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 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.
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/[email protected].
 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/[email protected].
 “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/[email protected].
 “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/[email protected].
 “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/[email protected].
 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.
ONLINE PRESENTATION OF RESEARCH PAPER “CONCEPTUALIZING MALIGN INFLUENCE OF PUTIN’S RUSSIA IN EUROPE”
The link for the presentation will be available upon registration. Please REGISTER HERE
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. The 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.
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.
– Anton Shekhovtsov, FRF Senior Fellow
– Melissa Hooper, Director of Europe and Eurasia Policy at Human Rights First
– Maria Snegovaya, Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis
– Grigory Frolov, FRF Vice President, Programs and Development
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 14 June this year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that, in particular, demanded: “that the Russian authorities immediately and unconditionally release Oleg Sentsov and all other illegally detained Ukrainian citizens in Russia and on the Crimean Peninsula”.
Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker who lived in Crimea. He stayed there after Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula; shortly after the annexation, Sentsov was arrested, forcibly “granted” a Russian citizenship, falsely charged with terrorist activities and sentenced to 20 years.
On 14 May 2018, Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike demanding to release all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and Crimea – there are more than 70 of them. Sentsov is dying right now.
Out of 627 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 485 voted for the resolution, 76 voted against, and 66 abstained. Here is a full list of MEPs voted against the resolution on political prisoners in Russia and Crimea. It is hardly a coincidence that almost all the MEPs listed here represent the pro-Putin “red-brown alliance”.
On Saturday, March 10th, at Kiev’s Free Russia House, Anton Shekhovtsov presented his book “Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir.” The book is the first to study the critical trend of the growing connection between the Kremlin and Western far-right activists, publicists, ideologists and politicians in considerable detail. An in-depth discussion with Mr. Shekhovtsov was held after his presentation.
About the book
It is impossible to analyze the Kremlin’s relations with nationalist and far-right European activists and political parties today if we do not first examine the roots of this partnership, which started to form in the 1990s. In turn, that cannot fully be understood without returning to the Cold War and events that preceded it in the 1920s and 1930s.
Just after World War I, National Bolshevism, a movement of far-left nationalists who rejected the Treaty of Versailles, appeared on the scene in Weimar Germany. This movement was greeted with some flirtatious interest by the Soviet Comintern, still in its infancy. German National Bolshevism defined the western powers of France, Britain, and Belgium as enemies. German National Bolsheviks, with their young proletarian movement, became associated with the USSR to a certain extent. However, after the consolidation of Nazi Germany in 1933, this movement lost its momentum. National Bolsheviks and the left-wing faction of the Nazi Party were destroyed by Hitler’s SA during the Night of the Long Knives.
A few years after the Second World War, neutralist far-right milieu (former representatives of the Nazi SS and Hitlerjugend) existed in West Germany, hoping to keep West Germany neutral and non-aligned. These policies, once again, lined up with the interests of the Soviet Union. According to some reports, until 1955, when West Germany became a member of NATO, the Soviet Union financed far-right groups in the West with more money than their socialist counterparts in East. During the Cold War, that money quickly dried up as agency activity became more expedient.
Shekhovtsov’s book goes on to examine the connections in the1990’s between Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Aleksandr Dugin, Sergei Baburin and Sergei Glazyev. In the chaos of the 1990s, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s far-right nationalist LDPR first attempted to create an international far-right force. Between 2000 and 2004, Putin’s first term, a number of conferences related to Zhirinovsky’s ambitions were held, but the Kremlin was largely uninterested. That period could be described as a honeymoon between Putin and the West. Everyone praised Russia, ignored human rights, and believed that perhaps giving Putin a little more time would lead to democratization.
In 2003, while getting ready for the “First People’s Patriotic Congress”, where Zhirinovsky’s far-right allies in France and Belgium were guests, Vladimir Volfovich wrote that the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia holds “patriotic views”, and the European “patriotic forces” are increasingly close to power. Their rise to power would turn out to be politically expedient for the Kremlin.
