable 600 kilometer drive from the Pratica di Mare airbase to Bergamo is that the Russian mission to Italy was “a front for intelligence gathering,” so the trip could, indeed, be used by the Russian military to collect intelligence “at the heart of NATO.” Of course, one can argue that it was cheaper for the Russian military to deliver the aid to the Pratica di Mare airbase than all the way to the Orio al Serio airport. However, the distance between the two airports is insignificant in comparison to the distance between Russia and Italy, and, furthermore, the Russian military anyway charged the Italians for the fuel and the flights of their cargo airplanes.
Furthermore, Italian expert Massimiliano Di Pasquale argued—with a reference to Italian specialists—that “there was no need at all in the disinfection of the streets” in Bergamo. Andrea Armaro, a former spokesperson for Italy’s Defence Ministry, also “questioned the need for Russian military medics to disinfect areas when there were already nuclear, biological and chemical military teams in Italy capable of doing the job.”
According to the investigation by Italian investigative journalist Jacopo Iacoboni, high-level political sources told La Stampa that 80% of the Russian aid was either useless or of little use to Italy, as the Russian delivery mostly consisted of disinfection and sterilization equipment. The same sources argued that Putin was pursuing “geopolitical and diplomatic” interests, while Conte had to play along as he needed any help in the situation of the severe crisis.
Moscow immediately and angrily responded to Iacoboni’s article. Russia’s Ambassador to Italy Sergey Razov called the Russian aid “a selfless desire to help a friendly people in trouble” and slammed the assertions made in the article as “the product of a perverse mind.” The Russian Defence Ministry joined the campaign too. Its spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov called Iacoboni’s article in La Stampa an attempt “to discredit the Russian mission” and added, in awkward English:
Hiding behind the ideals of freedom of speech and pluralism of opinions, La Stampa manipulates in its materials the most low-grade Russophobic fakes of the Cold War, referring to so called certain “opinions” of anonymous “high-ranking sources. At the same time, ‘La Stampa’ does not disdain to use literally everything that the authors manage to invent on the basis of recommendations from apparently not decayed textbooks on anti-Soviet propaganda. […] As for the attitude to the real customers of the Russophobian media campaign in La Stampa, which we know—we recommend that you learn the ancient wisdom—Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam (He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it). And to make it clearer: Bad penny always comes back.
Reacting to Konashenkov’s “ancient wisdom,” Iacoboni said: “It is a threatening and intimidating phrase […] not only towards me but also towards my newspaper. In Italy we do not let ourselves be intimidated; freedom of criticism exists here. We are not Chechnya.” In their turn, the editorial board of La Stampa expressed its “outrage upon the serious attack” of the Russian Defence Ministry on the newspaper and Iacoboni.
What Moscow did not realize was that its vicious attacks against Italian journalism ruined much of the positive effect of the Russian mission in Italy. In their joint notice, Italy’s Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry declared that Italy was grateful for the Russian aid, but, at the same time, they could not “help but blame the inappropriate tone of certain expressions used by the spokesman of the Ministry of Russian Defence against some articles published the Italian press. Freedom of speech and the right to criticize are fundamental values for Italy, as well as the right to reply, both characterised by formality and substantial fairness. In this moment of global emergency, the control and analysis task of the free press is more essential than ever.” Mayor of Bergamo Giorgio Gori tweeted: “Solidarity with @jacopo_iacoboni and La Stampa subjected to the intimidation from a Russian defence spokesman. We are grateful to have Russian doctors and nurses in #Bergamo who help us treat our patients, but no threat to free information is acceptable.” Many other politicians and journalists expressed their solidarity with Iacoboni too.
However, Russian officials and state-controlled international media continued their attack on La Stampa and Iacoboni.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared that a company registered in London was behind Iacoboni’s article in La Stampa. She did not provide either the name of the company or any other details, but vaguely noted: “When we began to study it [the article], it turned out that this is a purely commercial operation that some foreign structures attempted to stage using non-transparent methods.” While it is unclear what British “commercial operation” Zakharova had in mind, a fringe Russian-language website, Foundation for Strategic Culture, ran a story that claimed that “Anglo-Saxons” were behind La Stampa’s “provocative attack” referring to the incorrect information that the newspaper was owned by Chrysler whose chairman John Elkann was from New York and CEO Michael Manley was from Britain.
The Italian edition of Sputnik published an article written by now late Giulietto Chiesa, a long-time pro-Kremlin activist and associate of Russian fascist Alexander Dugin, who claimed that La Stampa was a “notoriously Russophobic newspaper” (ironically, Chiesa wrote for La Stampa in 1991-2000), while Iacoboni allegedly “specialized in spreading the germs of an apparently very infectious disease of Russophobia.”
Chiesa was not the only Italian “friend of Russia” who was directly or indirectly mobilised by the Russian state and non-state actors in Moscow’s attempts to generate “hype” around the Russian aid to Italy. On April 14, 2020, the Russian Defence Ministry issued a press release stating that Professor Maria Chiara Pesenti from the University of Bergamo sent a letter of appreciation to the Russian military. Pesenti, due to her specialization in Russian language and literature, is a frequent visitor of Russia, and, in November 2019, Putin awarded her with a Medal of Pushkin. And already in March 2020, Italian far-right activist Gian Luigi Ferretti, who was part of the politically biased election observation mission at the Russian 2018 presidential election, uploaded a video on YouTube on which a recording of the Russian anthem was played from the headquarters of the Italian fascist organization CasaPound. (Uninitiated viewers would, however, hardly recognize the headquarters of CasaPound and just see Italian flags and hear the Russian anthem).
Furthermore, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Russian citizens were sending requests to their Italian friends and acquaintances offering €200 (approximately $217) for thank-you videos on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The requests allegedly came from the Russian media, but no name was given. In order to earn money, Italians were supposed “to say something good” about the Russian aid offered to Italy: “better videos or texts with photos, but for videos they pay 200 euros, for text they give less.” However, La Repubblica was cautious about linking these practices to the activities of the Russian state actors.
The Russian aid to Italy offered an opportunity to a number of pro-Kremlin actors to pursue their own political and personal interests. On 23 March, Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator who is prone to self-promotion through provocative tweets related to foreign policy, tweeted that Poland had “not let Russian aircraft carrying aid to Italy pass through its airspace.” Pushkov is also one of the most cited politicians in the Russian media space, and several Russian media outlets—including various editions of Sputnik—quickly picked up Pushkov’s message that generally fed into the Kremlin’s animosity towards Poland. However, Poland’s Foreign Ministry promptly refuted Pushkov’s claim, and Sputnik had to amend its reports on the issue, while Pushkov deleted his tweet. Nevertheless, his claim permeated into the milieu of Italian conspiracy theorists and anti-EU activists.
While Pushkov’s tweet was hardly underpinned by any other reason apart from the Russian senator’s proclivity for provocative political utterances, some other developments around the Russian aid to Italy had complex agendas behind them.
On 20 March, Ulrich Oehme, a member of the German parliament from the far-right party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), sent letters to two Russian contacts. One letter was addressed to the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky and the other—to a member of the Moscow City Duma, Roman Babayan. The letters seem to be practically identical and, in particular, read: “Today, Mr. Paolo Grimoldi, a member of the Council of Europe from the Northern League (Lombardy), turned to us with a desperate cry for help via the WhatsApp group of European Conservatives. The situation with the hospitals in Lombardy is extremely critical. They urgently need doctors. For this reason, I ask you to see whether the Russian Federation can help people of Lombardy with doctors and ventilators. I have just talked with Mr. Grimoldi on the phone and he is excited about my idea to talk to you about help.” When the media reported about Putin’s decision to provide aid to Italy, the AfD claimed that “the Russian leadership responded to a request from the Bundestag member Ulrich Oehme concerning Northern Italy severely affected by the coronavirus.”
The background of the above-mentioned figures suggests that Oehme’s letters were most likely part of an elaborate influence operation.
The AfD’s foreign policy positions very often coincide with those of the Kremlin, and this far-right party is extremely critical of the EU’s sanctions imposed on Putin’s Russia. The AfD’s members often pay visits to Moscow to meet Russian officials, and, in February 2017, the AfD’s leadership discussed cross-party cooperation with a number of Russian politicians including Leonid Slutsky—one of the two Russian politicians to whom Oehme addressed his letters. Oehme himself was involved in pro-Kremlin activities. In March 2018, he illegally visited Russia-annexed Crimea where he “observed” the illegitimate Russian presidential election. Furthermore, he tried to promote the interests of the Russia-controlled “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic” in the Council of Europe in 2019.
Paolo Grimoldi’s party Northern League (Lega Nord, LN) is known for its pro-Kremlin foreign policy positions too, and signed, in March 2017, a coordination and cooperation agreement with the ruling United Russia party. Grimoldi himself contributed to the development of the relations between his party and Russian state and non-state actors. In October 2014, he announced the creation of the cross-party group, Friends of Putin, in the Italian parliament. Although there is no evidence that this group eventually took off or was successful in promoting rapprochement between Italy and Russia, the Russian media widely reported on this initiative attempting to show—against the backdrop of the Western sanctions against Putin’s Russia—the alleged growth of pro-Kremlin sentiments in the West.
