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The second issue of The Kremlins 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.

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This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

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Introduction

Relations between Russia and Spain at the end of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries were not a priority for either of these countries. They were not completely friendly: Spain is a member of NATO and took part in the sanctions campaign against the Russian regime after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. On the other hand, they did not become directly hostile, and their relationships could be called “favorably neutral.”[1] Spain continues to trade with Russia, and the export of clothes, olive oil, wine and some other products that have not been subject to “import substitution sanctions” is worth mentioning. Spain also imports oil from Russia. The countries continue cooperating in the military sphere: for instance, Spain recently provided its ports for Russian military ships for the needs of Russian military operations in the Middle East. In addition, tourism is developed (or was, before COVID-19 struck), and a significant number of citizens of the Russian Federation own real estate in Spain and show business activity.

Some citizens of the Russian Federation who have chosen Spain as their main place of residence are representatives of organized crime. Having settled in Spain, they have not retired at all, but, on the contrary, have developed a wide network of criminal business.

Until a certain point, Russian actors (affiliated with both the state and the underworld) did not carry out large-scale interventions in the activities of the Spanish democratic institutions. However, the onset of the crisis associated with the escalation of separatism in Catalonia provided them with an opportunity not only to interfere on the state level in Spain but also to destabilize the development of the European Union as a whole.

The malign influence of the Russian regime on the democratic and market institutions of Spain, is most clearly reflected in several areas of public life. First of all, it concerns the provision of Russian organized crime in Spain. Representatives of the Russian criminal community, deeply integrated into the power structures of the Russian regime, have resided continuously in this country since the 1990s and influence trade, launder money, and involve representatives of Spanish politicians and officials in corruption relations. To provide comfortable conditions for their “business,” the Russian criminals need to work simultaneously in two main directions.

On the one hand, they need to establish cooperation between the police and the judiciary in the criminal law sphere in Spain itself. On the other hand, they need to constantly maintain close cooperation with the power structures of the Russian Federation (for example, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation is a protege of the Russian mafia in Spain). This, among other things, allows them to have a “safe airfield” in Russia and to receive the necessary official conclusions about themselves and their activities from the Russian authorities. They successfully use such judgments and certificates to prove their innocence in Spanish courts.

Since the greatest threat to the activities of the Russian mafia in Spain is the development of European integration, they put most of their effort into obstructing the democratic progress.

Overview of relations between Spain and the Russian Federation

Relations between Spain and Russia have traditionally developed in the most comfortable format for the latter. As some researchers rightly point out: “Spain drive toward closer relations with Moscow has been made within and outside the EU.”[2] For Russia since the beginning of the 2000s, the development of relations with the European Union as a supranational organization has been a great difficulty. First of all, in our opinion, this is due to the inability to understand the essence of the EU integration method, the nature and structure of relations between the organization and its members. Thus, the foundation of relations between the Russian Federation and the EU remains the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.[3] It was supposed to terminate in 2007, but instead, it has been automatically extended every year to the present. A draft of a new treaty was being prepared, but negotiations were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, bilateral relations were thriving. The Spanish government has consistently supported Russian attempts to build a new “multipolar world” and attempts to counter US “hegemony.” This was especially pronounced during the government of Jose Luis Zapatero.[4] Spain presented itself as the ‘heart of Europe’ and developed closer relations with France and Germany. In addition, Spain was more actively included in the work of the Second Pillar of the European Union. Russian-Spanish relations have developed in the field of combating the threat of terrorism, cultural cooperation, and other areas important to the Russian Federation. At the same time, Spain supported the international policy of the Russian Federation; mutual visits at the highest level were regularly made.

Like Russia, Spain still refuses to recognize the independence of Kosovo, even after the decision of the International Court of Justice[5] (among EU countries only Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus and Romania hold this position), although this has to do more with Spain’s own problem with separatism, rather than with Russian foreign policy. Support for separatism in Spain is a particularly important area of activity for Putin’s regime. Unable to do this openly, Russia acts with the help of its criminal representatives and, apparently, with the help of its special services.

It is significant that Spain, together with Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, and Portugal, was opposed to sanctions against Russia for the invasions of Russia in neighboring countries.[6] In these countries, Russia’s informal influence is very strong.

In general, Spain acted as a full-fledged partner of Russia. There are several main aspects worth discussing: the cooperation in the fight against terrorism and regional security (this was especially evident in the 2000s, after 9/11), economic cooperation, mutual investment, and cultural exchange.

Mutual trade relations developed rapidly. Spanish companies entered Russian markets, Russian companies invested in the Spanish economy and exported natural resources. Russia became the second, after Saudi Arabia, oil exporter to Spain. Russian tourism has become a significant phenomenon: by 2010, more than a million Russians visited Spain every year. In 2008, Gazprom tried to conclude a deal to acquire 20% of the Spanish energy company Respol. A major share in Repsol could increase Russia’s weight in Latin America’s energy market, where most of the company’s oil and gas production was centered.[7]

Spain only reluctantly supported EU sanctions against Russia, which had limited economic impact on Spain. Some of Spain’s food exporters were affected, but leading exports[8] were not included in Russia’s counter-sanctions.[9]

In the military sphere, Spain’s policy towards Russia is somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, as a member of NATO and the EU, Spain is taking part in strengthening its military presence in Eastern Europe. First of all, this concerns the Baltic countries.[10] On the other hand, Spain provides Russia with the opportunity to take full advantage of its Ceuta base in the Mediterranean.

In 2016, eleven members of the European Parliament, including representatives from the Baltic states, Poland, and the Catalan politician Ramon Tremosa, filed a High-Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini request for the Ceuta naval base. In particular, they were interested in whether she knew that these naval operations were “the key to maintaining the position of the Russian army in Ukraine,” emphasizing that this could violate EU sanctions against Moscow. “The frequency with which Russian navy ships call into the port—at least 10 times a year—have turned the Spanish exclave into the main base of the Russian fleet in the western Mediterranean. The Russian army has an official base in Tartus (Syria), although its ships have also docked in Maltese and Greek ports.”[11] The supply of Russian warships brings significant revenue to the Spanish treasury, Russia systematically uses this base to refuel its vessels to date, which causes indignation among representatives of the UK and the USA.[12] The only exception was 2017, when Russia itself withdrew a request for three warships.[13]

Russian mafia in Spain

In the early 1990s, a significant number of representatives of the Russian criminal world chose Spain as their main place of residence. It would be an exaggeration to say that this was due to Spanish corruption or other objective reasons. It can be assumed that the determining factors were, on the one hand, the climate (the most influential Russian mafiosi came from cold St. Petersburg and its environs), and on the other, positive image of Spain in the Russian collective historical memory. Spain (unlike, for example, France) is associated with the image of masculinity—which is also a painful issue for the rigid hierarchy of criminal circles in Russia. At the same time, Spain is associated with Ernest Hemingway, which for the Soviet Union of the 1960s (namely, the childhood and youth of the influential representatives of the criminal world), was a cult hero and, in a certain sense, a symbol of freedom. On the whole, the most likely, reason for choosing Spain as one of the main countries where the Russian criminal world is based abroad was a combination of random factors and a generally positive image of Spain in Russia.

The most influential criminal group in Russia by the end of the 1990s was the Tambov-Malyshev organized crime group. It remains so to the present; however, its members have changed their official statuses, from bandits to business representatives and large lobbyists.

They were a part of a criminal structure that was located in Spain since 1996 and consisted of immigrants from Russia who already had a criminal record or were under a trial either in Russian Federation, US, or other EU countries. Residing in Spain, they controlled the activities of the respective criminal groups in their home country. According to the records of the preliminary investigation No. 321/06 of the Spanish Prosecutor’s Office, these activities included murders, arms trafficking, extortion (under duress), fraud, document forgery, communications, bribery, illegal transactions, smuggling, drug trafficking, crimes against the Treasury, fraudulent decapitalization of companies, beatings and threatening conditions. The profits obtained through these illegal activities were sent to Spain with the help of legal and financial consultants, who eventually became a part of the Tambov-Malyshev criminal group. As stated in the records, their “main goal in our country is to conceal illegally obtained funds by legitimizing them and integrating them into the regulated financial system by increasing the authorized capital of “companies” and inter-partner loans, financial transfers from / to offshore zones and investments in other countries, for example, to Germany.” [14]

The central figures in the investigation of the Spanish prosecutor’s office were Gennady Petrov, Alexander Malyshev, Vladislav Reznik (a member of the Russian State Duma since 1999) and dozens more. The community leaders, Petrov and Malyshev, have been directly associated with Vladimir Putin since he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg for external affairs. The materials of the Spanish case contain retellings of wiretapping of dialogues between the participants of this criminal group. Among other things, there is a conversation between Viktor Gavrilenkov (one of the leaders of the Velikiye Luki criminal group) and a certain “Sergey,” which took place in 2007. They discuss investments in the Spanish economy, possible problems from the “blue” (FSB of the Russian Federation), especially logistics, and this phrase also slips into the conversation: “Victor says that there are several hotels in Alicante, Putin’s house is not too far from here, in Torrevieja.” The Insider conducted a special investigation into this matter and found out that, according to the memoirs of local residents, in 1994 Putin came to Torrevieja and stayed there in the La Mata area.[15] At that time, Torrevieja was the “Russian capital in Spain,” this was the place where the shootings took place, and “the money was carried in backpacks.” According to The Insider, it was in this city that the deputy mayors of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, Alexey Kudrin, and Mikhail Manevich (assassinated in 1997[16]), and their “partners,” through controlled companies, acquired several real estate properties. Both Russian and Spanish specialists were involved in these operations, and the then leader of the criminal community of St. Petersburg Viktor Kumarin (Barsukov) controlled the money laundering process. Subsequently, after a fierce struggle, control over most of Kumarin’s area of responsibility was seized by Petrov. Kumarin went to prison, where he remains to the present.

A lot of investigations are devoted to the analysis of the materials of the Spanish prosecutor’s office, and the activities of Petrov and his entourage. In particular, he was involved[17] in the appointment of Alexander Bastrykin as the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Igor Sobolevsky as his deputy, Anatoly Serdyukov as the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation and many other personnel decisions in the Russian Federation.[18] Spanish mafiosi constantly supported communication with partners at home.[19]

The work of the Spanish prosecutor and investigative journalists[20] from all over the world was not left without attention. In particular, in the January 2018 report from the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate , more than half of the chapter on Spain is devoted to the activities of Petrov and his colleagues.[21] The report uses the Sebastian Rotella study published in ProPublica as one of its primary sources.[22] Spanish prosecutors met with Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer. Litvinenko was to advise Spanish investigators and share information on the activities of the Russian mafia in Spain. As an officer of Russia’s intelligence services, Litvinenko specialized in working with organized crime and apparently possessed a lot of classified information regarding Russian organized crime in Spain. However, Litvinenko was killed before he could testify at a trial. As was told in an inquiry by the UK’s House of Commons the order to kill Litvinenko was “likely approved by Putin.”[23] Jose Grinda Gonzalez, Spain’s leading law enforcement expert on Russian organized crime, told ProPublica, “We had accepted the idea that the world of the Russian mafia was like that. But it’s true that the case made other people think this gentleman had told the truth because now he was dead.’’

During an investigation into the activities of the Petrov’s gang, the Spanish law enforcement authorities were able to find a large amount of evidence showing that “that they named over a dozen of them in the indictments, including the former defence minister.”[24]

Petrov was arrested in 2008 during a major operation by the Spanish authorities against Russian organized crime, which ultimately led to the pretrial indictments of 27 suspects on charges of creating a criminal community and money laundering. Among the main actors of the criminal group was Vladislav Reznik, a senior Duma member and member of Putin’s United Russia party, and the indictment alleges that he operated at ‘‘the highest levels of power in Russia on behalf of Mr. Petrov and his organization.”