The next attempt to consolidate power was a more institutionalized form of cooperation between allies of the Kremlin and the far-right during controversial election monitoring in 2005. Then the media cooperated in 2008-2009, after the war with Georgia. A third wave, since 2011, has been crashing ever since as direct representatives of the Putin regime began to cooperate openly with such political forces as “National Front” (“Front National”) in France, the “Freedom Party” of Austria (“FreiheitlicheParteiÖsterreichs”), the Italian “Northern League” (“Lega Nord”), the Bulgarian “Attack” (“Атака”), among others. Today, agreements between “United Russia” (“ЕдинаяРоссия”, hereinafter “UR”) and Austria’s “Freedom Party” in 2016 and Italy’s “Northern League” in 2017 represent direct cooperation at high levels within both countries’ governments.
Today, the Austrian “Freedom Party” is the junior partner in the Austrian government coalition, and the “North League” recently stormed to its best performance in Italy’s recent election. People who maintain clearly pro-Kremlin stances are moving closer to power in Europe.
Does the Kremlin place the stake only on potential winners and why the far right needs Russia?
The Kremlin’s desire to cooperate with the Austrian “Freedom Party” was formally signed in 2016, as Austria went to the polls to elect a new president. For the first time since the Second World War, no representative of the main conservative (Austrian People’s Party) and socialist (Socialist Party of Austria) parties made it to the runoff round of Austria’s presidential election. A couple of weeks before the second round, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was invited to Moscow to sign agreements with United Russia. United Russia seemed to get the ball rolling only when the far right looked within reach of victory…but then they narrowly lost the presidential election. By contrast, the agreement with the “Northern League” which sought to institutionalize cooperation since 2014, did not get signed until 2017. Ironically, the original agreement sought to create an agreement at a time when polls showed no significant support for the nationalist Lega Nord party.
Support for the Kremlin is not universal among European far-right parties, but for some of them, cooperation with the Kremlin legitimizes their cause. Extreme right-wing ideologies were marginalized after the Second World War, and while many realize they cannot fully break the liberal-democratic consensus in the West, they still preach a release from the endless marginal circle. Therefore, they claim: “We are in favor of Putin’s Russia, which has the same ideology as us, and at the same time, is a global actor”. They surreptitiously promote the rhetorical narrative to legitimize themselves through an indirect reference to the Kremlin.
Does the far right continue to strengthen its position in Europe now?
The growth of support can be traced throughout Europe, with the exception of Portugal and Spain. But it is important to understand that many far-right groups have become more moderate since the 2000s. Many have moved closer to the center-right because they understand they will not come to power with fringe ideals. In political science, there is a classic case when the fascist party became conservative in Italy when the “Italian social movement” (“MovimentoSocialeItaliano”), a party with roots in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, managed to rebrand in the 1990s and join forces with Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party.
In Norway, the “Progress Party” (“Fremskrittspartiet”), considered far-right in the early 2000s, has moved to the center and now it’s a national-liberal party. In Hungary, there was a unique situation when the parties reversed roles. Since 2015, “Jobbik” (“JobbikMagyarországértMozgalom”) deliberately decided to move closer to the center and effectively switched spots with “Fidesz” (“Fidesz – Magyar PolgáriSzövetség”). Fidesz later began to borrow slogans from “Jobbik.” According to the “Political Capital” think tank’s analysis, 10 different proposals from “Jobbik” were realized by “Fidesz”. ”Jobbik” couldn’t implement these proposals while in opposition. Now “Jobbik” has moved towards the center-right insofar as it supports the Central European University and defends George Soros, while “Fidesz”, being the far right party now, wants to close the university and demonizes Soros completely.
In other words, the support of the far right in Europe is growing not only due to the refugee crisis since 2015 and the weakening of mainstream forces but also due to the face that the far-right is becoming more moderate, so they can be acknowledged as legitimate participants of the political process by many people.
Legitimation of Putin’s regime via the far-right Europeans
The Putin regime has a constant legitimization problem. According to the UN’s voting results regarding the occupation of Crimea in 2014, no Asian, African and South American countries voted against. For Russia, it is important to show not only that Asians and Africans support it, but the “real Europeans” as well. They need to bring these Europeans to Crimea to let them wax poetic on TV about how wonderful life is on the peninsula.
In addition, this resource can be used to legitimize elections.
When it comes to Russia’s population, political elites and a vast majority of the television media are anti-Western and anti-American, but the ordinary people don’t always subscribe to this mentality. Russian society considers itself a part of European civilization, so they subconsciously want to be accepted by “white Europeans.”