In his turn, Slutsky—as chairman of the parliamentary committee on international affairs—coordinated several important contacts between the European far right and Russian state actors. For example, it was Slutsky who officially invited Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right National Front (later renamed into National Rally) to meet Putin in March 2017, a month before the first round of the French presidential election. Slutsky also supervised several politically biased international election observation missions that included many European far-right politicians.
According to the German media outlet Bild, in parallel to Oehme’s efforts, the LN essentially forced a difficult choice on Conte: either accept aid from Moscow and grant Russia a publicity stunt, or reject it and suffer an outrage from the suffering Italian population. From this perspective, Oehme’s letters to Russian politicians seem to be not only an attempt to advance political interests of the AfD and LN, but also an endeavour to put additional pressure on Conte.
Like Slutsky, Grimoldi and Oehme are members of the Council of Europe, and—given this fact, as well as Grimoldi’s engagement with the pro-Kremlin activities—he did not really need Oehme to be an intermediary between him and Slutsky. The involvement of Oehme can be simply explained by his desire to secure Russian favors not only for the LN, but also for the AfD—by displaying servility before Russia. Slutsky was an obvious choice as the first addressee of the letter coordinated by Grimoldi and Oehme, due to his membership in the Council of Europe and coordination of the relations between European politicians and Russian state actors. Unlike Slutsky, however, Roman Babayan has little in common with European politicians or Russian malign influence operations in Europe, but he seemed to be a good choice as a second addressee of the letter because of his connections with the Russian media. Babayan is a chief editor of the Govorit Moskva radio station and cooperates with the functionally state-controlled NTV television channel, so his task was to spread the word about Italy’s “cry for Russian help” in the media, and so he did. The outcome of the operation was obvious: Oehme and Grimoldi strengthened pro-Kremlin foreign policy positions of their parties in order to seek further favors from Moscow, while contributing to the domestic pressure on Conte and consolidating the international image of Putin’s Russia as the true friend of Italian people.
It would be wrong to argue that the Russian aid delivered to Italy was completely useless. However, it would be equally wrong to assume that this aid was primarily driven by humanitarian considerations, because the main objective of the “From Russia with love” operation was to demonstrate to the Italian people that it was Russia, rather than the EU or NATO, that was the true friend of Italy.
The relevance of such an operation could only become possible due to the initial confusion in European capitals in the face of the unfolding crisis. As President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said in the middle of April 2020, “too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning.” Von der Leyen offered “a heartfelt apology” for the lack of European solidarity with Italy at the start of the crisis, but neither her apology nor the fact that EU states eventually rendered much greater assistance to Italy than China or Russia could undo what had been done: the erosion of Italians’ trust towards the EU.
The Kremlin readily helped to erode this trust as Italy was “perceived by Moscow as the weak link in the EU.” By launching its malign influence operation, Putin’s regime hoped that—by undermining Italy’s trust in the EU—the Kremlin contributed to strengthening Italy’s opposition to the EU’s sanctions policy on Russia. At the end of April 2020, Moscow decided to covertly test the efficiency of its tactics in Italy. On 27 April, Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov forwarded to Vito Rosario Petrocelli, chairman of the Italian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, an appeal by Slutsky, and asked his addressee to inform Italian senators of its contents. In his appeal, Slutsky called upon the international community—without singling out any particular nation—to support Russia’s resolution at the United Nations that would make it easier to lift sanctions imposed on Russia. Razov forwarded Slutsky’s appeal in two versions: an original Russian version and a translation into Italian. Curiously, Razov specified in his cover letter that the Italian version was an unofficial translation which implies that his efforts took place behind closed doors and was yet another malign influence operation.
Russia was not the only beneficiary of its influence operations in Italy: representatives of German and Italian far-right parties, known for their pro-Kremlin foreign policy attitudes, had an opportunity to showcase their allegiance to Russia by reinforcing its self-imposed image of a well-meaning global power, and, therefore, seek support from Moscow in the future.
 Lars O. Kallings, “The First Postmodern Pandemic: 25 Years of HIV/ AIDS,” Journal of Internal Medicine, 263, no. 3 (2008): 218-243.
 Thomas Boghardt, “Operation INFEKTION: Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” Studies in Intelligence, 53, no. 4 (2009): 1-24.
 “Telephone Conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte,” Events. President of Russia (website), March 21, 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/63048.
 “Minoborony Rossii sozdaet aviatsionnuyu gruppirovku dlya operativnoy dostavki pomoshchi Ital’yanskoy respiblike v bor’be s koronavirusom,” Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii (website), March 22, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283218@egNews.
 Maurizio Massari, “Italian Ambassador to the EU: Italy Needs Europe’s Help,” Politico, March 10, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-italy-needs-europe-help/.
 Elisabeth Braw, “The EU is Abandoning Italy in its Hour of Need,” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/14/coronavirus-eu-abandoning-italy-china-aid/. Following Massari’s criticism, Germany suspended the controversial decree that had prohibited the export of masks, protective suits, etc. abroad, and declared that it would supply one million masks to Italy, see Tonia Mastrobuoni, “Coronavirus, la Germania invierà un milione di mascherine all’Italia,” La Repubblica, March 13, 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/03/13/news/coronavirus_la_germania_invia_un_milione_di_mascherine_all_italia-251219227/. Later, Germany was joined by France in providing one million masks to Italy, see Michel Rose, “Europe Failing to Communicate Its Response to Coronavirus Crisis, France Says,” Reuters, March 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-europe-france/europe-failing-to-communicate-its-response-to-coronavirus-crisis-france-says-idUSKBN21C3DT. On the European solidarity in action see Coronavirus: “European Solidarity in Action,” European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/coronavirus-european-solidarity-action_en.
 Braw, “EU is Abandoning Italy”; “Coronavirus, Di Maio: ‘Se sei solidale, ricevi solidarietà,’” ANSA, March 13, 2020, https://www.ansa.it/lazio/notizie/2020/03/12/coronavirus-arrivati-gli-aiuti-dalla-cina-anche-9-medici-specializzati_1a56ddbc-7bae-4f5a-8353-f0d15ba3a465.html.
 Paul D. Miller, “Yes, Blame China for the Virus,” Foreign Policy, March 25, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/25/blame-china-and-xi-jinping-for-coronavirus-pandemic/; David Gitter, Sandy Lu, and Brock Erdahl, “China Will Do Anything to Deflect Coronavirus Blame,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/beijing-coronavirus-response-see-what-sticks-propaganda-blame-ccp-xi-jinping/.
 “Pyatnadtsaty Il-76 VKS RF dostavil v Italiyu sredstva dlya bor’by s koronavirusom,” Ministerstvo oborony RossiyskoyFederatsii (website), March 25, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283692@egNews.
 “Coronavirus – Russische Hilfsoperation in Italien bisher vor allem PR,” Austria Presse Agentur, March 24, 2020.
 “Spetsialisty Minoborony Rossii pristupili k soversheniyu marsha s aviabazy VVS Italii v g. Bergamo dlya okazaniya pomoshchi v bor‘be s rasprostraneniem koronavirusnoy infektsii,” Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii(website), March 25, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283714@egNews.
 “Voennye spetsialisty Minoborony Rossii pribyli na aerodrom Orio-al’-Serio v gorode Bergamo,” Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii(website), March 26, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283835@egNews.
 “Watch: Italians Praise Russia, Deride EU After Vladimir Putin Sends in Coronavirus Aid,” Sputnik, March 24, 2020, https://sputniknews.com/europe/202003241078693863-watch-italians-praise-russia-deride-eu-after-vladimir-putin-sends-in-coronavirus-aid/.
 “EU left Italy ‘practically alone’ to fight coronavirus, so Rome looked for help elsewhere, incl Russia – ex-FM Frattini to RT,” RT, March 24, 2020, https://www.rt.com/news/483897-italy-eu-coronavirus-solidarity-russia/.
 Damian Wilson, “With United Europe MIA in Its Covid-19 Response, Worst-hit Nations Turn to ‘Evil’ Russia & China for Help,” RT, March 23, 2020, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/483865-europe-coronavirus-russia-china/.
 Konstantin Khudoleyev, “Iz Rossii s lyubov’yu: kak okhvachennaya koronavirusom Italiya vstretila rossiyskikh spetsialistov,” Zvezda, March 23, 2020, https://tvzvezda.ru/news/vstrane_i_mire/content/20203231327-JqrfK.html.
 “Russian Military Planes with Medics & Supplies Land in Coronavirus-hit Italy,” RT(VIDEO), March 22, 2020, https://www.rt.com/russia/483796-russian-military-coronavirus-aid-italy/.
 Giorgia Baroncini, “Coronavirus, Putin invia aiuti all’Italia. Il Cav: ‘Non lo dimenticheremo,’” Il Giornale, March 23, 2020, https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/politica/coronavirus-putin-invia-aiuti-allitalia-cav-non-1845152.html.