Before the start of the trial, Petrov left Spain and settled in Russia. Russian authorities did not take any action to return him to Spain. Moreover, they interfered with the investigation by sending false information to Spain or using opportunities to delay the process. Thus, the consideration of the Petrov case lasted more than ten years.

Nevertheless, despite Petrov’s flight, the investigation continued in 2008. In 2009, while pursuing a lead from the case, Spanish police entered the office of a lawyer suspected of money laundering, only to see him grab a document from his desk, crumple it up, and begin to eat it.[25] The document, after being forcibly spat out, led investigators to a new group of alleged money launderers in Barcelona who have suspected ties to Kremlin-linked organized crime.[26] The efforts of the Russian mafia in Spain were aimed at creating an effective and secure money-laundering machine in Catalonia. Representatives of Russian organized crime, themselves and through the experts they hired, have for years strengthened their influence on Catalan politicians and businessmen. One important tool for this disruptive influence was the use of rivalry between regional and national law enforcement agencies.[27]

Grinda’s investigation has been so productive and informative over the years, that it garnered the attention of the FBI who reportedly directed years ago that an FBI agent was to be embedded into the Spanish investigation to obtain further information with regard to Russian organized crime and corruption.[28]

Thanks to the efforts of Jose Grinda, the investigation into the activity of the Russian criminal network in Spain entered the international level:

Criminal activities including drugs, counterfeiting, extortion, car theft, human trafficking, fraud, fake IDs, contract killing, and trafficking in jewels, art, and antiques. This was done on an international scale. Not just in Russia. Solntsevskaya[29] has also demonstrated active cooperation with other international criminal organizations, like Mexican mafias, Colombian drug cartels, Italian criminal organizations (particularly with the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra), the Japanese yakuza, and Chinese triads, among others.[30]

Then one of the most senior leaders of the Russian criminal world, Zakhariy Kalashov (“Shakro the Young”) was taken under arrest.

If the fugitives were intimidated, Rueda [a former Spanish police commander] saw little sign of it. Law-enforcement officials in Georgia told him that Oniani [Tariel Oniani—one of the leaders of the Russian criminal world] was threatening to kill Spanish investigators […] Rueda spent weeks preparing a secret operation with the help of law-enforcement officials from several nations […] in what was one of the most important convictions overseas of a gangster from the former Soviet Union. But the Spanish fight did not end there. Kalashov, considered the most dangerous inmate in the country’s prison system, bombarded courts with appeals, plotted repeatedly to escape, and did his best to corrupt any officials he could reach, investigators say. In 2012, the FBI passed along a formal warning that the mafia was prepared to spend a million dollars to bribe a Spanish official for Kalashov’s release, a confidential FBI document indicates.[31]

After several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the prosecutor, in 2017, the representatives of the Russian criminal world started to spread a rumor about Grinda allegedly being a pedophile through a Spanish lawyer.[32] In one of the interviews Grinda quoted a Spanish saying coined by the king of the Colombian narcos Pablo Escobar, plata or plomo, which literally translates to “silver or lead”: “Do you know what I mean if I say plomo or plata? With them it is like this: either take the plata, the money, or there is civil death.”[33] Fortunately, the process on charges of pedophilia against the prosecutor was not started, but in 2017 after French police intercepted a phone call from a Georgian mafia member ordering a hit on Grinda, he started using bodyguards to protect himself and his family.[34]

Despite all the efforts of the investigation, the accused were acquitted. During the process, the name of Vladimir Putin sounded many times and his direct relationship with the accused was not in doubt.[35]

The result of the trial of the Russian mafia in court can be an example of disruptive Russian influence that destroys the institution of justice and the inevitability of punishment. A massive team of lawyers and other professionals acted with the direct support of Russian law enforcement agencies. The Spanish court was obliged to accept the findings of Russian law enforcement without criticism, a priori recognizing the conclusions of the Russian authorities as real. (Possibly this follows from the spirit of the agreement on legal assistance between Russia and Spain in 1996).[36]

As a consequence, the Spanish judges even acquitted two defendants who acknowledged themselves to be guilty of money laundering and organized crime, Mikhail Rebo and Leon (Leonid) Khazine, stating the court is allowed to do so.

Spanish investigators complained to El País that courts have been too ready to grant bail to the numerous alleged Russian mafia members they have detained. “We had gained a lot of prestige in Europe for our operations against the Russian mafias and these decisions have thrown part of that work into the dustbin.”[37]

These drawbacks of the Spanish justice system can be clearly illustrated by Petrov’s case. The Spanish judges seem to have such faith in the reports of Russian FSB that any information provided there undermines all investigation efforts. As mentioned in Transborder Corruption Archive, “the Spanish sentence pretends that Petrov was not involved in organized crime, based on two reports from the Russian FSB and several more letters from different Russian law enforcement bodies, as well as on the conviction for defamation of a Russian media outlet for linking Gennady Petrov and Ilias Traber to organized crime.”[38]

Intervention in the Catalan referendum

However, the troubles of the leaders of the Russian criminal world in Spain did not end there. They turned out to be participants in Russia’s interference in the referendum in Catalonia.

Gennady Petrov was involved in financing radical parties. It seems reasonable to assume that he did this not so much on his own initiative, but rather at the request of his partners in Moscow. And in 2013, the Catalan regional government appointed Xavier Crespo, a former mayor belonging to the Romano Codina i Maseras (CiU) party, to the post of security secretary, which controls the Catalan police.[39] The appointment was cancelled when intelligence services in Madrid provided evidence that Crespo was involved in money laundering, and in 2014 he was charged with bribery from Petrov. As it was discovered during an investigation known as Operation Clotilde, the CiU also received money laundered by Russian crime syndicates through Catalan banks and shell companies.[40]

Part of the CiU teamed up with two left-wing parties to form a coalition that held a referendum on the independence of Catalonia from Spain on October 1, 2017. The referendum has been advancing for many years on domestic political, cultural, and economic issues. Still, it also gave Moscow many opportunities to develop a result that would weaken one of the central EU states. And now there is growing evidence that the Kremlin, at least through state-owned media, has launched a large-scale disinformation campaign aimed at a referendum.

The U.S. State Department reported that Russian state news outlets, such as Sputnik, published a number of articles in the run up to the poll that highlighted alleged corruption within the Spanish government and driving an overarching anti-EU narrative in support of the secessionist movement. These Russian news agencies, as well as Russian users on Twitter, also repeatedly promoted the views of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has taken to social media to call for Spanish authorities to respect the upcoming vote in Catalonia. Spanish newspapers have also reported that Russian bots attempted to flood social media with controversial posts in support of Catalonian independence prior to the referendum.[41]

In November 2017, the Instituto Elcano research center published a report by Mira Milosevich-Juaristi on Russia’s alleged role. They registered a 2,000% increase in Russian digital activity related to Catalonia during September that reflected another Russian attempt “to influence the internal political situation of another country, to sow confusion and to proclaim the decline of liberal democracy.”[42]

According to the report, the main goals of malign influence in Catalonia were the following:

  • Discrediting Spanish democracy and alienating Spain from its EU and NATO partners;
  • Destroying credibility of European institutions and sowing confusion;
  • Compromising the liberal order created and maintained by the US;
  • Distracting the attention of Russia’s own citizens from internal problems.

The work of Russian communications media, including RT, Sputnik, Russia Beyond the Headlines and many state TV stations, social networks (Facebook and Twitter) by trolls (online profiles created to disseminate pre-fabricated information), bots (dissemination of information by autonomic processes) and sock puppets (online profiles created with the objective of generating and transmitting false news)[43] loudly declared itself to the world and various political and expert communities have developed a large number of recommendations to combat fake news.

It is important to note that Catalonia’s gaining or not gaining independence was by and large indifferent to Russian propaganda channels. The main goal was to balance the Catalan events in the public mind with the “referendum” in Crimea and thus push Europe’s public opinion to the idea of lifting international sanctions from Russia.[44]

At the end of 2019 Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, opened an investigation into the alleged activities of a group linked with the Russian intelligence service during the 2017 Catalan breakaway bid.[45]

The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said that some media organizations seem obsessed with bringing back “a half-forgotten issue,” and she talked about “an anti-Russia campaign.”[46]

Apparently, not only the Russian disinformation forces and representatives of the criminal world, but also the Russian special services took part in the Catalan campaign. A Spanish court has already sentenced members of extremist groups[47] to plan various acts of violence.[48] Representatives of Russian special services, including agents of GRU Unit 29155, could take part in coordinating and supporting the activities of these organizations.

The investigations of malign Russian influence will bring more evidence. Unofficial sources increasingly point to the direct impact of Russian intelligence services in Spain. We can safely assume that Russia uses Spain as a “recreation center” and “operational space” for Russian security services. In the course of official and journalistic investigations of the murders in Britain by the representatives of the Russian authorities, it became possible to conclude that the special GRU unit 29155[49] was responsible for these acts. It is still impossible to undeniably confirm the direct connection between this unit and the Russian mafia, but new evidence gives more reasons for this. For example, an agent of the Unit 29155 “Fedorov” (Denis Sergeev) visited Catalonia just before the referendum.[50]

“While the referendum did not result in Catalonia’s independence from Spain, it showed that Spain is a growing target of the Kremlin’s malign influence operations. Spain can strengthen its resiliency by studying the experiences of and cooperating with other similarly-targeted European countries, and the U.S. government should take steps to help shore-up ongoing effort.”[51]

Extradition problems and problems of cooperation

The Spanish authorities had trouble handling thriving Russian criminal groups, the population of which was steadily growing in Spain since the 1990s when citizens of the former Soviet Union started arriving in the country, residing primarily in three areas: Costa del Sol, Valencia (including already mentioned Torrevieja), and the Catalonian coast. In his article on transnational organized crime in Spain, Carlos Resa Nestares claims that weak government and administrative institutes of Russia and general reluctance of Russian authorities to cooperate were the primary reasons why attempts to stop growth of Russian mafia influence were unsuccessful: “In many cases, the Russian mafias take advantage of the lack of co-operation of the Russian police with Spanish investigations. The collapse of governmental structures, which has decimated the police force, is one reason for this lack of co-operation. Others are the pervasive corruption which plagues the Russian police as well as their spotty training in new types of criminality.”[52]

It is obvious that it was the refusal of the Russian investigation to cooperate with the Spanish investigating authorities that later became the main official argument justifying the difficulty of investigating the activities of Russian criminal groups and officials all over the EU.

So, for example, this argument is regularly used in the Indictment of the Special Prosecutor Against Corruption and the Organized Criminality to the Court.[53]

It can be concluded with certainty: the Russian prosecutors are directly (at least passively) opposing the Spanish investigation. The case of Tariel Oniani clearly demonstrates the level of Russian cooperation. In June 2005, Oniani fled to Russia just hours before he was to be arrested in Spain, and in April 2006, despite the fact that he was wanted by the Spanish authorities, Russia granted him citizenship. Obtaining Russian citizenship is a complicated and bureaucratic procedure. However, in Oniani’s case, it went surprisingly quickly. It is doubtful that Oniani was just lucky, and Jose Grinda Gonzalez alleges that such a generous gesture from the authorities suggests “an example of Russia putting crime lords to work on behalf of its interests.” Grinda is also sure that the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB were protecting Oniani even while he was held in prison. Later, in June 2009, following Oniani’s arrest in Russia, Spain requested his extradition for charges related to Operation Avispa. However, the Russian authorities denied this request, claiming it was his Russian citizenship that prevented extradition. As Grinda concluded, “A virtue of the Russian government is that it will always say and do the same thing: nothing.”[54]

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. As stated in “Defining and Prosecuting Transborder Corruption,” “a major problem preventing European law enforcement bodies from investigating transborder corruption is the absence of agreements on legal assistance between Russia and European countries.”[55]

In conclusion, it is safe to say the Russian authorities are directly affiliated with criminal groups in Europe. With their help, they launder their incomes, provide themselves and their loved ones the opportunity to live comfortably in developed countries. In addition, as it has become clear recently, criminal groups, together with the Russian special services, are systematically working on destroying the institutions of democracy and justice. This activity so far is proceeding quite successfully and with impunity.