Even though Putin’s Russia has totally anti-fascist rhetoric, it sometimes ties itself in knots trying to legitimize itself with European approval. When Luc Michel, an old-school Belgian marginal skinhead from the 1980s was brought to Crimea’s referendum in March 2014, he was introduced to the media as “head of the OSCE observation mission”, a complete fabrication. In fact, the OSCE refused to send a mission to the illegitimate referendum.
You can see the full version (in Russian) of the discussion in video.
On the 7th of December, Vladimir Putin announced that he would run for a new presidential term in March 2018. So far, he has not presented a programme or agenda for his fourth presidential term, which is expected to last from 2018 until 2024, and it is very unlikely that he will do it in the nearest future. However, particular developments in Russia in December can give us a glimpse into what we can expect from Putin’s Russia 4.0.
When Putin announced his decision to run for the presidency again, Russian elite groups probably sighed with relief. Some Russia experts use the expression “The Kremlin has many towers” to refer to the fact that Putin’s regime is not a coherent whole, but a conglomerate of different elite groups – each with their own interests and agendas – that compete for resources and often seek to undermine their opponents from other elite groups. Putin, in this system, plays the role of a moderator of the competition and an ultimate arbiter of the conflicts between the elite groups.
This role makes Putin unique: he has built this system himself and for himself, which means that his potential departure from the referee’s tower, i.e. not running for, and winning, the presidency in March 2018, would dramatically destabilize the system and bring about its collapse. One may say that the elite groups need Putin’s presidency more than he does, but Putin needs it too, because he has not yet found a person who would succeed him and give him a security guarantee – similar to the guarantees that Putin granted to President Boris Yeltsin when he handed the reins of power over to Putin in 2000. Moreover, if Putin found such a person, no-one would be sure that he (or, very unlikely, she) could be accepted by the different elite groups as a moderator of their conflicts. Indeed, a person who can potentially succeed Putin can only come from one of the elite groups, but this would elevate that one group, afflict the others and, again, upset the balance of the entire system.
Yet even now one can observe that Putin’s system is already being destabilized. The troublemaker is Igor Sechin, the US-sanctioned CEO of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, the leader of one of the most conservative elite groups and perhaps the closest associate of Putin – Sechin has also served under Putin in his various positions since 1994. In 2016, Sechin initiated – with the help from the Federal Security Service – an allegedly anti-corruption case against now former Minister for Economic Development of Russia Alexei Ulyukaev who, as Sechin stated, tried to extort a bribe from him. In December, Ulyukaev was sentenced to eight years in a prison colony. Having initiated the case against Ulyukaev, Sechin broke the unspoken rule of the competition between the Russian elite groups: to keep conflicts between them out of the public eye. Ulyukaev’s widely publicised case is, in fact, not about him: compared to Sechin, he is a minor figure. Rather, the case demonstrates that Sechin has made a very bold and insolent move to humiliate and damage the antagonistic elite group to which Ulyukaev belonged, namely the pragmatist and economically liberal circle around Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. And this means that Sechin’s ultraconservative elite group has gained the upper hand in Putin’s system and, thus, disrupted the balance within it.
There are other several indications that Putin’s system during his fourth term will become even more conservative and reactionary, but also even more anti-Western than it was before. Putin has been officially nominated a presidential candidate on the 26th of December at an exhibition titled “Russia – my history” organized by Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon. The latter is considered to be a spiritual advisor to Putin and is an unofficial leader of the monarchist and extreme conservative circle within the Russian Orthodox Church. The choice of place for the official nomination has a symbolic meaning too: many Russian historians argue that Tikhon’s exhibition, while full of factual mistakes, praises conservatism and authoritarianism, as well as showing that all attempts to democratize Russia are Western plots and naturally alien to the Russian people.
The Kremlin’s misuse and revision of history, the legitimization of openly authoritarian practices and increasing obsession with “Western conspiracy” has also manifested in a recent interview of Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service – another powerful elite group within Putin’s system. In this interview, Bortnikov justified Stalin’s political mass repressions by the need to fight against “foreign agents”, and in Bortnikov’s opinion, the fight against the “fifth column” in Russia needs to continue, because “the destruction of Russia is still idée fixe for some” in the West.
The rise of the extreme conservative elite groups destabilizes Putin’s system, and this destabilization limits the flexibility of the regime – a flexibility that has so far been the main advantage of the system both domestically and internationally. Now, it seems, that Russia 4.0 will mobilize the society for the support of the regime around three ideas only: the country’s historical grandeur, its non-compatibility with democracy and Western conspiracy. Against the background of Russia’s continuous economic and social decline, this means that Putin’s regime will become even more oppressive at home and more aggressive in foreign relations.