 “The Use of Russian Military Specialists in the Fight against the Coronavirus Pandemic Was Discussed in Rome,” Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (website), March 24, 2020, https://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283590@egNews.
 It later turned out that the person was “personally fond of Russia and of President Putin” and had “done some business with Russian companies,” see “Coronavirus: What Does ‘from Russia with Love’ Really Mean?” BBC, April 3, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52137908.
 Alexander Sladkov, “Kuzhugetych Zhzhet!” Sladkov + (Telegram channel), March 22, 2020, https://t.me/Sladkov_plus/1916.
 Natalia Antelava and Jacopo Iacoboni, “The Influence Operation behind Russia’s Coronavirus Aid to Italy,” Coda, April 2, 2020, https://www.codastory.com/disinformation/soft-power/russia-coronavirus-aid-italy/.
 Jacopo Iacoboni and Paolo Mastrolilli, “Nella spedizione dei russi in Italia il generale che negò i gas in Siria,” La Stampa, April 16, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/topnews/primo-piano/2020/04/16/news/nella-spedizione-dei-russi-in-italia-il-generale-che-nego-i-gas-in-siria-1.38722110.
 Natal’ya Kudrik, “Ital’yanskiy obozrevatel’: rossiyskaya ‘pomoshch’ – eto operatsiya propagandy,” Krym.Realii, April 4, 2020, https://ru.krymr.com/a/italianskiy-obozrevtel-rossiyskaya-pomoshch-operaciya-propagandy/30529765.html.
 Angela Giuffrida and Andrew Roth, “Moscow’s Motives Questioned over Coronavirus Aid Shipment to Italy,” Guardian (US edition), April 27, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/moscow-motives-questioned-over-coronavirus-aid-shipment-to-italy.
 Jacopo Iacoboni, “Coronavirus, la telefonata Conte-Putin agita il governo: ‘Più che aiuti arrivano militari russi in Italia,’” La Stampa, March 25, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/topnews/primo-piano/2020/03/25/news/coronavirus-la-telefonata-conte-putin-agita-il-governo-piu-che-aiuti-arrivano-militari-russi-in-italia-1.38633327.
 “Posol v Italii otsenil soobshcheniya o ‘vystavlenii scheta’ za pomoshch,’” RIA Novosti, March 25, 2020, https://ria.ru/20200325/1569157787.html.
 “Statement by the Spokesman of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation Major General Igor Konashenkov,” Facebook, April 2 2020, https://www.facebook.com/mod.mil.rus/posts/2608652339377506.
 Monica Rubino and Concetto Vecchio, “Russia contro il giornalista de ‘La Stampa’ Jacopo Iacoboni. Esteri e Difesa: ‘Grazie per aiuti ma rispettare libertà di stampa,’” La Repubblica, April 3, 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/politica/2020/04/03/news/iacoboni_la_stampa_russia-253020378/.
 “Le accuse di Mosca e la nostra risposta,” La Stampa, April 3, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/lettere/2020/04/03/news/le-accuse-di-mosca-e-la-nostra-risposta-1.38672825.
 “Nota congiunta del Ministero della Difesa e del Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale,” Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (website), April 3, 2020, https://www.esteri.it/mae/it/sala_stampa/archivionotizie/comunicati/nota-congiunta-del-ministero-della-difesa-e-del-ministero-degli-affari-esteri-e-della-cooperazione-internazionale.html.
 Giorgio Gori, “Solidarietà a @jacopo_iacoboni e alla Stampa per le intimidazioni ricevute da portavoce della Difesa russo,” Twitter, April 3, 2020, https://twitter.com/giorgio_gori/status/1246008841755668480.
 Rubino and Vecchio, “Russia contro il giornalista de ‘La Stampa’ Jacopo Iacoboni.”
 “UK Company behind La Stampa’s Article Claiming Russian Aid to Italy Useless – Diplomat,” TASS, April 2, 2020, https://tass.com/politics/1139323.
 Vladimir Malyshev, “Uchebniki po antisovetskoy propagande eshche ne sgnili”, Fond strategicheskoy kul’tury, April 9, 2020, https://www.fondsk.ru/news/2020/04/09/uchebniki-po-antisovetskoj-propagande-esche-ne-sgnili-50575.html.
 Andreas Umland, “Aleksandr Dugin’s Transformation from a Lunatic Fringe Figure into a Mainstream Political Publicist, 1980–1998: A Case Study in the Rise of Late and Post-Soviet Russian Fascism,” Journal of Eurasian Studies, 1, no. 2 (2010): 144-152.
 Giulietto Chiesa, “Quelli che sparano sulla Croce Rossa,” Sputnik, April 7, 2020, https://it.sputniknews.com/opinioni/202004078943748-quelli-che-sparano-sulla-croce-rossa/.
 “Putin v Den’ narodnogo edinstva vruchil nagrady v Kremle,” RIA Novosti, November 4, 2019, https://ria.ru/20191104/1560560522.html.
 Politically biased international election observation is a form of political activity performed by international actors with the aim of advancing interests of certain politicians and political forces by imitating credible election monitoring during electoral processes.
 See Anton Shekhovtsov, “Politically Biased International Election Observation at the 2018 Regional Elections in Russia,” European Platform for Democratic Elections, October 5, 2018, https://www.epde.org/en/documents/details/politically-biased-international-election-observation-at-the-2018-regional-elections-in-russia.html.
 Gian Luigi Ferretti, “25 marzo 2020: Inno russo da CasaPound a Roma”, YouTube, March 25, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIOK4gQKtxc.
 Fabio Tonacci, “‘200 euro se ringrazi la Russia per gli aiuti’: quello strano arruolamento su WhatsApp,” La Repubblica, April 12, 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/04/12/news/russia_propaganda_a_pagamento-253794264/.
 Alexey Pushkov, “Pol’sha ne propustila rossiyskie samolety s pomoshch’yu dlya Italii cherez svoe vozdushnoe prostranstvo,” Twitter, March 23, 2020, http://archive.is/fdk6R.
 See, for example, “Russian Planes Carrying Aid to Italy Blocked from Using Poland Airspace – Russian Lawmaker,” Sputnik, March 23, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200324003727/https://sputniknews.com/world/202003231078687190-russian-planes-carrying-aid-to-italy-blocked-from-using-poland-airspace—russian-lawmaker/.
 See “Poland Says Its Airspace Open for Russian Planes Carrying Aid to Italy,” Sputnik, March 23, 2020, https://sputniknews.com/world/202003231078687190-russian-planes-carrying-aid-to-italy-blocked-from-using-poland-airspace—russian-lawmaker/.
 “Russia Exploits Italian Coronavirus Outbreak to Expand Its Influence,” Medium, March 30, 2020, https://medium.com/dfrlab/russia-exploits-italian-coronavirus-outbreak-to-expand-its-influence-6453090d3a98.
 “Oehme: Europaratsmitglieder bilden Phalanx zur Bewältigung der Corona-Krise in Italien”, Fraktion der AfD im Deutschen Bundestag, March 23, 2020, https://www.afdbundestag.de/mdb-ulrich-oehme-europaratsmitglieder-bilden-phalanx-zur-bewaeltigung-der-corona-krise-in-italien/; “Deputat Bundestaga obratilsya k Rossii za pomoshch’yu okhvachennoy koronavirusom Italii,” Govorit Moskva, March 21, 2020, https://govoritmoskva.ru/news/228659/.
 “Oehme: Europaratsmitglieder bilden Phalanx zur Bewältigung der Corona-Krise in Italien.”
 See Anton Shekhovtsov, “Foreign Observation of the Illegitimate Presidential Election in Crimea in March 2018,” European Platform for Democratic Elections, April 3, 2018, https://www.epde.org/en/news/details/foreign-observation-of-the-illegitimate-presidential-election-in-crimea-in-march-2018-1375.html.
 “Predstaviteli ORDLO vstretilis’ v Minske s deputatom PASE,” Naviny, December 16, 2019, https://naviny.by/new/20191216/1576476063-predstaviteli-ordlo-vstretilis-v-minske-s-deputatom-pase.
 Anton Shekhovtsov, Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 185-186.
 “France’s Le Pen, on Russia Visit, Heads to Kremlin for Exhibition,” Reuters, March 24, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-france-lepen-idUSKBN16V12E.
 Anton Shekhovtsov, “Politically Biased Foreign Electoral Observation at the Russian 2018 Presidential Election,” European Platform for Democratic Elections, April 16, 2018, https://www.epde.org/en/documents/details/politically-biased-foreign-electoral-observation-at-the-russian-2018-presidential-election-1423.html.
 Julian Röpcke, “Wie die AfD Putins Militär in Italien einschleuste,” Bild, March 26, 2020, https://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/politik-ausland/corona-krise-wie-die-afd-putins-militaer-in-italien-einschleuste-69638656.bild.html.
 “Deputat Bundestaga obratilsya k Rossii za pomoshch’yu okhvachennoy koronavirusom Italii.”
 “Speech by President Von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the EU Coordinated Action to Combat the Coronavirus Pandemic and Its Consequences,” European Commission, April 16, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_20_675.