[1] Alexander Dunaev, “Why Spain Doesn’t Fear the ‘Russian Threat,’” Carnegie Moscow Center, March 5, 2018. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/75698

[2] Maxine David, Jackie Gower, and Hiski Haukkala, eds., National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making? (Routledge, 2013), 111.

[3] “EU–Russia partnership and cooperation agreement 1994,” Official Journal of the European Communities (November 28, 1997): L 327/3, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:21997A1128(01)

[4] Maria Shagina, “EU Sanctions Policy Towards Post-Soviet Conflicts: Cases of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia And Abkhazia,” Revista UNISCI / UNISCI Journal, no. 43 (Enero/January 2017); and David, Gower, and Haukkala, National Perspectives on Russia, 109.

[5] Hannah Jamar and Mary Katherine Vigness, “Applying Kosovo: Looking to Russia, China, Spain and Beyond After the International Court of Justice Opinion on Unilateral Declarations of Independence,” German Law Journal 11 no. 7-8 (August 2010): 921–922, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/german-law-journal/article/applying-kosovo-looking-to-russia-china-spain-and-beyond-after-the-international-court-of-justice-opinion-on-unilateral-declarations-of-independence/8A9AAA20549A0A2A70611F43090CCB56

[6] Shagina, “Eu Sanctions Policy”

[7] Giles Tremlett, “Gazprom seeks 20% of Spanish oil group,” Guardian (US edition), November 4, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/nov/14/oil-russia-gazprom-spain-repsol

[8] “Russia’s import in 2017,” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, https://oec.world/es/profile/country/rus/#Exportaciones

[9] Dunaev, “Why Spain Doesn’t Fear ‘Russian Threat’”

[10] Aurora Mejía “Spain’s contribution to Euro-Atlantic security,” The Elcano Royal Institute, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_es/zonas_es/defensa+y+seguridad/ari60-2017-mejia-spain-contribution-euro-atlantic-security

[11] Miguel González “Ceuta: an unofficial Russian naval ‘base’ in the Strait of Gibraltar? Right-wing groups in the US and UK criticize frequent stopovers in the Spanish exclave,” El Pais, March 28, 2016. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2016/03/28/inenglish/1459157481_130448.html

[12]George Allison “Spain complains about British military while refuelling Russian warships,” UK Defence Journal, (June 2019), https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/spain-complains-about-british-military-while-refuelling-russian-warships/

[13] “Russian warships: Spain says refuelling request withdrawn,” BBC News, October 26, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37779204

[14] Fiscalia Especial Contra La Corrupción Y La Criminalidad Organizada, Protocols of the preliminary investigation No. 321/06, http://www.compromat.ru/files/51434.pdf

[15] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Dom sen’ora Putina. Den’gi merii Peteburga otmyvalic’ v Ispanii?” The Insider, November 9, 2015, https://theins.ru/korrupciya/15823

[16] “Gangland-Style Slaying of Russian Official” New York Times By Associated Press, Aug. 19, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/19/world/gangland-style-slaying-of-russian-official.html

[17] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Dom Russkoy Mafii: ‘tolik’ ‘sasha’ ‘tsar,’” The New Times November 30, 2015, https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/104858

[18] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Mafiya na goszakaze. Kak novye kremlevskie oligarkhi svyazany s prestupnym mirom,” The Insider, July 2, 2015, https://theins.ru/korrupciya/10407

[19] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Primaya liniya s Tambovskoy OPG. Kak mafiya druzhit s glavoy Sk, ministrami I prochim okruzheniem Putina (proslushki),” The Insider, November 6, 2018, https://theins.ru/korrupciya/125116

[20] Sebastian Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean. The story of the Russian mob in Spain—and the detectives who spent years trying to bring them down,” The Atlantic, November 10, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/russian-mob-mallorca-spain/545504/

[21] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared For The Use Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States S. Doc. No. 115-21 (January 10, 2018), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[22] Sebastian Rotella, ‘‘A Gangster Place in the Sun: How Spain’s Fight Against the Mob revealed Russian Power Networks,’’ ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2017, https://www.propublica.org/article/fighting-russian-mafia-networks-in-spain

[23] An inquiry by the UK’s House of Commons concluded that order to kill Litvinenko was likely approved by Putin. United Kingdom House of Commons, “The Litvinenko Inquiry: Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko,” at 244 (March 2015), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/493860/The-Litvinenko-Inquiry-H-C-695-web.pdf

[24] While mentioned in court documents, the officials were not actually charged.

[25] Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean;” and Rotella, ‘‘Gangster Place in the Sun”

[26] Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean;” and Rotella, ‘‘Gangster Place in the Sun”

[27] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared For The Use Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States S. Doc. No. 115-21 (January 10, 2018), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[28] Martin Sheil, “Is Russian Organized Crime the link between the Danske Bank money laundering scandal and the Novichok poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal?” Medium, Sep 20, 2018, https://medium.com/@sheil51/is-russian-organized-crime-the-link-between-the-danske-bank-money-laundering-scandal-and-the-cc431f1c2de6

[29] Criminal group from Moscow. Many members of this group were arrested in Spain in 2017. “Two Main Russian Mafia Groups Dismantled In Spain With Europol’s Support” Europol Press Release, September 28, 2017, https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/two-main-russian-mafia-groups-dismantled-in-spain-europol%E2%80%99s-support

[30] Melissa Rossi “Spain’s Robert Mueller takes on the Russian mob,” Yahoo News, January 19, 2018, https://www.yahoo.com/news/spains-robert-mueller-takes-russian-mob-202248019.html

[31] Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean”

[32] Rossi “Spain’s Robert Mueller”

[33] Il Fatto Quotidiano “Mafia russa, su Fq MillenniuM l’intervista esclusiva al giudice Grinda: C’è Mosca dietro le accuse di pedofilia contro di me” June 13, 2017, https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2017/06/13/mafia-russa-su-fq-millennium-lintervista-esclusiva-al-giudice-grinda-ce-mosca-dietro-le-accuse-di-pedofilia-contro-di-me/3655094/

[34] Rossi “Spain’s Robert Mueller”

[35] Anastasia Kirilenko, “The top man says he’ll consider it.” Vladimir Putin in wiretapped calls of Tambovskaya gang, The Insider, April 27.04.2018, https://theins.ru/uncategorized/100981?lang=en

[36] “Dogovor mezhdu Rossiyskoy Federatsiey i Korolevstvom Ispaniya ob okazanii pravovoy pomoshchi po ugolovnym delam. Moskva, 25 marta 1996 goda. Ministerstvo yustitsii RF,” https://to14.minjust.ru/ru/dogovor-mezhdu-rossiyskoy-federaciey-i-korolevstvom-ispaniya-ob-okazanii-pravovoy-pomoshchi-po

[37] González “Ceuta: unofficial Russian naval ‘base’”

[38] Transborder Corruption Archive; “Sentence, Troika criminal case, Spain,” October 19, 2018, https://tbcarchives.org/sentencia-operacion-troika/

[39] Martin Arostegui, ‘‘Officials: Russia Seeking to Exploit Catalonia Secessionist Movement,’’ VOA News, November 24, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/europe/officials-russia-seeking-exploit-catalonia-secessionist-movement

[40] Arostegui, ‘‘Officials: Russia Seeking to Exploit”

[41] Chris Sampson, “Introduction” in Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe Implications for U.S. National Security (Simon and Schuster: 2018), https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Putins-Asymmetric-Assault-on-Democracy-in-Russia-and-Europe/Chris-Sampson/9781510739888

[42] Mira Milosevich-Juaristi, “The ‘combination’: an instrument in Russia’s information war in Catalonia,” The Elcano Royal Institute, November 11, 2017, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/defense+security/ari92-2017-milosevichjuaristi-combination-instrument-russia-information-war-catalonia

[43] Milosevich-Juaristi, “The ‘combination’”

[44] David Alandete How Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. Media stories in English, Russian and German equating crisis in Spain with conflicts in Crimea and Kurdistan,” El Pais September 25, 2017, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/09/25/inenglish/1506323273_063367.html

[45] Óscar López-Fonseca and Fernando J. Pérez, “Spain’s High Court opens investigation into Russian spying unit in Catalonia. Judge Manuel García-Castellón is probing whether an elite military group known as Unit 29155 carried out actions aimed at destabilizing the region during the separatist push,” El Pais, November 21, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/21/inenglish/1574324886_989244.html

[46] María R. Sahuquillo, Russia denies interference in Catalonia or in Spain’s domestic affairs. A week after it emerged that the Spanish High Court is probing the activities of an elite military group, the Foreign Ministry is talking about an anti-Russia campaign by the media,” El Pais, November 29, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/29/inenglish/1575016033_266352.html

[47] Rebeca Carranco and Marta Rodríguez, “Authorities in Catalonia clear protests on AP-7 freeway near Girona. Supporters of independence for the northeastern region have been trying to block the road, which links Spain with France, since Monday,” El Pais, November 13, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/13/inenglish/1573644554_106668.html

[48] Reyes Rincón, “Prosecutors uphold prison requests for Catalan separatist leaders. Oriol Junqueras faces 25 years in jail for his involvement in the 2017 secession drive after four months of hearings that did not alter the legal teams’ positions,” El Pais, May 20, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/05/30/inenglish/1559199477_834254.html

[49] Michael Schwirtz. “Top Secret Russian Unit Seeks to Destabilize Europe, Security Officials Say,” New York Times, October 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/world/europe/unit-29155-russia-gru.html

[50] López-Fonseca and Pérez, “Spain’s High Court opens investigation”

[51] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared For The Use Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States S. Doc. No. 115-21 (January 10, 2018), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[52] Carlos Resa Nestares. “Transnational Organized Crime in Spain: Structural Factors Explaining its Penetration,” in Global Organized Crime and International Security, ed. Emilio C. Viano, 47-62, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330288240_Transnational_Organized_Crime_in_Spain_Structural_Factors_Explaining_its_Penetration

[53] Fiscalia Especial Contra La Corrupción Y La Criminalidad Organizada, Protocols of the preliminary investigation No. 321/06, http://www.compromat.ru/files/51434.pdf

[54] Luke Harding, “WikiLeaks cables: Russian government ‘using mafia for its dirty work.’ Spanish prosecutor alleges links between Kremlin and organised crime gangs have created a ‘virtual mafia state,’” Guardian (US edition), Dec 1, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/01/wikileaks-cable-spain-russian-mafia

[55] Harry Hummel and Christopher Starke, “Defining and Prosecuting Transborder Corruption,” in Failed in Action Why European Law Enforcers Are Unable to Tackle EU-Russian Transborder Corruption, EU-Russia Civil Forum. Expert Group “Fighting Transborder Corruption,” Report, 2017, 8-11, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322519997_Defining_and_Prosecuting_Transborder_Corruption

This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

1. Introduction

This article focuses on the political framework conditions, side effects and consequences of Austrian-Russian economic relations over the past two decades. The supply of natural gas and crude oil from Russia to and via Austria has a special role to play here, since it accounts for the lion’s share of Moscow’s exports; it is also relevant for other EU countries which likewise purchase Russian gas. And it is a matter of common knowledge that the production and export of energy sources are at the heart of Russia’s economy, without which the country would be negligible in global political terms, regardless of its size.