2017 was quite a successful year for the European project. Far-right parties did not win in key countries such as France and Germany. Or, rather, the consolidation of the far-right did not take place in the countries where we thought or feared it would happen.
In the Netherlands, the last minute surge by the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy ensured that the far-right Freedom Party would not become the largest party in the Dutch House of Representatives. In France, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated in the presidential elections and her National Front won only 8 seats in the National Assembly.
However, the far-right party Alternative for Germany received 12.6% of the vote in the September elections, enough for 96 seats in the Bundestag and third place overall. Their presence in the parliament may have brought Germany closer to her European counterparts where the far-right also have representations in their parliaments. If AFD propagates right-wing populism instead of neo-Nazism or fascism, that ideology has a right to be represented in the Bundestag as it is supported by a substantial part of a population as a form of opposition to the talking points of liberal democracy so widely-spread nowadays. It is good for liberal democracy as it returns the discussion on emigration, cultural and national identities into a more civilized framework.
Today Europe is in the situation of duality, where the dialogue between the two poles of power will determine the future of the European Union. The first pole is represented by France and Germany, especially after the victory of Emmanuel Macron and his recent speech where he outlined approximate plans for future much-needed reform of the EU.
The second pole is the Visegrád Group and in particular Poland and Hungary, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia catching up. This block is formed around non-liberal trends, which are predominant in these states. Even though today these movements are concentrated in Hungary and Poland, similar trends appear to be growing stronger in the Czech Republic.
In my opinion, the dialogue between these two poles will largely determine the future of the European Union. Europe’s near future will likely be centered around the debate of Macron’s plan. This plan will be strengthened by Germany’s position after the creation of the Jamaica Coalition (CDU, FDP, The Greens). Currently, Germany is still in a transitional state and is not taking part in the discussion so far, but will most likely join after the rebooting of Merkel’s government.
As for the influence of the Kremlin, the main allies of the Putin regime in Germany are the Social Democrats, who had and still have much more influence than the “Alternative for Germany”. The latter is by far the most pro-Russian party, but in terms of its importance, it is very much inferior to the Social Democrats, in particular, in the business sphere. Among the Social Democrats, there are lobbyists of big businesses and large industrial groups in Germany who, guided by postmodern Realpolitik sentiments, would like to return to the relations they used to have before with Russia and the Putin regime.
Despite a lot of doubt, there’s still an optimistic air to be found around the development of the European Union. There’s a good possibility that when put to the test, the far-right’s arguments and plans will crumble as they fail to deliver real results. Marine Le Pen should not be dismissed yet, but on the other hand, the National Front is at a chaotic crossroads following their dual defeat at the ballot box. Perhaps the National Front is doomed to split into a more moderate and a more radical wing. The Kremlin, of course, will continue to influence or will try to influence the processes that take place in the European Union, not only through the far-right but also through business structures through Putin’s and his closest associates’ personal connections with leading or significant politicians of the European Union. The paradigm of attempts to influence will persist.
Kremlin has acted and will act based on a variety of national contexts. If the Putin regime gets to cooperate with mainstream players or more influential players, then Russia will not resort to any particularly destructive actions. If these Putin’s friends disappear or lose their influence, it is likely that the regime will again turn to cooperation with the far-right. It will always depend on the specific national context.
For example, speaking of the parties Jobbik or Fidesz in Hungary (the latter is in power, the former is the in the opposition to the latter), Russia, as far as I know, does not support Jobbik, although it was quite pro-Russian and, probably, stays the most pro-Russian party. But Russia does not support Jobbik for the simple reason that there is Fidesz, with which Russia is pleased to work. And since Jobbik is in the opposition to Fidesz, then it would be somewhat inconvenient for Russia to support the opposition to its friends. Similar situations happened in many countries, including France in 2012, when Marine Le Pen was eager to cooperate with Russia, to meet and communicate with Putin. But Putin initially placed its stake on Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande. It did not work out when Hollande became President and the only thing left was to start cooperation with the National Front. In other words, specific context is important for Putin’s Russia: with whom to work, through whom to influence, and if not influence, then, perhaps, engage in some kind of subversive actions.