 Luigi Sergio Germani, “The Coronavirus Pandemic and Russian Information Warfare Activities in Italy,” Centre for Democratic Integrity, April 28, 2020, https://democratic-integrity.eu/the-coronavirus-pandemic-and-russian-information-warfare-activities-in-italy/.
 Razov’s cover letter and Slutsky’s appeal can be found here: https://www.linkiesta.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Lettera-nr.1072-del-27.04.2020.pdf.
 The appeal appeared on several websites of Russian diplomatic institutions, see, for example: Leonid Slutsky, “An Appeal by Mr L. Slutsky, MP, to Abandon the Sanction Policy in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemia,” The Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of India, April 24, 2020, https://india.mid.ru/en/press-office/news/an_appeal_by_mr_slutsky/.
The first issue of Kremlin Influence Quarterly looks at malign influence operations of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the areas of diplomacy, law, economy, politics, media and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The opening essay, “Russian Malign Influence Operations in Coronavirus-hit Italy” by Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov argues that by sending medical aid to Italy — a country that was among the hardest hit by the pandemic — the Kremlin pursued a political and geopolitical, rather than a humanitarian, agenda. The Kremlin sent aid to Italy against the background of rising distrust toward the EU in Italy as European institutions were late in demonstrating solidarity with the Italian people suffering from the pandemic. The Kremlin’s influence operation was meant to show that it was Russia, rather than the EU or NATO, that was the true friend of Italy. Putin’s regime hoped that it would undermine Italy’s trust in the two international institutions even further and strengthen the country’s opposition to the EU’s sanctions policy on Russia.
In their chapter on Russian-Hungarian diplomatic relations, authors Péter Krekó and Dominik Istrate write that while Putin’s Russia has often had a maliciously close relationship to some former Hungarian prime ministers, Russian influence over Hungary has gradually expanded since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010. The authors note a huge asymmetry that characterizes the relationship between the two countries, noting that the benefits are much more obvious for the Russian state than for Hungary. The diplomatic relations seem to be only the tip of the iceberg in the non-transparent bilateral ties—with the frequency of the meetings and some background information suggesting a deep and shady relationship.
Drawing on the example of Spain, Vladimir Zhbankov argues that the Russian authorities are directly affiliated with criminal groups in Europe. With the help of these groups, they launder their incomes and provide themselves and their friends and partners the opportunity to live comfortably in developed countries. Despite the efforts of Spanish authorities to investigate and prosecute illegal activities of Russian criminal groups and eliminate the effect of their malign influence on internal affairs, the results are still underwhelming.
In the first part of his essay on Austrian-Russian business relations, Martin Malek focuses on their political framework conditions, as well as side effects and consequences over the past two decades. The author asserts that the supply of natural gas and crude oil from Russia to and via Austria plays a special role in this relationship, since it accounts for the lion’s share of Moscow’s exports, and that it is also relevant for other EU countries which likewise purchase Russian gas. Furthermore, the author asserts that trade relations between Russia and Austria have advanced Russia’s malign influence.
Egor Kuroptev’s chapter provides an overview of disruptive Russian influence in Georgia. This influence manifests itself in a number of areas ranging from politics to disinformation. As a consequence of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the two countries have no diplomatic relations. Russia still occupies Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abhazia, while the Russian military continue its so-called “borderization,” a process of illegal movement of occupation lines deeper into the territory of Georgia. However, the author writes that Moscow is not interested in a change of the ruling regime in Tbilisi, as it sees them as more loyal to the Kremlin than any existing opposition party in Georgia.
In her essay Alisa Volkova discusses how large Russian businesses have successfully established close connections with Bulgarian politicians in order to promote their interests and deepen Bulgarian dependency on Russia’s energy sector, as well as keep corrupt politicians in positions of power. The author warns that such politically driven business activities directly and indirectly undermine the rule of law in Bulgaria by restricting media freedom and democratic institutions, such as elections.
Georgy Chizhov’s chapter looks at the workings of the pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine. The author identifies these media and analyzes narratives they promote in order to discredit democratic values and institutions in Ukraine and in the West, and to sow distrust both inside Ukrainian society as well as regarding European and American partners. He also examines Ukraine’s attempts to resist Russia’s information influence.
Anton Shekhovtsov’s concluding chapter provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for analyzing malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe. This influence is defined as one that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. The author highlights major areas in which actors of Putin’s Russia exercise malign influence and identifies main categories of Russian operators and their European facilitators that conduct or help conduct the Kremlin’s political warfare against the West.
America has become a safe harbor for incredibly wealthy men who made billions from their post-Soviet homelands. For some, the U.S. offered a fresh start to those seeking to leave behind bad reputations, political risks or legal problems in their home countries. For others, it was a society that allowed them to safely park their assets all while continuing to indulge the leaders they sought to escape.
Enter the twenty-first century and the posse of Putin’s oligarchs: Deripaska, Malofeev, Blavatnik, Vekselberg, Yakunin, and Prigozhin with their sacks of money, their blandishments, and, when necessary, their legal threats.
These are men used to making their own rules—including rule No. 1: Don’t call them oligarchs. They come from their own closed societies to bask in the freedom offered in the U.S. But, in their own ways, they insist on tweaks to our society to suit their needs and habits. If their dark pasts or motives are challenged by journalists, threats to investigators and reporters often follow. To launder their reputations, they have been buying up experts and think-tanks, and even bribing politicians. This is a story of powerful men using seemingly unlimited resources to purchase their own version of the American dream—with a distinctly Soviet-style twist.
Read the report “Kill the Messenger: How Russian and Post-Soviet Oligarchs Undermine the First Amendment” on how Putin’s oligarchs are working to reshape American society by corrupting its values and institutions, and what can be done to curtail their brutish ways.
Today’s expert literature on the Kremlin’s subversive activities in Europe is often confusing in terms of the concepts and definitions used by authors in their reports and analyses. This paper aims to remedy this shortcoming by providing a comprehensive theoretical framework for analyzing the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe in the most efficient way.
We define malign influence in Europe as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We also put the concept of malign influence in the context of political warfare in order to delineate the meaning of such influence: it does not belong to the areas of cooperation between nations in times of peace.
The paper highlights major areas in which actors of Putin’s Russia exercise malign influence, identify main categories of Russian operators and their European facilitators that conduct or help conduct the Kremlin’s political warfare against the West, and, finally, describes vulnerabilities of European states to malign influence of Putin’s Russia.
On January 15, Vladimir Putin surprised domestic and international audiences by announcing plans for significant reforms to the Russian constitution. Rather than settling the debate over Russia’s political development after 2024, the proposed reforms fueled widespread speculation.We asked Dr. Ben Noble, lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, about what the reforms might mean for Russia’s future.
You and Samuel
Greene have suggested that the lack of a clear road map for succession provided by the
proposed constitutional reforms is part of Putin’s plan to keep himself from
becoming a lame duck. Is uncertainty a byproduct of the Kremlin’s strategy or
is it, in fact, a crucial part of the Kremlin’s strategy?
Sowing confusion and uncertainty is definitely not the singular
strategy. Putin is creating options for what he might do in 2024, while not explicitly
stating that these are the possible pathways going forward. He is also trying
to stay uncommitted to any one pathway. Uncertainty remains while options are
Is this a strategy that the Kremlin has chosen willingly or has it adopted this strategy out of necessity? A new Carnegie Moscow/Levada report shows that while 59% of Russian surveyed want “decisive comprehensive change”, 39% cannot name a single politician with a road map for change. It seems as though while public approval of the government and Putin is falling, the political system has prevented the emergence of credible alternatives to Putin. What consequences does this dynamic have for Russia’s political future?
Has the Kremlin adopted this strategy out of necessity? Yes.
It can’t do otherwise. If Putin were to say that he was going to step down from
the presidency in 2024, he would become a lame duck. In that case, we would
have a really unstable and possibly uncontrollable situation with strategic
uncertainty among elites becoming an existential problem for Putin. There could
be a scramble to find a successor and to take over the offices of government in
a way that does not fit Putin’s particular managerial style – and could put his
own security at risk. In that sense, the Kremlin does not have complete control
of the situation and has been backed into the place it now finds itself.
Doesn’t the current
absence of a clear successor mean that Putin is in a weak position? Isn’t he
risking sparking elite infighting that might fracture the system?
There has always been intra-elite conflict. It is almost the
modus operandi of Putin’s system, which allows for rudimentary checks and
balances to work while Putin remains on top. And I’m not saying that Putin is
never going to make clear what will happen next. If, for argument’s sake, he
decided to remain president after 2024, the election would have to be called
and there would be lead-in time for everyone to prepare. A more likely scenario
is that Putin heads up a beefed-up State Council. Elites will gain more
certainty when the federal constitutional law specifying the form and function
of the State Council is created. At that point, elites might begin to maneuver
in a way that is more disciplined. But the Kremlin will make sure to release
information about the transition on its terms, which means that it will
continue to control the level of uncertainty.
So, you’re not
buying into the rumors that they will bring up the timing of the Duma and
presidential elections within the next year and a half to establish a successor?