Vladimir Putin has been at war since the day he took office as Prime Minister in August 1999 (at that time in the breakaway North Caucasian Republic of Chechnya). Between 1999 and 2008 the oil price rose sharply, which Putin took advantage of in his military policy. Without or with significantly less oil and gas revenues, Putin would not have been able to finance the secret services (the backbone of his power), the modernization of his army, several de facto states in former Soviet republics (Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic in Ukraine, Transnistria in Moldova; Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia) and his wars (currently against Ukraine and in Syria) to the same extent as before, not to mention the funding of occupied Crimea peninsula, which has cost Moscow the equivalent of around USD 20 billion since 2014. Russia’s reliable oil and gas customer—Austria—also contributes to this state of affairs, but without this being the subject of any attention from the country’s politicians, press, or political scientists. Hardly anyone in Western Europe and North America cares about the undeniable fact that Putin’s world power ambitions are financed by Western oil and gas customers, not to mention that someone wants to change this.

This article cannot deal with the “export” of Russian corruption to Austria; the operations of Russian oligarchs, and the activities of the “Russian Mafia” in Austria. This has reasons of space alone and is not due to the author’s assumption that this would be insignificant in the context of Austrian-Russian (economic) relations. Thus, the Russian opposition politician Aleksey Navalny said: “Everyone [in Russia] loves Austria—especially the crooks and thieves.”[1]  Thus, the trade relations between Russia and Austria also, to a certain extent, advance Russia’s malign influence. In addition, an ideological moment was always present in the Austrian-Soviet and then Russian business relations (even if most, if not almost all, of the Austrian and probably also Soviet/Russian politicians and managers involved would strongly deny this). The political background for this is Austria’s neutrality (which has existed since 1955), the observance of which Moscow monitored “with Argus eyes” in both Soviet and post-Soviet times. And for the Austrian side, neutrality was and is a good excuse to show itself “as friendly as possible” towards Putin’s Russia. This can be demonstrated by numerous events. So, in June 2014 Austria was the first EU member country to receive Putin after the annexation of Crimea; and the politicians meeting him in Vienna seemed to be very proud of this.

Austrians sometimes console themselves about the low international importance of their country by quoting Friedrich Hebbel: “This Austria is the little world in which the big one holds its rehearsal” (in German it rhymes: Dies Österreich ist eine kleine Welt, in der die große ihre Probe hält.”) When these words were spoken in 1862, Austria was territorially much larger than it was after 1918 and up to the present day: It was a major European power then and is now a small state. Russia, on the other hand, was then and is now a great power, and the character of its political system at that time was by no means dissimilar to that of Putin’s Russia today: authoritarian, with a ruler who cannot be voted out of office; very nationalistic, ambitious, and self-confident; with an (almost) powerless society; and with a political class that is also and especially concerned with self-enrichment. These are the real starting conditions for any proper analysis of Russia’s domestic, foreign, military, security, and economic policy—and therefore also for an approach to its relations with Austria in general and in the field of trade in particular.

2. Russia as Austria’s Trade Partner—an Overview

During each of his stays in Vienna, Putin visited the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, which is dominated by the Austrian People’s Party and claims to represent the interests of business and foreign trade. Putin also collects his standing ovations there. Thus, an uninformed person, watching such TV coverage, could gain the impression that Russia is the most important or at least a very significant trade partner for Austria. But what is the truth? In 2018, 35.8% of Austria’s import came from Germany; 6.4% from Italy; 5.8% from China; Switzerland and the Czech Republic each account for 4.4%; 3.8% came from the US; France, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary each account for 2.7%; 2.2% came from Slovakia and only 2.1% from Russia. Among Austria’s top export partners are (1) Germany, (2) US, (3) Italy, (4) Switzerland; Russia with a share of 1.4% occupied only 17th position.[2] However, “such economic data show only part of the story. […] Austrian economic players dealing with Russia are more important than the aggregate trade numbers might suggest. Some key business sectors linked to Russia have ties to the state, strong corporate lobbies, or both.”[3]

Austrian imports from Russia continue to consist mainly of energy sources (oil, natural gas), followed by metals. According to the Austrian Embassy in Moscow, the largest share of exports from Austria is attributed to the manufacturing industry, especially mechanical engineering and plant construction. Approximately 500 Austrian companies are active in Russia, particularly in the wood and paper industry, mechanical and plant engineering, construction, and banking.[4]

3. Austria in the EU Context as a Customer of Russian Oil and Gas

Since 2013 (until January 2020, when the UK left) all 28 member states of the EU are net importers of energy. In 2017, 55% of the EU’s energy needs were met by net imports. Russia has maintained its position throughout the period 2007–2017 as the leading supplier to the EU of the main primary energy commodities—natural gas, crude oil, and hard coal.

The EU’s natural gas dependency reached 77.9% in 2018, up from 74.4% in 2017. In 15 member states natural gas dependency was higher than 90%. For Austria, this dependence was 91% in 2017 and 88.4% in 2018.[5] Russia’s share of EU imports of natural gas between 2007 and 2017 did not change (38.7%). The lowest level was recorded in 2010 (31.9%), the peak of 41.1% occurred in 2013. Russia was and is also the principal supplier of EU crude oil imports: Its share stood at 33.7% in 2007 and fluctuated between 34.7% (2011) and 29% (2015). In 2017, its share was 30.3%, in 2018—27.3% (for comparison: Norway—11.2%, Nigeria—8.1%, Kazakhstan—7.8%).[6] As to hard coal, in 2017 38.9% of the EU’s imports came from Russia.

The EU has known for many years that “the security of the EU’s primary energy supplies may be threatened if a high proportion of imports are concentrated among relatively few partners.”[7] However, no decisive action was taken: In 2017, almost three quarters (74.6%) of the EU-28’s imports of natural gas originated from Russia, Norway, and Algeria. The same year, close to three quarters (72.7%) of the EU-28’s hard coal imports originated from Russia, Colombia, and the United States, while imports of crude oil were less concentrated among the principal suppliers, as Russia, Norway, and Iraq accounted for roughly half (49.9%) of the EU-28’s imports.

With regards to the origins of imports in 2017–2018, Norway was the source of 30.2% of the natural gas entering the EU (intra-EU trade and entries from Switzerland both excluded), followed by Russia (20.5%), Ukraine (16.3%), and Belarus (10.3%). However, considering that most gas entering the EU from Ukraine and Belarus initially comes from Russia, the dependency on gas imports from this country is in practice much higher than on gas from Norway.[8]

As to Austria, it has long-standing links in the energy sector with Moscow. In 1968 (when the ostentatiously anti-communist Austrian People’s Party was the sole political force in power), the Vienna-based oil and gas group OMV became the first non-communist European company to conclude a natural gas supply deal with the Soviet Union. The consequences of this decision are still felt strongly today. Other Western European countries followed suit, and Austria enjoyed its role as a major hub for Soviet and, after 1991, Russian gas exports across Europe.

During his talks with Putin in November 2009, Austrian Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann (Social Democratic Party) mentioned that Austria has no nuclear power plants; Putin laughed calling this a “very good decision for Russia as well.”[9] Indeed, Austria has to buy Russian gas in the foreseeable future and, therefore, remains dependent on Moscow to a great extent.

The OMV today is 31.5% state-owned and forms the single biggest integrated petroleum company in Central Europe. It undertakes petroleum exploration and production, refining, as well as wholesale and retail sales on domestic and international levels. OMV also operates Austria’s only refinery (based in Schwechat, a suburb of Vienna) and three natural-gas-storage facilities. OMV and Russian natural gas giant Gazprom cooperate in gas production, transportation, and supplies. In June 2018, an Agreement was signed to extend until 2040 the existing contract between Gazprom Export and the OMV Gas Marketing & Trading GmbH for Russian gas supplies to Austria. In October 2018, Gazprom and OMV signed a Memorandum on Strategic Cooperation, which envisages the creation of a Joint Coordinating Committee on collaboration in the natural gas sector, both upstream and downstream, in the area of science and technology, as well as staff training. OMV called this “strengthening the partnership” with Gazprom.[10] Its CEO Rainer Seele presents any such “strengthening” as “diversification of supply” and “support to ensure security of supply”[11]—in manifest contradiction of the facts. There are even Austrian politicians, as Karlheinz Kopf (People’s Party), who stated that with OMV providing Gazprom “access to Europe,” Austria “is once again performing its role as mediator in some way.”[12] This was an example of the skill of many Austrian politicians (and managers) in presenting the business of Austrian companies and banks with Russia as an “expression of traditional Austrian neutrality.” Kopf is also Secretary General of the Economic Chamber (since 2018) and Chairman of the Parliamentary Group Austria—Russia.

In the past there have been repeated speculations about Gazprom’s entry into OMV. The Russian side has usually been evasive or, for example, claimed that “at present no talks are being held.” This, of course, leaves all options open for the future. Sometimes rumors appeared that Gazprom might try to take over OMV. Former Austrian oil industry manager Wolfgang Schollnberger, who had worked for OMV (among others), commented with “black humor” in January 2016 that this was not even necessary if Gazprom had “enough followers” on the OMV Management Board itself, the OMV Supervisory Board, the Supervisory Board of the Österreichische Bundes-und Industriebeteiligungen GmbH (ÖBIB) (which managed the state shares in several companies from 2015 to 2019 before it was transferred to the Österreichische Beteiligungs AG, or ÖBAG), or in the relevant Austrian federal ministries. From Schollnberger’s point of view, it had to be assumed that “some of these submissive people know exactly what is at stake, but others are short-sighted followers.”[13]

According to the latest yearbook of the Austrian statistics authority, only 5.6% of crude oil demand and 11.6% of gas consumption originate from domestic production. Since the closure of the Styrian lignite mining facilities in 2005, Austria’s foreign dependence on coal has been 100%. Furthermore, the yearbook states unequivocally that Austria’s dependence on foreign energy supplies is “continuously” increasing.[14]

In 2018, Gazprom delivered to Austria 12.3 billion cubic meters of gas, an increase of 34.8% against 2017 (9.1 billion cubic meters). In 2018, OMV imported a total of 8.3 million tons of crude oil to Austria, an increase of 13.5% over the previous year. Crude oil was procured from fourteen countries in very different quantities. Kazakhstan was in the lead with almost 3.1 million tons, followed by Libya with 1.9 million tons, Iran with 988,000 tons and Azerbaijan with 782,000 tons.[15] In this context, however, it usually goes unmentioned that the oil from Kazakhstan is transported viapipelines which also pass through Russian territory.

Practically all Austrian and Western European advocates and supporters of an “extended cooperation” with Gazprom in general and of the Nord Stream pipeline projects in particular justify this as an “interdependence” and “mutual intertwining”: the Kremlin would not be able to blackmail the EU with gas supplies because it is massively dependent on these revenues itself. This is, however, “pseudo-plausible”: there is no doubt that in a theoretical massive political conflict situation Moscow could “endure” much longer without these funds than many EU states could last without Russian oil and gas. Fortunately, the leaders of (most) EU states are accountable to their respective populations, which is completely absent in Putin’s case. Thus, Mikhail Korchemkin, founder and head of the Pennsylvania-based consulting firm East European Gas Analysis, said: “The Kremlin is ready to abandon revenues at any moment in order to achieve some political goals. I have no doubt that if the Kremlin doesn’t like something—the decision of some court, the actions of some German companies—then gas supplies will be immediately cut and stopped. Although normal practice suggests that one should go to an arbitration court.”[16]

It is, however, unlikely that Austria alone would become the victim of (howsoever motivated) political blackmail by Russia by refusing to supply energy sources, including natural gas; this would also affect other EU states. A historical example of such a scheme is the oil boycott against Western countries by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973, which also affected Austria, although it had nothing to do with the Middle East conflict and was, of course, not militarily involved at all; its then Federal Chancellor (Prime Minister) Bruno Kreisky (Socialist Party)[17] was also considered very critical of Israel, but that did not “help” either.