It’s always possible, but it would be incredibly difficult.
Let’s take the State Duma elections. The date of the 2016 elections was moved
up from December to September. What’s forgotten is that, when these changes
were made, Federation Council senators
raised this as an issue in the Constitutional Court. And the Court said that
moving the date of the elections is not unconstitutional as long as it’s moved
by a small amount of time and that these types of changes are not going to
happen all the time. In other words, it’s an exceptional situation. If the
Kremlin wanted to move the Duma election up to September 2020, that would be
deeply problematic in so far as it goes against what the Constitutional Court
has already said. Of course, the Kremlin could come up with a way to make sure
that the Constitutional Court didn’t get in the way. And that could be one of
the reasons for the inclusion of the increased powers of the President for
getting rid of Constitutional Court judges included in Putin’s constitutional
reform bill. In other words, this might be one way to put pressure on the
judiciary, possibly with a view to a situation where the Kremlin would like to
move the timing of the parliamentary elections. That’s a point that Nikolai
Petrov has made a couple of times: he thinks that the references to the
president being able to get rid of Constitutional Court judges might not remain
in the bill in its second reading because it’s just being used as a way to
exert pressure on the judicial branch while the constitutional reforms are
Debates raged just a few months ago about whether the Kremlin would get rid of party list proportional representation (PR) in favor of single-member districts (SMD) for elections to the State Duma in order to help United Russia secure a majority. But that doesn’t seem like a compatible strategy with any plan to move up the elections because it would mean those changes need to be made even faster.
In classic Kremlin style, they are thinking of multiple
options simultaneously. So it’s perfectly normal for us to hear rumors about
elections moving up at the same time as news about United Russia using regional
and city dumas as test cases to see what would happen if they got rid of the
party list entirely or altered the split in the number of seats filled through party
list PR and SMD races. This has been discussed recently regarding the Novosibirsk
and Lipetsk city dumas, where United Russia is trying to convince systemic
opposition deputies to vote for these changes. Understandably, systemic
opposition deputies are hesitant to adopt a system that would give United
Russia even more seats. At the moment, the Kremlin is stepping back and
thinking of multiple options. They are waiting to see how United Russia does on
the 13th of September in regional elections in order to help prepare
for federal-level elections.
Is there an
outside chance that these constitutional reforms will be treated as a term
limit reset and Putin will stay on as president by arguing that the old term
limits no longer apply to him?
I’m going to be quite bullish in saying that that’s not
going to happen. Pavel Krasheninnikov, in his capacity as the co-chair of the
constitutional working group and chairman of the lead committee dealing with
Putin’s bill in the State Duma, was asked if a reset was possible and he said
that this was not being considered. In so far as Yaroslav Nilov, an LDPR deputy
and protégé of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was allowed to ask this question publicly
of Krasheninnikov during the reform bill’s first reading on the State Duma
floor, and Krasheninnikov was able to provide a firm answer, I think we can be
confident that the message has gone out from the Kremlin that a constitutional
term limit reset for the presidency will not happen.
It seemed, when
they were first announced by Putin, that the reforms could reshape the
political system by significantly weakening the office of the president, which
was taken as a positive sign for Russia’s political future. But when the
written draft came out, it became clear that the reforms would have much less
impact on the existing balance of power. What do the reforms really mean for
Russia’s super-presidential system?
On balance, the reforms create a stronger presidency. Granted,
the presidency will be limited to two terms. But these are six-year terms, so
the next president could be in power for twelve years. By focusing on
eliminating a possible third or fourth term for the president, we can lose
perspective about how long twelve years is, especially given the potential new
powers granted to the president with regard to judges. This is not something
that is being commented on much because the conventional wisdom is that all
judges in Russia are coopted anyway. Telephone justice means that the Kremlin
can make its preferences known whenever it wants in key cases. But these new
changes would have a chilling effect on the behavior of Constitutional Court
judges as well as judges on the Supreme Court, appellate courts, and cassation
courts. The fact that we haven’t seen a huge outcry from the judicial community
about this makes me think that these changes simply formalize the existing
state of affairs.
But I also think that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for our initial optimism following Putin’s speech. Putin said that these would be “drastic changes” that would empower a responsible State Duma and prime minister. We were right to read significance into those words because they are words that Putin doesn’t usually say.
Putin even had an
off-the-cuff moment with the audience where he said that they needed to prepare
for all the new responsibility that they would get along with their new powers.
Exactly. Part of it could have been strategic to make sure
that the announcement made a big splash. He talked about drastic changes that
will deliver a real transfer of power across the branches of government. But
then the bill is far less drastic. We are right to feel like hopes were dashed.
It’s also important to note that many of the changes that
have been proposed seem to be created for a possible future where we don’t see
unity of purpose across the executive and the legislature – that is, when the
‘party of power’ does not have a majority in the State Duma. Take, for example,
the proposed “super veto”, where the president will be able to send bills to
the Constitutional Court to assess their constitutionality after the
president’s initial veto on a bill has been overridden by the State Duma and
the Federation Council. This seems to be a mechanism designed to future-proof
the constitution to the benefit of the presidency in a situation where the
legislature is not controlled by the executive. It’s difficult for us to picture
the world that the drafter or drafters of the reforms might be imagining. But
this goes back to my previous point that the Kremlin is creating multiple
pathways allowing for executive maneuverability in different scenarios.
In a similar vein,
Tatiana Stanovaya made a convincing argument that the proposed changes build dispute-resolution
mechanisms into the system in order to deal with a possible scenario where the
president and legislature or prime minister disagree.
point about Putin already knowing his successor is a refreshingly clear
answer to the question everyone is interested in, but I think no one is really
in a position to make that claim with confidence right now. With regard to
dispute-resolution mechanisms, lots of disputes are resolved now in the absence
of an institutional framework. But I do agree that these reforms are a way of
giving the system flexibility in the future in case there is a disagreement
across branches of government.
constitutional changes have so far failed to spark meaningful opposition.
Navalny has come out against efforts to defend the constitution and other
oppositionists have also largely demurred from staging protests against the
reforms. Why is this?
The clearest answer is that Putin promised lots of things
that the opposition cannot come out against, like indexing pensions, ensuring
the minimum wage remains above subsistence level, increased maternity capital
funding, and free hot meals for primary school children. The proposals in the
bulk of the speech are things that the majority of Russians would like. That
means it’s difficult for the opposition to come out and focus on technical
details related to changes to the constitution. The Kremlin played it well to
combine all of this together and rely on the knowledge that political reforms
are of secondary importance to most people who are primarily interested in
their living standards.
So, it seems as
though there’s not a natural base of support for protest against the reforms
among the public. But it is striking that the opposition is not even trying to
organize something. Navalny wasn’t passive on the issue, he came out strongly
against any initiative to organize protest. Does he see protests against the
constitutional reforms as a losing bet?
I think so. It could also be that they are keeping their powder dry and waiting for a moment when Putin does have to make clear what he will do next. And at that stage, the opposition might use as a framing device something that has been successful in the past: the idea that Putin remaining at the head of the country will prevent much-needed change in Russia. At the moment, that is a difficult message to sell with all the other positive changes announced and without a crystal-clear answer from Putin about what he will do in 2024.
When he was
appointed, Mikhail Mishustin was described as a capable technocrat based on his
almost ten years of service as the head of the Federal Tax Service. But this
week, we’ve gotten a better picture of Mishustin’s background, including his
long-established connections to many regime insiders and his savvy ability to
navigate political networks. Is he a placeholder PM or could he be a potential
We could debate until the cows come home whether he is a
possible successor. He certainly is one of a group of people who could be a
successor but this line of thought leads to a guessing game. And that’s not
very helpful at the moment.
What is going to be interesting is to see how Mishustin’s
cabinet operates in practice. One of the first messages out was that Mishustin
is the first prime minister to put his own team together: a younger team
forming a homogenous cabinet that has relatively similar policy preferences.
But now it seems like something more subtle is going on. There is a system
developing with checks and balances that suggests how conflicts might be
resolved when they arise. And this is in line with what we learned from the Moscow
Times article about Mishustin: he sets up systems and ensures that they run
smoothly. For me, it’s going to be interesting to see how policy debates play
out with this new team. Under Medvedev, we saw a number of policy conflicts
rage for years. Under Mishustin, there may be less policy conflict. I should be
able to analyze this possibility with my research on the Duma. If government legislation
is passed quicker and with fewer amendments, that would suggest that
Mishustin’s cabinet is more harmonious, given my broader argument that lots of
what happens in the Duma is driven by intra-executive dynamics.
But there is also a huge question mark about how the relationship
between Mishustin and Vyacheslav Volodin will develop. Volodin might not take
kindly to Mishustin’s political star rising. I’m going to be looking at policy
conflicts between ministries and how the government tries to manage its
relationship with Volodin. Under Medvedev, Volodin got really close to openly
attacking the prime minister. Volodin is a very ambitious person and
criticizing the government allowed him to firm up his base of power and
increase his reputation as an important political player. It will be
interesting to see what Volodin’s language is like regarding Mishustin and government
Does this also
depend on what role Mishustin decides to play? Medvedev was willing to take a
lot of the blame for government inefficiencies and problems with United Russia.
I think we don’t know yet if Mishustin is willing to play that kind of role.
I agree. We need to wait. We don’t yet know how Mishustin
will handle relationships or how he will act now that he has to operate in the
open. He now has new responsibilities in a new environment. At the Federal Tax
Service, he could be the technocrat’s technocrat and be positively covered by
the Financial Times. Now that he is in a much more public position that
has traditionally been used as a whipping boy by the Kremlin and other
political actors, it will be fascinating to see how he will react.
In your research on nondemocratic legislatures, you’ve argued against the theory that
authoritarian parliaments exist to simply to formalize executive decisions,
suggesting instead that nondemocratic legislatures can and do alter
legislation. We’re seeing now that the list of constitutional reforms has
ballooned to over 100 items and the length of the bill may increase by 50%. Are
these additions the result of attempts at policy-making by legislators?
The most important point to make here is that the Kremlin is
not going to lose control of this bill. With other executive bills, there is
sometimes a loss of control because the government is a collective actor. So
loss of control just means, in practice, a new compromise – some people may be
pissed off but some people might have gained something. Putin’s constitutional
reform bill is not typical legislation. The Kremlin will maintain control of
the working group and agenda setting.
Despite predictions that the text of the bill will increase
by 50%, I don’t think we will see a huge conceptual shift from what was
included in the bill submitted by Putin. Part of that is technical in that
bills aren’t allowed to change conceptually between first and second reading. A
more important reason is that if the bill changed radically, Putin would appear
weak because his initial suggestions were not authoritative.
I suspect that a lot of these new proposals are being made
to score political points. Just Russia is proposing to enshrine the pre-reform
pension ages of 55 and 60 for women and men in the constitution. That’s not
going to be included. Orthodoxy as a state religion – that’s going nowhere. But
we will get much clearer language about the role of the State Duma and how it
is involved in appointing and dismissing members of the executive. It makes
sense to spell this out more clearly because it was unclear in the original
There are additions to Putin’s original reforms that have
gained consensus in the working group in the form of changes to the
constitution’s preamble. They relate to Russia’s unique cultural heritage,
support for fighting efforts to falsify history about Russia’s victor status in
the Great Patriotic War, and a reference to Russia’s mature civil society.
Andrey Klishas, a co-chair of the constitutional working group, also wanted to add
something recognizing family values and saying that a family is formed by a man
and a woman. But this seems not to have gained traction.
I also think that the avalanche of amendments will be cited
as the reason for delaying the second reading of the bill in the State Duma to
late February or early March. However, I think that the actual reason for the
delay is the logistical problems that have emerged from trying to include a
nation-wide vote in the process. Vague answers by Volodin and Putin to media
inquiries about how the vote will happen suggest that there’s not a strategy
yet for this.
What is the
problem with holding a nation-wide vote? We know from the Crimea example, that
the Kremlin can stage a referendum pretty quickly.
The reality of organizing a nation-wide vote and fitting it
into the existing timetable and legal process is a headache. There’s a big
timing issue for one. In the procedure outlined for passing a law introducing
amendments to the constitution, there is no mention of a nation-wide vote.
Instead, there is a requirement that at least two thirds of regional assemblies
need to approve the initiative before it comes into force, in addition to other
requirements. So, Putin can sign the bill and then wait for the assemblies to approve
but how do you integrate a nation-wide vote into that procedure?
To be clear: there
is no technical need for a nation-wide referendum or vote? The Kremlin has
committed itself to a vote as a way to gain legitimacy for the constitutional
Insofar as the proposed reforms do not relate to chapters 1,
2, and 9 of the constitution, a referendum is not required. A nation-wide vote
was proposed, I suspect, for the veneer of legitimacy that the Kremlin thought
it would provide. Of course, the Kremlin could engineer a vote result by using
administrative resources. But right now, the Kremlin is doing its best to try
and make this whole process seem legitimate and democratic.
In January 2020, Vladimir Putin closed the books on the political development of the Russian Federation not only for 2019 but also for the next 15 years. He set forth a series of amendments to the Constitution and made a change in the Cabinet of Ministers.
What is the rationale behind V. Putin’s doing? There are numerous interpretations and speculations on the motives. However, one should take a cue from the fact that between 2003 to 2019 V. Putin has created such a system of governing Russia, which he, as well as by the wider circles of civil and government law enforcement and security bureaucracy, considered to be totally adequate for the post-Soviet development of the Russian Federation. Putin has brought forward 11 amendments, which provide additional clarification detailed to fix to the individual central nodes of that governing system, which is providing so-called “stability.”
It is an anti-republican, highly centralized, system of power with a wide array of mandated authority powers given to the president. In this system the representative authority agencies are acting in a pattern of “consulting bodies,” an addendum to the executive branch. The political representation of a party stipulates a high level of qualifications in order to cut off the opposition from being nominated to the Parliament, and those parties, that are represented in the Parliament create a “coalition” of some sort. The governors in this system are designated official appointees from the center. All in all, the system is in compliance with its inter national obligations. Nonetheless, it refuses to implement the decisions of international bodies in some instances when they deviate drastically from the political goals of the Kremlin.
On May 5,
2018, New York became a parade ground for two diasporas commemorating a
distinct source of ethnic pride. Cinco de Mayo commanded the larger following
that day, if only because of the kitsch bacchanalia every bar and restaurant in
the five boroughs makes of a holiday meant to mark the Mexican army’s defeat of
French empire. But the smaller gathering was distinguished by an unusual
spectacle: an aircraft emblazoned with an enormous orange-and-black ribbon
overflying the Statue of Liberty. Down below, some two thousand Russian-Americans, some in World
War II-era uniforms, solemnly marched downtown along the Hudson, many of them
carrying photos of relatives who’d fought Nazism decades earlier. It was four
days before Victory Day, the official Russian state holiday celebrating the
Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler.
marchers in Manhattan were doing their part early to honor the Immortal
Regiment, the name bestowed by Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Administration in
2012 on deceased Russian veterans who are said to live forever so long as their
heirs remember them. Yet this mass act of necromantic remembrance had an
unmistakable political overtone.
Immortal Regiment parade was organized by a pro-Kremlin youth group ensconced
in St. Nicholas Church, the headquarters of Russian Orthodoxy in New York. Ever
since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the orange-and-black Ribbon of St.
George that buzzed Lady Liberty has become an omnipresent symbol of revanchist
and nationalist Russian sentiment.
the Kremlin, this civic gathering, similar versions of which were held across
the United States, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, “represented a significant
projection of power to America,” according to Andrei Soldatov and Irina
Borogan, authors of The Compatriots: The Brutal and
Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.
It also represented a little-noticed high point for one of Putin’s long-held foreign policies, one that
is really an extension of domestic policy: the de facto enlistment of all
ethnic Russians, wherever they are born or reside, as citizens of the Russian
Federation, whether they like it or not. “Russia’s ‘compatriots’ policy
reflects Putin’s past as a KGB intelligence officer,” Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on the
Russian security services, explained to me, citing a KGB manual on this very
subject published by The Daily
Beast in 2018. “He was trained to see every ethnic Russian living either inside
or outside the Soviet Union as one of two things: an asset to be recruited or a threat to
are plenty of tales of eliminations — or attempted eliminations — in Soldatov’s
book. The Compatriots opens with a reconstruction of the poisoning of my
colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic
of Putin. Kara-Murza nearly died by poisoning not once, but twice, while
traveling through Russia. The substance that nearly killed him has never been
publicly identified. I say “publicly” because the U.S. government apparently
has reached a conclusion as to the toxin used.
Soldatov and Borogan quote an unnamed FBI agent who, in December 2017,
informed Kara-Murza that the Bureau was preparing to hand the chiefs of the
three main Russian intelligence services a report suggesting “that there was an
attempted murder of a Russian citizen on Russian territory for political
chiefs arrived in Washington, D.C. a month later, a year into Donald Trump’s
presidency, to meet with their American counterparts. Soldatov and Borogan are
skeptical the report was ever even brought up, much less passed along. The
timing might not have been judged to be quite right, what with a new U.S.
administration headed by a president whose avowed wish was to “get along” with
Russia. But the timing could hardly have been better, either.