Austria can also suffer “collateral damage,” and this has already happened. For example, in January 2006 and January 2009 Russian natural gas supplies to Austria and some other European countries were temporarily cut off because the Kremlin wanted to put political pressure on Ukraine (whose President Viktor Yushchenko, elected in 2004, was despised in Moscow). There were no supply shortages in Austria, as the country was able to draw on stored reserves. But such events should have severely damaged Moscow’s reputation as a “reliable supplier” to the EU; for some mysterious reasons, this did not happen.

But the Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs, which usually selects its phrasing very carefully, wrote in its annual report for 2007: “Russia uses its energy policy as a mighty tool of its foreign policy.”[18] In May 2007, the Austrian Minister for Economic Affairs Martin Bartenstein (People’s Party), who also co-chaired the Austrian-Russian Joint Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, was aware that Putin pursued a “foreign policy” using Gazprom. Bartenstein said, “with its huge gas reserves Russia is playing back into the power poker of world politics,” but he immediately put this into perspective by claiming that “many [other] states […] also make world politics with energy.” However, Bartenstein (wo had received the Russian Order of Friendship in 2002) did not mention such “other” examples here, so that it remained open whom he meant specifically.[19] Such “whataboutism” is typical for Putin’s defenders in the West and in Austria as well: they constantly refer to different events that often have nothing at all to do with Russia under discussion and which cannot explain or justify its behavior; nevertheless, many politicians and media consumers (and even many political scientists) are impressed and influenced by this. In February 2014, Austrian banker Herbert Stepic did not even deny that Putin was making “politics” with gas supplies, but found nothing wrong with that—Putin wanted to “simply build his Great Russia.”[20] And Stepic had no intention to criticize this or ask why Austria should participate in the realization of Putin’s ambitions.

During the 2009 gas supply crisis Austrian politicians and managers rescued themselves into veritable “verbal contortions.” For example, OMV‘s then head Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer (who had been State Secretary in the Ministry of Finance for the Social Democratic Party from 1997 to 1999) declared that Russia “will continue to be a reliable supplier of natural gas after the end of the bilateral conflict with Ukraine.”[21] And of course, Austrian politicians “nobly restrained” criticism of Putin because of the supply stops. It was left to Austrian satirist Rainer Nikowitz to use a fictional interview with “Putin” to announce findings that Western European politicians, managers, and political scientists (with “Russia experts” among them) were unwilling to make public: “If I [‘Putin’] only blackmail the Ukrainians, it will take endlessly for them to give in. But if I blackmail the mollycoddled EU as well, I’ll get my way much faster.”[22]

Austria has taken some steps to prepare for a gas emergency, notably by enabling the physical reversibility of a large number of its gas pipelines with neighboring countries (Germany to Austria and Italy to Austria) in 2011. But that would be of little or no help if these countries themselves were affected by massive gas shortages.

Most of the Russian gas that serves Europe comes from the Urengoy and Bovanovenskoe reservoirs. Urengoy has been one of the world’s most productive fields for four decades, but the gas closer to its surface is running out. Gazprom has decided to hire international partners for the expensive, more complicated drilling needed to remove gas from Urengoy’s depths. Thus, on 7 June 2019, OMV signing an Amendment Agreement to a Basic Sale Agreement from 3 October 2018, with which it will acquire a quarter of the Urengoy gas field on Yamal Peninsula. The agreement for 905 million euro will give OMV 24.98% ownership of Blocks 4A and 5A at Urengoy. Gazprom will retain majority control of this gas field—50.01%.[23] This, as an Austrian daily called it, “Siberian adventure”[24] shows once again that OMV is not thinking of easing its already very close ties with Gazprom in the foreseeable future.

Gazprom’s, OMV’s and other natural gas lobbyists’ presentation of the “environmental friendliness” of burning natural gas is contradicted by practically all serious experts. They also try to create the impression that natural gas is the lesser evil compared to coal or oil, why Nord Stream 2 must be built at any costs and why the connection with Gazprom (i.e. Putin’s Kremlin) must not only be maintained, but even expanded. But all this is wrong. Although natural gas really produces comparatively few greenhouse gases when burned, leaks occur frequently in gas production plants and pipelines. Large quantities of unburned methane gas escape from these leaks. And methane is a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas: it has a much greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. Ralf Sussmann from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany) has proven by measurements on the Zugspitze mountain (on the German-Austrian border) that the methane concentration in the atmosphere is rising sharply and that natural gas leaks are mainly responsible for this (leaks from gas wells and pipelines, for example). If these leaks are taken into account, it is doubtful whether natural gas still has any advantage over coal.

Environmental associations used to see natural gas as a “bridging technology,” i.e. as a transitional solution on the way to a much more climate-friendly economy. However, this has changed since. The German Association for the Environment and Nature Conservation, for example, draws a clear conclusion: “Natural gas is not an answer to the climate crisis. […] It makes no sense to invest in new gas infrastructure projects that are expected to be in operation for more than half a century.”[25]

4. The Nord Stream Gas Pipelines and Austria

The entire Austrian political and business elite—including the current (since January 2020) Government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, consisting of the People’s Party and the Greens—promote the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. This is a Russian geopolitical project that is harmful to the energy security of the entire EU and, therefore, also of Austria. It is intended to drive a “wedge” into the EU—namely between those countries that support it (Austria, Germany, etc.) and those that reject it (Poland, Baltic States). The Kremlin hopes that this will weaken the EU as a “geopolitical competitor” for power and influence in the world. But nevertheless, OMV is expected to account for about 10% of the total cost of 9.5 billion euro (according to the operators; “project-unrelated” observers expect much more) for Nord Stream 2. Its head since 2015, when Austria was governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and People’s Party, is the German national Rainer Seele. His pro-Russian (and anti-Ukrainian) views, which appear in every interview he gives,[26] were, of course, already known then and posed no obstacle, and were possibly even a prerequisite for his appointment as OMV’s General Director. The company believes that there is a chance that a part of the natural gas that will land in the East German coastal town of Lubmin could be forwarded to the Baumgarten transmission facility on the Austrian-Slovak border. Between a quarter and a third of the export volume from Russia destined for Western Europe is handled via Baumgarten: The gas is transported from this hub via large transit pipelines to Germany, Italy, France, Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary and via the primary distribution system to the Austrian provinces.

It is noteworthy that former (2014–2017) Austrian Finance Minister Hansjörg Schelling (a confidant of Seele) from the People’s Party is an official lobbyist for Nord Stream 2 since 2018. Matthias Warnig, who clearly enjoys Putin’s trust (which is evident from the very jobs he got in Russia),[27] was the Managing Director of the Nord Stream AG (formally in Zug, Switzerland) from 2006 to 2016 and is Chief Executive Officer of the Nord Stream 2 AG since September 2015. None of the (former and active) politicians and businessmen in Austria, Germany or other project participating countries who promote this pipeline were ever bothered by the fact that Warnig was an employee of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR.

At a meeting with Putin in Sochi in mid-May 2019, Austria’s Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen spoke out strongly in favor of Nord Stream 2. According to Van der Bellen, the gas from Siberia is significantly cheaper for European consumers than the imported liquid gas from the US. According to him, OMV “does not intend to withdraw from the ‘Nord Stream 2’ project.” Putin accepted this with visible satisfaction.[28] The EU sanctions against Russia, imposed for the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, obviously, never affected this project.

For many years, the US, EU, and Austria did nothing at all to disrupt or block Nord Stream (which became operational in November 2011) and/or Nord Stream 2. It was not until December 2019, when only about 300 kilometers were left to complete Nord Stream 2, that the US imposed sanctions on the companies involved. In Germany and Russia, there was great indignation, and in Austria (apart from OMV, of course), the tabloid press and (in its own understanding) the quality press demonstratively and loudly sided with the Russian project initiators, blasting Washington for its “unilateral action,” attempts to “sell their own expensive shale gas” to Europe.[29] On this occasion, many Austrian politicians and managers also reiterated their long-standing opinion that Nord Stream represents a “diversification of energy supply”—without explaining how this would be achieved if the supplier of natural gas, namely Russia, remains the same.

Rather unbiased analysts and observers of energy policy gave other reasons for the Kremlin’s stubbornness in sticking with Nord Stream 2. Thus, Korchemkin referred to the billion-dollar contracts for the companies of Putin-friendly oligarchs Arkadiy Rotenberg and Gennadiy Timchenko. The second main reason, according to Korchemkin, is Putin’s desire to “punish” Ukraine, which will lose transit fees (about USD 2 billion annually) because of Nord Stream 2. Indeed, long before the 2013–2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv, Putin expressly told Faymann that Nord Stream 2 will offer the possibility of “disciplining unruly transit countries” such as Ukraine.[30] Faymann did not object, although he could have asked why Austria (and other EU member countries) should assist Russia in its attempts to “discipline” other countries.

It is, of course, economically absurd to spend billions to construct pipelines on the bottom of the Baltic Sea in order to transport roughly the same amount of natural gas to Central and Eastern Europe as that which can be (and has been) pumped through Ukraine’s pipeline network (which is nevertheless in need of modernization), but Nord Stream is not about economics, but Russian geopolitics. As the vast majority of politicians, officials, and managers in Vienna, Berlin, and Brussels failed to understand this, they took nothing but wrong decisions about Nord Stream—and this will affect the EU’s energy security over the decades to come when all politicians active today will be long out of office.

Nord Stream (and especially Nord Stream 2) is also a major problem for Kyiv because Russia would become completely “independent” of the pipelines across Ukrainian territory and thus, according to some observers (for example, Andreas Umland)[31] could more easily wage a “large-scale” war (i.e. far beyond the Donbass) against Ukraine, which would undoubtedly trigger another huge wave of refugees (parallel to Syria), affecting not “only” Ukraine itself but also the EU. The responsible officials and authorities in Vienna, Berlin, and Brussels do not want to deal with such a possibility nor with information that Russian prisoners were being forced to work on Nord Stream 2 (which should at least have been checked).

To be continued in the next issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.


[1]. Quoted after: Simone Brunner, Alexej Nawalny: “Alle lieben Österreich – Gauner und Diebe besonders.” [Aleksey Navalny: “Everyone loves Austria – especially the crooks and thieves.”] [interview]. Profil, July 25, 2019, https://www.profil.at/ausland/alexej-nawalny-kreml-kritiker-putin-10877723 (accessed March 26, 2020). Hereinafter, all translations from German and Russian are made by the author.

[2]. Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, “WKO Statistik Österreich. Österreichs Außenhandelsergebnisse. Jänner bis Dezember 2018. Endgültige Ergebnisse” [Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, “AFEC Statistics Austria. Austria’s foreign trade results. January to December 2018. Final results”]. Juli 2019, pp. 1, 10, http://wko.at/statistik/Extranet/AHstat/AH_12_2018e_Bericht.pdf (accessed 10 March 2020)

[3]. Andrew S. Weiss, “With Friends Like These: The Kremlin’s Far-Right and Populist Connections in Italy and Austria.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 27, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/02/27/with-friends-like-these-kremlin-s-far-right-and-populist-connections-in-italy-and-austria-pub-81100?fbclid=IwAR3ydNVxJR6voQAsBvAR7quAEZEVjZdMDz4wMh3IEMxGk6MQOXfJkToiz_8 (accessed March 26, 2020).

[4]. 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 March 25, 2020).

[5]. Eurostat, “Natural gas supply statistics,” p. 4, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/pdfscache/10590.pdf (accessed March 25, 2020).