February 2018, Sergei Skripal, a defector from the GRU, Russia’s military
intelligence service, would be found unconscious, along with his daughter, on a
park bench in Salisbury, England, both victims of a near-lethal poisoning by
the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok. Two operatives from the GRU, the
apparatus Skripal once served, would later be identified as the culprits and
sanctioned by the European Union, as a host of Western democracies responded to
this act of state terrorism by expelling more spies stationed in Russian
embassies than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
much for the eliminations. As to the “recruitments,” Soldatov and Borogan
wisely follow the money, the messaging, and the ties to the Russian security
July 2018, Soldatov drove up the driveway to a sprawling mansion in the
Rublyovka suburb of Moscow. He was there to interview Alexander Lebedev, the
former KGB officer turned oligarch and media magnate who had just returned from
celebrating his wedding anniversary — in occupied Crimea.
is a colorful figure, even by Russian oligarch standards. He was arrested,
interrogated, and ultimately convicted by Russian authorities in 2011 after
knocking out a fellow guest on a live television broadcast. Sentenced to 130
hours of community service, the billionaire ex-KGB man and bon vivant was
exhibited on Russian state media sweeping the Moscow streets. It was a housebreaking,
write Soldatov and Borogan; a signal from the top that ”you might be a former
high-ranking KGB officer and an oligarch with newspapers from Moscow to London,
but don’t forget you are totally at the mercy of the
for all this official turbulence, Lebedev hasn’t exactly gone rogue. He has
routinely chastised Western governments for instituting sanctions on Russia for
its invasion and destabilization of Ukraine. In conversation with Soldatov, he
also dismissed the idea of a viable Russian opposition to Putin, of which
Lebedev nonetheless considers himself a part, and derided Kara-Murza’s
poisonings as an unproven conspiracy theory. Then he allowed this remark about
how his various news holdings navigate an overweening Russian state: “Where it’s needed they
criticize Russia, and where it’s needed, say,
on Syria, we support the Russian position.”
of these holdings are in fact prominent British newspapers, The Evening
Standard, a free daily now edited by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer
George Osborne; and The Independent, a left-of-center tabloid with a
notoriously eccentric comment section, particularly when it comes to the Middle
and his socialite son and business partner, Evgeny, have lately come under
scrutiny in the UK for two reasons. The first is their well-photographed
coziness to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who attends parties hosted by
the Lebedevs at home and abroad, including one lavish affair in London the day after his blow-out
election victory last month. The second is the existence of a 50-page British intelligence dossier on Russian
interference in the British political system, a report Downing Street has
refused to de-classify, as Johnson waves off allegations that oligarchs such as
Alexander Lebedev might be wielding undue influence over his government.
to these shores, Soldatov and Borogan train their investigative attention on
the American-born billionaire Boris Jordan, the scion of an exiled aristocratic
dynasty responsible for financing and supporting the pro-czarist White Army
during the Russian Civil War. Today, Jordan is gemutlich with the powers that
be in Moscow and has done very well for himself in New York. He is currently
the chairman of Curaleaf, the world’s largest legal marijuana seller, as well
as the patron of the eponymous Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at
New York University. In recent public appearances, he, too, has railed against
sanctions on Russian officials and institutions over Ukraine.
Like a number of ethnic Russians born and raised in the West, Jordan moved to his ancestral home after the collapse of the Soviet Union to reap the benefits of a fledging democracy and market economy. He amassed a fortune through savvy investments and excellent contacts. Renaissance Capital, the investment bank Jordan cofounded, enlisted two Russian foreign intelligence officers for executive positions. One of them, Yuri Sagaidak, had been expelled from London in the late 1980s for attempting to recruit a member of the British parliament.
was later tapped by Putin as CEO of the popular NTV television channel upon its
hostile takeover by the state. NTV’s crime was reporting honestly and
critically on the Kremlin, and Jordan dutifully oversaw its transformation into
a pro-government mouthpiece. One of the casualties of that transformation was
Kara-Murza’s father, a veteran reporter who died earlier this year.
Jordan at one point fell out of favor with the Kremlin, he is back in its good
graces now owing to his successful stateside facilitation of the reconciliation
of the two churches of Russian Orthodoxy. The “White Church” was established by
émigrés, such as Jordan’s father, who fled Lenin’s regime after the Bolshevik
seizure of power in 1917. It came to represent more than a mere spiritual
alternative to the grim totalitarianism constructed by the new rulers of the
metropole, but also a way-station for the preservation of Russian culture,
literature, and art.
“Red Church,” meanwhile, emerged under communist rule in Moscow and gained in
significance after Josef Stalin, himself a drop-out from the priesthood,
realized how an ancient faith could be instrumentalized to advance a secular
nationalism. The White Church had always been hostile to whoever was in charge
back home, whereas the Red Church had consistently been little more than the
black cowl of the Russian government. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the Church even counted more than a few former KGB officers in its
ranks, including its current head, Patriarch Kirill.
helped Putin achieve his most ambitious goal in dealing with the Russians
abroad,” Soldatov told me. “He brought under Moscow’s control the Russian
Orthodox Church in exile, the one seen by many as a symbol of the spiritual
Russia uncorrupted by KGB control. He secured it by investing his money and his
personal prestige as a Russian aristocrat.”
investment, too, has paid off for Jordan, as those Immortal Regiment marches
across America in 2018 demonstrated. As for the corruption of KGB control, that
the wealthy American heir of a storied White Russian family would do the
bidding of Russia’s first KGB-czar might be counted yet another satisfying
realization of Putin’s compatriots policy.
“You don’t drag me into criticizing Putin!” Jordan told the authors of this timely and important new book.
On January 15, 2020, President Vladimir Putin delivered his 16th Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.
In his annual address to the lower and upper legislative chamber, Putin announced plans with potentially profound ramifications for the future of Russia’s government. Buried among the usual platitudes of socio-economic situation and calls to accelerate the development of all spheres of public life, was a disclosure of a plan that amounts to a major constitutional reform. The address, for the most part, used a very formal language and was rather stingy on the specifics of that plan. One can only guess how and when these plans divulged by Putin would actually manifest in reality—in the past, his public directives have undergone significant changes during implementation.
One concrete, major and immediate outcome of this plan is the resignation of the
long-serving Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev along with the entire government.
Following the announcement, Medvedev
put out a statement: “…it’s obvious that we, as the government…should provide
the president of our country with the opportunity to make all the decisions
necessary for this. And in these conditions, I believe that it would be right…”
for the government to resign.
Will there be a referendum?
Vladimir Putin has proposed to amend the Russian
Constitution through a mechanism of “citizens’ vote.” It is noteworthy that he was
careful to avoid using the term “referendum.” The last referendum in the
Russian Federation was held in 1993 and since then, the legislation governing
the plebiscite procedure has changed dramatically but has never been applied.
Moreover, presidential initiatives in Russia do not necessarily require confirmation
by a popular vote. It cannot be ruled out that presidential lawyers would be
able to create a legal implementation roadmap avoiding a referendum altogether.
In her comments to the media following the
address, the Chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova
said a referendum is unlikely, and hinted that another format would likely be used
to approve the proposed amendments.
What this really means: The abolition of the
principle of primacy of International Law, the abolition of the independence of
local self-government, the abolition of the principle of independence of the judiciary.
The most monumental and unambiguous element
of the constitutional reform proposed by Putin is the abolition of the
principle of the primacy of International Law (Article 15 of the Constitution).
This measure represents the development and final consolidation of the position
of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, which was formulated in 2015 and subsequently received
its legal confirmation.
The proposed obviating of the principle of
independence of judges is the direct subversion of the core tenets of the 1993
Constitution. Until now, there have been no formal legal levers of direct and
immediate pressure on judges (although, of course, in no way could the Supreme
Court of the Russian Federation be considered independent). With the proposed
reforms, the highest judges can be dismissed from their posts on the widest
If implemented, this plan would certainly result
in a significant deterioration of the already deplorable situation of human
rights in the Russian Federation. Russia would cease to be a legal state even
in the most lax definition of the term.
Another proposal sounded by Putin that would also
directly affect the everyday life of Russian citizens is to establish the
principles of a “unified system of public authority” and effective interaction
between state and municipal bodies. Exactly how this system of principles will
look in practice is still unclear, but it is strongly hinting at the abolition
of the principle of independence of municipal self-government and the violation
of the basic provisions of the European Charter of Local
Moreover, if the principle of primacy of International Law is abolished, it would
not even be necessary to denounce any international legal acts— those would simply
become non-applicable or selectively applicable. Putin most likely will create a
quasi-legal structure to enable local governments in one form or another to be
included in the state power system and incorporated into the power “vertical”.
Considering that the State Council, the body
which currently consists largely of governors, will occupy a central place in
the newly-declared structure of power, it is not difficult to imagine that at
the regional level the power system will also become more centralized, possibly
at the expense of municipalities.
The New Vertical
It’s very likely that the power transit scenario announced by Putin today, one way or another, will be fashioned after the transit of power launched in 2019 in Kazakhstan, one of the most successful personality-centered regimes oft the post-Soviet domain.
In his 2019 report “A New Prince: An Undemocratic Transit of Power in the Post-Soviet Space” political analyst Kirill Rogov analyzed the Kazakh transit as follows: “Nazarbayev is ‘splitting’ the presidential power. But unlike other well-known scenarios, he is splitting it not in two (the President and the Prime Minister), but three (the President, the Security Council President, and the Prime Minister) or even four components. The powers of the Senate headed by Nazarbayev’s daughter, for example, include the nomination of the Chairperson of the National Bank, the Prosecutor General, the Chair and Judges of the Supreme Court, and also the Chair of the National Security Committee. Such a design provides him with nearly full control of the state. It looks quite reliable as long as Nazarbayev remains legally capable.”
However, it is important to note that the
stated plan regarding the transit of power in Russia will most likely go
through the State Council and not the Security Council. Therefore, it is the
civilian political elite of the United Russia party and state governors that
would constitute its initial supporters base and not security officials
Moreover, the shift of the center of gravity to the new Council, the structure of which has not yet been determined (as opposed to a fully-fledged and staffed Security Council) suggests that a variety of loyal players interested in participating in this transit can make a bid to do so (of course, pending a personal approval by Putin himself).
Finally, Putin’s new plan preserves the
United Russia as the key pillar of his power. Since for the past few years it
has maintained a relatively low profile and even avoided flashing its brand in
regional elections so not to lose votes), we are likely to witness a great
mobilization of its Duma delegates and the entire party apparatus. This, in turn, will reinvigorate the cadres
dynamics within the Russian government, offering new and rapid opportunities
for career advancement all the way up to the top position unseen in the recent
On July 9, the European Court of Human Rights made the decision in the case of Valeriya Volodina from Ulyanovsk, who had spent three years trying to get the police to start a case against her former partner Rasheed Salayev. Salayev followed, kidnapped and beat Volodina multiple times and threatened her underage son. Every time, the police turned her down. Police officers explained their rejection by saying that the threats that she regularly received from Salayev “were a result of their personal hostile relationship as well as jealousy experienced by S.” The chief of the Internal Affairs Department “Mozhayskiy” answered: “What can I tell you? You should hide better.” The details of this story can be found on the website of the organization “Legal Initiative,” which Volodina approached for help and which transferred her complaint to the ECHR.
The ECHR judgment on Volodina’s case is the first one on a domestic violence case in Russia. The court points out that “the continued failure to adopt legislation to combat domestic violence and the absence of any form of restraining or protection orders clearly demonstrate that the authorities’ actions in the present case were not a simple failure or delay in dealing with violence against the applicant, but flowed from their reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness and extent of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women.” The court has also established that the Russian authorities had breached Articles 3 and 14 of the Convention (concerning torture and degrading treatment and concerning discrimination). As soon as the ECHR judgment comes into effect, the Russian government will have six months to present the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe with the Action Plan how to prevent similar violations in the future.
Commentary by Vladimir Zhbankov, legal expert of Free Russia House in Kyiv:
“However, the problem of Russia’s systematic failure to comply with ECHR rulings has a long and rich history. Court judgments, as a rule, consist of three parts: one establishing the fact of breach of this or that Convention provision, recommendations on amending the domestic legislation or procedural practices, and one establishing the amount of financial compensation. For many years, Russia only complied with this last part. At the same time, since the early 2010s, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has been developing quite an original and evidently non-legal doctrine that would enable Russia to ignore the judgments issued by the ECHR. The methods of enforcing compliance with international legal standards in the sphere of human rights by Russia are only in development so far.
The website Nasiliyu.Net already contains translations of important fragments from the ECHR decisions, where, for instance, items 80-81 say that Russia has not enacted specific legislation to address violence occurring within the family context, and the concept of “domestic violence” or any equivalent thereof is not defined or mentioned in any form in the Russian legislation. The court also “cannot agree with the Government’s claim that the existing criminal-law provisions are capable of adequately capturing the offense of domestic violence.”
The public opinion in the Russian Federation increasingly tends to side with the Court’s opinion in this respect. Why is this decision so important for everyone who fights against domestic violence in Russia and tries to solve this problem? Based on this judgment, as well as on other judgments of the Court, it can be concluded that Russia systematically fails to follow through on its undertaken commitments on the protection of individuals under its jurisdiction from all forms of cruel treatment, including cases when such treatment is perpetrated by private individuals. Another conclusion is that Russia as a country supports gender-based discrimination against women and its gender policy is discriminatory in nature.
The government’s reluctance to treat the problem of domestic violence and violence against women seriously constitutes a part of this policy. What would it mean to treat a problem seriously? To abolish the law decriminalizing beatings in the family and to start legislative prevention of domestic violence (introduce domestic violence orders which would prohibit the aggressor to approach the victim). These are just the first steps that Russia needs to take so that the country would stop posing a threat to women’s life and health.
In addition to that, Russia still hasn’t been able to sign and ratify the Istanbul Convention, which is currently one of the most important documents designed to prevent domestic violence and violence against women at the national level.
Commentary by defense attorney Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer with “Legal Initiative”
G.R.: Will these specific police officers who refused to start the case be brought to justice somehow following the ECHR judgment? Is there any information available on their personal connections with Salayev?
O.G.: The police officers can effectively be brought to justice on the count of negligent performance since this means punishment for failure to perform one’s duties if it has led to grave damage or violation of citizens’ rights. In this case, of course, Valeriya’s rights were violated — by the government as well, de facto, taking into account that the ECHR has awarded the applicant a compensation from the budget (EUR 20,000 as a compensation for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 6,000 for legal costs and expenses — ed. note), and it was the government whose inaction has led to the damage. We do not have information that the police officers were in any way connected with Salayev. However, I am under the impression that they were exhibiting some sort of “male solidarity.” Like, they would tell him how to avoid responsibility when he took away Valeriya’s cell phones. When he gave them back, theft was off the table. In one of their explanations, they said that Valeriya did not need protection from the government, and they considered the threats not realistic, because of her bad relationship with Salayev and his jealousy. So, because of jealousy, the police decided that the threats were not realistic.
G.R.: Was this the first lawsuit filed with the ECHR concerning domestic violence where the state was the defendant? Does this mean that Volodina’s case should resolve the problem of domestic violence in a comprehensive manner? Does this mean that the case against Salayev should be opened after all and carefully investigated? What agencies and individuals will be tasked with the creation of the Action Plan to prevent such violations in the future, which will be presented in six months to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe?
O.G.: This was not the first case concerning domestic violence vs. Russia, but the first one on which the Court has made a judgment. We hope that the judgment will be fully implemented because the Court has recognized not only the breach of Valeriya’s right to protection from cruel treatment and investigation of her lawsuit but also established the fact of gender-based discrimination against her. The Court has also stated that Russia does not have legislation on domestic violence, that domestic violence orders accepted and proven in most countries on the Council of Europe do not work in Russia. We also hope that reports filed between 2016 and now will be investigated. The Action Plan will be created by the Ministry of Justice of Russia, then it will send the Plan to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and then coordinate specific steps and deadlines with the Committee.
G.R.: Can this case somehow affect the adoption of the law on the prevention of domestic violence and accelerate this process?
O.G.: Yes, we also hope that this case will have a direct impact on the adoption of domestic violence legislation. I am saying “legislation,” because apart from the law introducing this notion, amendments should be made to the Criminal Code, to the criminal procedural and civil legislation. That is, a lot of work should be done on legislation. We believe that when the government claims it is too expensive and we do not have budget funds to build shelters for women [safe places, special centers for women who have suffered from domestic or sexual violence or ended up in a difficult position] who are running away from violence is unsubstantiated. Shelters are also necessary (and this practice exists in many countries) if there is a threat of violence. We commend the statement of Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova, who has recently said that Russia should ratify the Istanbul convention in connection with the beating of a girl in Ingushetia. The Istanbul Convention sets forth detailed measures, both legislative and educational, which help to fight against this phenomenon at the earliest stages. That is, it is not only about effective punishment, but also about making this crime commonly viewed as unacceptable. There should be zero tolerance to domestic violence in society, no more victim-blaming, etc. Of course, the only one that can be blamed is the perpetrator.
Today, we can already say that there is a public campaign around the problem of domestic violence in Russia. This is a grassroots initiative led by human rights defenders, activists, and journalists, which is supported by various media and social movements, which unites feminist movements and organizations, politicians, businesswomen and celebrities, writers and public intellectuals. The fact that we hear more and more about notable domestic violence cases is the result of this public campaign. This doesn’t mean that none of that happened before (even though the situation became somewhat worse after a battery in the family was decriminalized). But increased awareness of the domestic violence problem gradually causes the public to recognize that domestic violence in Russia is a political and governmental problem, and not just a problem of a select few. That is why it is so important that everyone who has access to public resources should speak up and form zero tolerance to domestic violence and violence against women in Russian society.
There is another important story that is probably bringing us closer to a comprehensive solution to the domestic violence problem in Russia. On July 9, the ECHR published a communiqué on four more complaints concerning domestic violence in Russia. This may bring in motion the “pilot judgment” procedure, which will result in the Court suggesting a set of legislative measures and a timeline of their adoption in Russia. In the entire ECHR history, 26 such pilot judgments were made, but none of them was about domestic violence. A “pilot judgment” is a procedure of a comprehensive nature. It was initiated because of the complaint of four Russian women who regularly suffered from domestic violence and faced rejections from the authorities when they asked to protect them from cruel treatment. They are Margarita Gracheva, Irina Petrakova, Natalia Tunikova, and Elena Gershman. Currently, domestic violence in Russia is still decriminalized, the legislation does not provide ways to fight against it, and a woman is killed by her partner or family member every 40 minutes nationwide.