[6]. Eurostat, “EU imports of energy products – recent developments. Statistics Explained,” November 2019, p. 5, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/pdfscache/46126.pdf (accessed March 16, 2020).

[7]. Eurostat, “Energy production and imports. Statistics Explained,” June 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Energy_production_and_imports#The_EU_and_its_Member_States_are_all_net_importers_of_energy (accessed March 25, 2020).

[8] Eurostat, “Natural gas supply,” p.4.

[9] Quoted after: Christian Ultsch, “Putin drängt Wien zu Beteiligung an ‘South Stream’” [“Putin urges Vienna to participate in “South Stream’”]. Die Presse, November 12, 2009, p. 7.

[10]. OMV, Annual Report 2018. “7 reasons why we‘re are excited about tomorrow,” Vienna, 2019, p. 66.

[11]. Quoted after: Günther Strobl and André Ballin, “Sibirien-Abenteuer kostet OMV 905 Millionen” [“Siberia adventure costs OMV 905 million”]. Der Standard, June 8–10, 2019, p. 28.

[12]. Raja Korinek, “OMV-Deal ist politisch interessante Lösung” [“OMV deal is politically interesting solution”] [interview with Karl-Heinz Kopf]. Die Presse, April 13, 2016, p. 16. At the time of this interview Kopf was Deputy Speaker of the National Council, which added weight to these words.

[13]. Wolfgang Schollnberger, “Sicheres Gas aus Russland? Um welchen Preis?” [“Reliable gas from Russia? At what price?”]. Die Presse, January 19, 2016, p. 22.

[14] Statistik Austria (ed.), Österreich: Zahlen, Daten, Fakten [Austrian statistics authority (ed.), Austria: figures, data, facts]. Wien 2020, p. 82.

[15] Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, “Die österreichische Mineralölindustrie 2018“ [Austrian Economic Chamber, “The Austrian Mineral Oil Industry 2018“]. July 23, 2019, https://www.wko.at/branchen/industrie/mineraloelindustrie/die-oesterreichische-mineraloelindustrie.html (accessed 11 March 2020).

[16] Dmitrii Malyshko, “Kreml v lyubuyu minutu gotov perekryt tranzit gaza v Evropu – Mikhail Korchemkin” [“The Kremlin is ready to stop gas transit to Europe at any minute – Mikhail Korchemkin”] [interview]. Apostrof, October 13, 2019, https://apostrophe.ua/article/politics/2019-10-13/kreml-v-lyubuyu-minutu-gotov-perekryit-tranzit-gaza-v-evropu—mihail-korchemkin/28415?fbclid=IwAR1CeDXrt4-HtqI7VwWQIfE7iD4QJDIrVQ6RrkhZxF_Q97GfMjxyqhWrE-8 (accessed 25 March 2020).

[17] It was re-named the Social Democratic Party in 1991.

[18] Thomas Schlesinger etc. (eds.), Außenpolitischer Bericht 2007. Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Außenpolitik [Foreign Policy Report 2007, Yearbook of Austrian Foreign Policy]. Wien 2007, p. 44.

[19] “Russische Investoren willkommen“ [“Russian investors welcome“] [interview with Martin Bartenstein]. Die Presse, May 23, 2007, p. 16.

[20] Reinhard Göweil, “Die Lösung liegt bei Russland“ [“Russia is the solution“] [interview with Herbert Stepic]. Wiener Zeitung, February 1–2, 2014, p. 5.

[21] Quoted after: Abgedreht, “Gas-Lieferung nach Österreich komplett eingestellt“ [“Turned off: Gas supply to Austria stopped completely“]. Die Presse, January 7, 2009, https://www.diepresse.com/441904/abgedreht-gas-lieferung-nach-osterreich-komplett-eingestellt (accessed 11 March 2020). Italics by the author, M.M.

[22] Rainer Nikowitz, “Gasreizung” [“Gas Irritation”]. Profil, no. 3, 2009, p. 102.

[23] OMV und Gazprom unterzeichnen “Amendment Agreement” zum “Basic Sale Agreement” betreffend den möglichen Erwerb einer 24,98% Beteiligung an den Blöcken 4A/5A der Achimov-Formation durch OMV [OMV and Gazprom sign “Amendment Agreement” to the “Basic Sale Agreement” concerning the possible acquisition by OMV of a 24.98% stake in blocks 4A/5A of the Achimov Formation]. OMV Newsroom, June 7, 2019, https://www.omv.com/de/news/190607-omv-und-gazprom-unterzeichnen-amendment-agreement (accessed March 24, 2020).

[24] Strobl and Ballin, p.28.

[25] “Erdgas ist keine Antwort auf die Klimakrise. EU muss Investitionen in fossile Energien beenden” [“Natural gas is not an answer to the climate crisis. EU must stop investment in fossil fuels”]. Bund – Friends of the Earth Germany. November 7, 2017, https://www.bund.net/service/presse/pressemitteilungen/detail/news/erdgas-ist-keine-antwort-auf-die-klimakrise-eu-muss-investitionen-in-fossile-energien-beenden/ (accessed March 25, 2020).

[26] Cf. Heike Göbel and Niklas Záboji, “Kritik von Polen und Ukrainern ist vorgeschoben,“ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 18, 2019, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/unternehmen/nord-stream-2-omv-chef-rainer-seele-im-gespraech-16046206.html (accessed April 10, 2020).

[27] Cf. Nordstream-Boss Matthias Warnig: “Herr Putin hat kein Handy” [“Mister Putin has no cellular phone”] [interview]. Die Presse, Februar 8, 2018, https://www.diepresse.com/5368277/nordstream-boss-matthias-warnig-herr-putin-hat-kein-handy (accessed April 10, 2020).

[28] Quoted after: Jutta Sommerbauer, “Durchs Reden sollen Österreich und Russland näher zusammenkommen,“ Die Presse, May 16, 2019, p. 5.

[29] Cf. Christian Ultsch, “Europa braucht keine US-Zwangsnachhilfe,“ [“Europe does not need US forced tutoring“] Die Presse, December 21, 2019, https://www.diepresse.com/5742444/europa-braucht-keine-us-zwangsnachhilfe (accessed April 10, 2020); “US-Sanktionen gegen Nord Stream 2 sind in Kraft,“ [“US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 are in force“]. Kronen Zeitung, December 21, 2019, https://www.krone.at/2066127 (accessed April 10, 2020).

[30] Quoted after: Christian Ultsch and Eduard Steiner, “Faymann im Kreml: Zwischen Kalaschnikow und Erdgas,“ [“Faymann in the Kremlin: Between Kalashnikov and natural gas“] Die Presse, November 10, 2009, http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/520903/index.do?_vl_backlink=/home/politik/aussenpolitik/index.do (accessed March 25, 2020).

[31] “The Geopolitical Impact of Nord Stream 2.0 on European Energy Security,” (panel discussion, Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, February 26, 2020).

This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

Introduction

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,”[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had been accused by some Western experts, journalists and politicians, for mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak,[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.”[14]

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,”[15] or “EU left Italy ‘practically alone’ to fight coronavirus, so Rome looked for help elsewhere, incl Russia,”[16] “With united Europe MIA in its Covid-19 response, worst-hit nations turn to ‘evil’ Russia & China for help,”[17] 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.[18]

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.”[19] 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.”[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

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.”[23] 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.[24] 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.”[25] 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.[26]

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.[27] 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.”[28]

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.[29]

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.”[30] 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.[31]

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.”[32] 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.[33]

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.”[34] 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.”[35] Many other politicians and journalists expressed their solidarity with Iacoboni too.[36]

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.”[37] 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.[38]

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,[39] 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.”[40]

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.[41] And already in March 2020, Italian far-right activist Gian Luigi Ferretti, who was part of the politically biased election observation mission[42] at the Russian 2018 presidential election,[43] uploaded a video on YouTube on which a recording of the Russian anthem was played from the headquarters of the Italian fascist organization CasaPound.[44] (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.”[45] However, La Repubblica was cautious about linking these practices to the activities of the Russian state actors.

Far-right freeloading

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.”[46] 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.[47] However, Poland’s Foreign Ministry promptly refuted Pushkov’s claim, and Sputnik had to amend its reports on the issue,[48] while Pushkov deleted his tweet. Nevertheless, his claim permeated into the milieu of Italian conspiracy theorists and anti-EU activists.[49]

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.”[50] 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.”[51]

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.[52] 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.[53]

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.[54] 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.[55] Slutsky also supervised several politically biased international election observation missions that included many European far-right politicians.[56]

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.[57] 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.[58] 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.

Conclusion

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.”[59] Von der Leyen offered “a heartfelt apology” for the lack of European solidarity with Italy at the start of the crisis,[60] 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.”[61] 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.[62] 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.[63] 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.


[1] Lars O. Kallings, “The First Postmodern Pandemic: 25 Years of HIV/ AIDS,” Journal of Internal Medicine, 263, no. 3 (2008): 218-243.

[2] Thomas Boghardt, “Operation INFEKTION: Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” Studies in Intelligence, 53, no. 4 (2009): 1-24.

[3] “Telephone Conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte,” Events. President of Russia (website), March 21, 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/63048.

[4] “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]

[5] “Minoborony Rossii sozdaet…”.

[6] “Italy,” Worldometer (website), https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/italy/

[7] 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/.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] 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/.

[11] “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]

[12] “Coronavirus – Russische Hilfsoperation in Italien bisher vor allem PR,” Austria Presse Agentur, March 24, 2020.

[13] “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]

[14] “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]

[15] “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/.

[16] “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/.

[17] 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/.

[18] 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.

[19] “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/.

[20] 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.

[21] “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]

[22] 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.

[23] Alexander Sladkov, “Kuzhugetych Zhzhet!” Sladkov + (Telegram channel), March 22, 2020, https://t.me/Sladkov_plus/1916.

[24] Sladkov, “Kuzhugetych Zhzhet!”

[25] 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/.

[26] 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.

[27] 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.

[28] 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.

[29] 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.

[30] “Posol v Italii otsenil soobshcheniya o ‘vystavlenii scheta’ za pomoshch,’” RIA Novosti, March 25, 2020, https://ria.ru/20200325/1569157787.html.

[31] “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.

[32] 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/.

[33] “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.

[34] “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.

[35] 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.

[36] Rubino and Vecchio, “Russia contro il giornalista de ‘La Stampa’ Jacopo Iacoboni.”

[37] “UK Company behind La Stampa’s Article Claiming Russian Aid to Italy Useless – Diplomat,” TASS, April 2, 2020, https://tass.com/politics/1139323.

[38] Vladimir Malyshev, “Uchebniki po antisovetskoy propagande eshche ne sgnili”, Fond strategicheskoy kultury, April 9, 2020, https://www.fondsk.ru/news/2020/04/09/uchebniki-po-antisovetskoj-propagande-esche-ne-sgnili-50575.html.

[39] 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.

[40] Giulietto Chiesa, “Quelli che sparano sulla Croce Rossa,” Sputnik, April 7, 2020, https://it.sputniknews.com/opinioni/202004078943748-quelli-che-sparano-sulla-croce-rossa/.

[41] “Putin v Den’ narodnogo edinstva vruchil nagrady v Kremle,” RIA Novosti, November 4, 2019, https://ria.ru/20191104/1560560522.html.

[42] 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.

[43] 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.

[44] Gian Luigi Ferretti, “25 marzo 2020: Inno russo da CasaPound a Roma”, YouTube, March 25, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIOK4gQKtxc.

[45] 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/.

[46] 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.

[47] 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/.

[48] 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/.

[49] “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.

[50] “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/.

[51] “Oehme: Europaratsmitglieder bilden Phalanx zur Bewältigung der Corona-Krise in Italien.”

[52] 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.

[53] “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.

[54] Anton Shekhovtsov, Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 185-186.

[55] “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.

[56] 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.

[57] 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.

[58] “Deputat Bundestaga obratilsya k Rossii za pomoshch’yu okhvachennoy koronavirusom Italii.”

[59] “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.

[60] “Speech by President Von der Leyen.”

[61] 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/.

[62] 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.

[63] 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/.

On Thursday, May 21, 2020, at 16:00 (Kyiv time) / 9:00 AM (Washington, DC) an international online forum will be held with the participation of human rights activists and scholars from Kyiv, Simferopol, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Washington DC.

Forum participants will talk about the Kremlin’s implementation of hybrid deportation of Crimean Tatars and public activists on the peninsula, for which a whole system of political repression has been launched. The issue of defining the criteria for the status of a “political prisoner” will be raised and lists will be formed. The participants of the online forum will also announce the work on the introduction of new international sanctions against Russian officials who are directly involved in the organization of political persecution. Human rights activists will spread the awareness of the global petition to the UN, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the OSCE to save the lives of thousands of illegally detained in Russia, the Russian-occupied Crimea, and part of the Donbas from the threat of COVID-19 infection in prisons. The petition can be signed by following the link.

Speakers:

Oleksandra Matviychuk, Chairwoman of the Center for Civil Liberties NGO (Kyiv);
Sergey Davidis, Head of the Political Prisoners Support Program, Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow);
Natalia Arno, President and Founder of the Free Russia Foundation (Washington);
Ilya Nuzov, Head of the Eastern Europe-Central Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights (Paris);
Lilia Hemedzhy, a lawyer of the Crimean Solidarity initiative (Simferopol);
Wilfried Jilge, a historian of Eastern-Central Europe and Ukraine (Berlin);
Simon Papuashvili, Programme Director of the International Partnership for Human Rights (Brussels).

Event languages: Ukrainian and Russian.

The international online forum will be held on the second anniversary of the arrest of Server Mustafayev, coordinators of the Crimean Solidarity, which has united the relatives of political prisoners and activists in the occupied Crimea. According to his colleagues, he was the engine that drove the association. Since May 2018, Server has been held behind bars.
The event is organized by the global campaign #PrisonersVoise (formerly #SaveOlegSentsov) as part of the Week of Solidarity with the Crimean Tatars “Common Pain. Common History.” Informational support was provided by the PR agency KRASNI.

Live broadcast is available at the link.

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.

WEDNESDAY APRIL 15

10:00 AM WASHINGTON, DC / 16:00 BRUSSELS

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.

Speakers:

– 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

Moderator:

– Grigory Frolov, FRF Vice President, Programs and Development

A special report by the EEAS on Coronavirus Disinformation offers a thorough analysis of tactics, strategies and vectors of effort by  Kremlin-controlled media on the issue of Coronavirus. During the past three months, the agency has documented over 110 instances of disinformation (i.e. excluding reposts and secondary materials citing them). Such a significant volume suggests that the Kremlin has a strategy and a plan on how to use the pandemic to advance its political agenda in Europe.

How is this strategy manifested and executed in Germany? And who are the prime targets for the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany?

In Germany, there are in essence two main target audiences – the German-speakers and the Russian-speakers. A great volume of German-language materials is generated by outfits such as RT Deutschland и Sputnik DE. Their level of activity is so massive (for RT Deutschland, for example, – up to 10 new videos per day and for Sputnik DE up to 30 published stories per day) that the German law enforcement now has several formal efforts dedicated to addressing their challenge. In March 24, 2020, the Federal Criminal Police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution announced the start of programs to monitor fake news materials “whose spread may pose a threat to the societal order and security.”

Organic audiences (in German Top-100 in social nets) cultivated by RT and Sputnik as part of Russian campaigns to interfere in the EU in 2019 and German Parliamentary elections in 2017, today are used to spread the coronavirus disinformation throughout the German society. For the most part, they are people with far-right political orientations, those who support populist leaders, harbor anti-American sentiments and embrace conspiracy theories of various sorts.  Many of them have voted for the AfD party. This is not surprising, given that RT served as a de-facto party channel during the 2017 Bundestag elections campaign – it provided AfD candidates unrestricted publicity with an opportunity to discuss any issue, while completely ignoring all other parties and candidates.

Germany’s Russian-speaking community, of course, is also an important audience for the Kremlin propaganda outlets.  According to various statistics, Germany is home to between 3-5 mln Russian-speakers:

– About 3 mln arrived through the repatriation programs for Soviet Germans;
– About 300,000— are refugees of Jewish ethnic origins;
– About 300,000 ethnic Ukrainians;
– According to the official information published by the Russian Embassy in Germany — 500,000 remain citizens of the Russian Federation;
– Additionally, citizens from various former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Latvia, etc.

This amounts to a sizeable audience for whom Russian is the primary language used at home, as well as the main language for receiving important information and the news.

In addition to the Russian-language media outlets, the Kremlin aggressively employs social media platforms to shape opinion among the Russian-speaking audience in Germany. The Russian Odnoklassniki (translates as “classmates”) has at least 2.6 mln accounts based from Germany;  an online group “Russian Germans for AfD” has over 20,000 members; and the pro-AfD and pro-Putin group “Russian Germany” has more than 60,000 members.

Four narratives dominate within the continuous barrage of coronavirus-related disinformation and manipulation advanced by the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany:

1. Lack of unity in Europe and the absence of collective support and plan dealing with the coronavirus among the EU states.

In a weekly program Vesti Nedeli (which has about 5.7 mln viewers) broadcast by Russia’s First Channel on March 22, 2020, Dmitry Kiselev is speculating on the geostrategic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic: 

“The Schengen Area regime was the first one to collapse.  Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland and Lithuania have reinstated control of their national borders. That means that the Schengen Area with the freedom of movement between its 26 members states no longer exists. Those are just the first few steps in the direction of giving up the spoils of civilization in favor of reinstating sovereign nation-states. In fact, this is the crash of the European Idea and transition to a new political culture with a different value system.

All the lip-service to solidarity, collective assistance, shared values, human rights and humanism, has gone with the wind the moment when Italy, who lost more people to coronavirus than China, asked the EU for help, and was rebuffed. Italy requested personal protection items and medical equipment, specifically lung ventilators. In response, Germany and France curbed their exports of medical masks.”

One would be hard-pressed to find “analysis” with a comparable concentration of lies.  Firstly, the Schengen agreements include clauses governing possible limitations and temporary moratoriums on travel, as well as governing the travel of non-EU citizens. Secondly, the European Commission urgently appropriated 50 million euros to help Italy.  Finally, France and Germany limited their national exports of medical masks due to their domestic deficits.

Similar materials and reports surfaced on the German-language Sputnik DE on March 19, 2020 and RT Deutschland on March 30, 2020. Some outlets have gone further and proclaimed the end of the European Union.

Alexander Nosovich commented in his March 13, 2020 editorial published by RuBaltic.Ru: “The Coronavirus response has demonstrated that the European Union does not exist in the minds of Europeans. When it is time to act, the Union ceases to exists as a political reality.”

VestiFM (ВестиFM) went even further and in all seriousness discussed the inevitable exit of Italy and Germany from the EU.

The nexus between the German right populists politicians and the Russian medical envoy to Italy deserve a special mention, as it played a key role in Putin’s decision to do so.

Turns out, the impetus was the March 20, 2020 letter penned by the Bundestag AfD member Ulrich Oehme (infamous for his pro-Russian stance and his travel to the occupied Crimea) and his Italian colleague, ultra-right populist from the Lega Nord party Paolo Grimoldi (who founded a “Friends of Putin” Caucus in the Italian Parliament) addressed to Roman Babayan (a Moscow City Duma Deputy and an anchorman of the NTV show “Your Own Truth”) and to Leonid Slutskiy (Chair of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, PACE delegate, member of the Russian right-wing Liberal-Democratic Partyparty, and named on the international list of sanctions adopted by the US, EU and Canada for his official legislative role in the Russian annexation of Crimea).

Babayan read the letter during a live broadcast of his show, which received wide coverage throughout the Russian media. For the Russian audience, a spectacle was played out where a teary plea from the Europeans was met with an immediate and gracious response from Russia.  It’s important to acknowledge that this narrative may be aimed more at the Russian domestic audience, as opposed to the Russian diaspora in Europe, though it permeates both.

2. Germany moves to rescind sanctions against Russia due to the pandemic.

Calls by three marginal Bundestag Members – Robby Schlund, AfD (who became famous for his effort to open an AfD office in Russia), Anton Friesen, AfD, and Alexander Noy, Left – are presented by the Kremlin media as the onset of a serious discussion to end sanctions against Russia. It has been peddled most actively by RIA News and Izvestia (and then reprinted by dozens of less prominent outlets such as regnum.ru, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, gazeta.ru and among the German-language outlets, such as  Sputnik, RT and Junge Welt who also touted that the tiny German Communist Party called to end sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Russia. It is important to clarify that such statements and calls are made by individual members of the Bundestag and fractions several times a day and do not amount to a formal legislative discussion or movement.

Against this backdrop, a significant reactivation of the Nord Stream 2 lobbying efforts have taken place. The pretext of this campaign was the publication of survey results prepared by Forsa, a leading German market research and opinion poll agency, and dealing with German attitudes on energy policy issues. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, whose editorial focus usually echoes the sentiments inside the Kremlin, immediately reported on the study: “Against the difficult economic situation related to coronavirus, the support for construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has grown. Three quarters of respondents (77%) support the most expedient completion of the Russian-European project, despite the limitations announced by the United States.”

In Germany itself, however, this information has been ignored by prime outlets and only featured only by marginal portals covering economic beats (such as finanzen.net.)

3. German lack of preparedness for the Coronavirus pandemic and shortage of doctors.

One would assume that the Kremlin propaganda machine would not waste time on spreading lies that are easily factchecked and quickly dismissed as disinformation. Nevertheless, an entire program on Vesti FM on February 29, 2020, did exactly that. Other peddled themes include the so-called “negative pandemic scenario” projecting that 50 million Germans will inevitably become infected and 1 million will die, which at this point is a mere hypothesis. Some Russian outlets such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta engage in despicable speculation on the circumstances of the suicide of a German state minister with headlines such as “The German Hysteria”.  Again, here, it is the Russian domestic audience that may have been the primary target, though the Russian-language audiences in Europe have been also been affected.

While most Kremlin-controlled media outlets have advanced the narrative of the German panic, Alexander Rahr, the darling of the Russian propaganda and an expert on all possible issues, offered an extensive commentary: “ It is improper to say that one does not feel the panic here.”

4. Refugees and Quarantine.

Russian disinformation outlets have been pushing a narrative that refugees in Europe violate quarantine.  Komsomolskaya Pravda has hired an AfD activist  Eugen Schmidt who has churned out several reports supporting this theme. Such narratives target Russian audiences with anti-migrant and racists views.

An anti-migrant publication germania.one is also advancing a similar line. On the other hand, Sputnik DE is vocal in its criticism of the failure of the German government to sustain safety and enforce quarantine measures inside refugee camps and asylum-seekers’ housing.

What are some of the preliminary conclusions and observations that could be made from the review of the fake, half-truth and misleading materials?

It is clear that the Kremlin-controlled outlets seek to sow uncertainty, fear of the future and distrust among the German population toward its government. At the same time, materials aired and published frequently contradict each other.  RT Deutschland, for example, is criticizing the German government for harsh restrictions, while Sputnik DE is criticizing it for lack of preparedness and inability to enforce quarantine. However, this is precisely the mechanism used by the Kremlin to execute its strategy of sowing uncertainty and even panic. Once the environment is right, it aims to push for the removal of sanctions under the pretext of helping the German economy recover. To shift attention away from its own fake news, RT Deutschland is claiming  that prominent Western outlets such as Tagesspiegel , FAZ, AFP  и DW  are spreading fake news against RT Deutschland.

Despite all of these efforts by the Kremlin-controlled media, the rating of the ruling coalition continues to grow, and the majority of Germans approve of measures taken by state and federal governments. According to a recent poll conducted by ARD-Deutschlandtrend (02.04.2020), 72% are satisfied with the crisis management measures adopted by the government in response to coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, the support is strong for the overall performance of the ruling coalition of parties (government): 63% are satisfied with its work (which is a 28% from a similar poll 02.03.2020)

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 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.

The 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.

The 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.

For 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 be eliminated.”

There 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 reasons.”

The 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.

In 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.

So much for the eliminations. As to the “recruitments,” Soldatov and Borogan wisely follow the money, the messaging, and the ties to the Russian security services.

In 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.

Lebedev 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 Kremlin.”

Yet 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.”

Two 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 East.

Lebedev 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.

Closer 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.

Jordan 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.

Although 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.

The “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.

“Jordan 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.”

That 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.

Photo credit: UNIAN.

2020 is promising to be the year of high importance and big decisions for Georgia. The country will have to decide whether it wants to move forward with its pro- democratic aspirations and incorporate into the Western society or continue growing weaker with no ability to stand against the Russian interests in the country.

The U.S. and EU support and special attention are critical to ensure free and transparent elections, especially if the government reneges on its promise of  proportional system and moves to conduct the 2020 elections under the existing  mixed electoral system. Attention of the international community and Georgia’s strategic partners, especially when it comes to monitoring of the election process, will help support fair elections, and empower Georgia to stand firm for its pro-western choice and reemerge as a regional leader in reforms and democratic development.

• The Gavrilov Night
• The Political Context
• The Kremlin’s campaigns in Georgia 2019 – 2020
• Development of the Anaklia Port
• Recommendations

Please download the PDF to learn more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Egor Kuroptev is a Director of Free Russia Foundation’s office on South Caucasus, media manager and political expert from Russia based in Tbilisi, Georgia since 2012. He started his career at the Echo of Moscow. From 2017 he holds the position of director for media project: “Information in Russian VS Soft Power of the Kremlin”. For three years he has been producing a famous talk-show “Border Zone,” where he discusses regional conflicts, foreign policy of Russia as well as NATO and EU politics on the post-Soviet space.

Today we will talk about different aspects of Nord Stream-2.

About political aspects of the deal, like bypassing transit countries like Ukraine and Belarus and the fact that despite it being a 100 percent Gazprom venture, Nord Stream-2 is registered in Switzerland, which is not an EU country.

About security aspects of the deal, like the Russian navy patrolling in the Baltic Sea to protect their pipelines – in plural because in fact there will be about four of them when they are completed.

About economic aspects of the deal like the loss of three billion dollars in transit fees per year for Ukraine, but also about the enormous maintenance costs of underwater pipelines.

About environmental aspects of the deal like disturbing the seabed which is full of mines, chemical waste and munitions from WW II but also disturbing nature on the surface like bird and marine life.

About land-based alternatives of the deal which are still very much possible and probably a lot cheaper as well.

Will we talk about ethical aspects of the deal as well? About the people at the helm? The former chancellor of Germany who was still chancellor when the deal was in the making in 2005, about the managing director who worked for the secret services in East Germany and the rumors about his past, about the former Prime Minister from Finland who worked as an advisor for Nord Stream and the rumors about his past.

We should probably begin with the history of the Dutch-Russian business relationship.

I, myself, was born in Zaandam, a town 20 km north of Amsterdam. In the late 17th century, it was situated quite conveniently opposite the Golden Age Amsterdam and was well known for its ship building activities. Tsar Peter the Great happened to be very interested in ship building. In Izmailovo, at the time a nice estate of the Tsar’s family to the east of Moscow, with a wooden palace and a large pond, Peter got to know a Dutchman called Carsten Brandt. Carsten Brandt first came to Russia under Tsar Aleksey to help him build small boats, the so-called botiki. Peter asked him to build a sailing boat, and together they sailed on the Izmailovo pond and later on bigger lakes like the Pleshcheyevo lake near Pereslavl Zalesski to the north of Moscow.

In 1697, Peter came to Zaandam, incognito, to learn the craft of ship building from a Dutch carpenter. People recognized him though, and he had to move to Amsterdam where he worked in a shipyard. Today, the monument to Peter the Great on the main square of Zaandam and the small wooden house, where he apparently lived, are among the most popular tourist attractions in my hometown.

In mid – 17th century, there were Dutchmen living in Moscow, in the quarter that lodged all foreigners, the so-called Nemetskaya Sloboda, and since then the Dutch have not stopped to do business with Russia that was exciting and profitable for both Russian Tsars and small and medium-sized enterprises.

In the 18th century for example, the famous Ruslui (“Russia people”), who were traders and manufacturers from a small town of Vriezenveen in the east of the Netherlands, were successful in business in St Petersburg and owned a shop in the Gostiny Dvor on the Nevski Prospekt. Some of them managed to become official purveyors to the tsar’s court, especially with cigars and table linen. They also sold cocoa, coffee, tea, and flowers of course. The Netherlands Reformed Church on Nevski 20 still reminds us of this Dutch page in the history of St. Petersburg.

In the 19th century, the relationship between the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Russian Empire became extremely close. Our Kingdom had a Russian-born queen. The daughter of Tsar Pavel, Anna Pavlovna, granddaughter of Catherine the Great, married our William, the heir to the Dutch throne. She lived in a modest palace, nothing like the huge palaces of St. Petersburg.

We have gotten to the 20th century. The Anglo-Dutch company Shell was one of the first ones to enter the oilfields in Azerbaijan, the world’s largest oilfields in the early 20th century. Together with the Nobel Brothers, they built the oil transport infrastructure that still provides the basis for today’s oil transportation in the Caucasus. They controlled 75 percent of the oil production. Baku was the world’s largest and busiest port with a huge fleet of oil tankers. The Baku-Tbilisi-Batumi railway was built as well as the world’s longest oil pipeline of almost 900 km between Baku and Batumi. The Baku oilfields were of extreme strategic importance during the WWII. Nazi Germany got its oil from Russia, especially during the period from 1939 to 1941 when the Nazi military needed an enormous amount of oil. In 1941, Hitler decided to attack his strategic partner, the Soviet Union, and the Nazi army’s first and foremost goal was to reach Baku to ensure a steady oil supply. We all know how this ended. And we also know how it ended for Shell and the Nobel Brothers. They lost all their assets when the Bolsheviks entered Baku in 1920 and nationalized the oil industry.

Then came 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union. All big western companies were very eager to enter the Russian market and of course Shell was as well. And Shell liked to do it big so why not take huge shares in new projects? Thus, it became involved in the Sakhalin 2 Oil and Gas Project. Today, it is heavily involved in North Stream 2, a 100 percent offshoot of Gazprom, a Russian company with headquarters in Switzerland, doing business with and in the European Union. Shell is not a shareholder but it provides 10 percent of the financing, just like other major EU players.
Let’s make a trip to Sakhalin. Sakhalin, the largest island of the Russian Federation to the north of Japan, was first put on the map by a Dutchman. Martin de Vries sailed in 1643 from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin to draw a new map of that exciting part of the world. The first Russians arrived in the 18th century, and the Japanese controlled the southern part of the island. In the late 19th century, Sakhalin became notorious as a “prison island.” The most famous man who visited the island was probably the writer Anton Chekhov, who wrote about the misery of the inmates and their families in 1890.

Apart from the Japanese who refused to sign the takeover by the Soviets, no one seemed interested in the island after the war. On Japanese maps the island is still marked as No Man’s Land. In 1983, Sakhalin appeared on the news again when a South Korean airliner was shot down by mistake by Soviet air defense forces. The Soviets first tried to deny that it had happened, and then claimed that this had been a spy mission. The flight data recordings were finally released ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This tragedy that has almost been forgotten was nevertheless one of the tensest moments of the Cold War. Also, this story reminded me a little of MH17.

The development of the Sakhalin-2 Oil and Gas Project began in the late 80s. In 1991, the Russian state, two Texan oil companies, and Japan’s Mitsui founded a consortium. Shell joined one year later and became the majority shareholder with 55%. The Texan companies sold their shares. Everything went well, and a huge project was launched involving a small town for expat workers, an LNG plant, and a lot of infrastructure.

But then Russia had a new president, and things started to change. Gazprom appeared on the horizon and it advanced quickly. It all happened during the period from 2003 to 2005 when the private oil company Yukos tried to merge with Sibneft, and then suddenly everything changed. Major lawsuit threats were followed by the arrest of Khodorkovski. Yukosneftegas was indirectly taken over by Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft.

Abramovich felt obligated to sell Sibneft to Gazprom for 13 billion dollars. It was then that Gazprom and Rosneft conquered the oil and gas industry in Russia.

However, there was still Sakhalin II owned by the Anglo-Dutch company Shell and two minority Japanese shareholders.

A “useful idiot” was quickly found. The Sakhalin-2 project had a negative impact on the environment. An organization called the Sakhalin Environmental Watch brought up all kind of complaints and claims. The first complaints were about the construction of the LNG plant and the disappearance of pedestrian lanes which made it dangerous for school-age children to use the roads. These were followed by the complaints about the noise produced by heavy vehicles. Moreover, the Dutch who were carrying out the drilling were accused of having caused a decline in freshwater fish populations. Also, it turned out that the population of whales was endangered as well.

Normally, major oil companies or governments of oil-rich counties do not bother with such complaints. Moreover, Shell had had its share of accusations in the past of working with the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 70s and corrupt officials in Nigeria as well as polluting the environment. Consequently, Shell might have seen this as the inevitable side-effect associated with taking risks.

However, having been thrown out of Baku in 1920, they did not quite expect to be thrown out of the new modern post-communist Russia as well. Well they were wrong. In 2006, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources began showing support for Sakhalin environmentalists. What followed was a threat of a lawsuit by Russia’s government environmental protection agency Rosprirodnadzor. The lawsuit sought 50 billion dollars in damages.
The entire Sakhalin -2 project was worth only about 22 billion dollars.
But of course there was a solution. Shell and its Japanese partners could sell half of their shares to a company called …Gazprom. For how much? For 7.5 billion dollars.

Rosneft has also tried to get some money ($1.5 billion) out of the American companies that were involved in the Sakhalin-1 project. Thus, Rosneft accused Exxon Mobil of extracting some crude oil from the concession area under its control. Eventually, the dispute was settled out of court in 2018.
It is also worth mentioning that Sechin plans to build his own LNG plant on Sakhalin in order to keep up with the Yamal plant of Mikhelson/Novatek and that of Gazprom on Sakhalin.

Meanwhile Shell remains a shareholder in Sakhalin-2, with its stake having been cut by half from 55 to 27.5 percent.

What has become of the “useful idiot,” the Sakhalin Environment Watch?
Well it got a taste of its own medicine when in 2015 Leonardo di Caprio’s Wildlife foundation wanted to give it a grant of 159.000 dollars for its activities in wildlife care on Sakhalin.

The Russian government however made it clear that the Sakhalin Environment Watch had to stop its activities and close down its office in Russia or else be labeled as a “foreign agent.” Having chosen to refuse the grant, the organization keeps fighting for the beautiful wildlife of Sakhalin.

Abstract:

The Kremlin uses NGOs to achieve its goals both inside and outside Russia. Domestically, pro-Kremlin NGOs help shore up support for the government and suggest the presence of an active third sector. In the international realm, they are a key part of the Kremlin’s kleptocracy network, as they lure in foreign actors and fund local partners. Furthermore, pro-Kremlin NGOs manipulate open societies in order to promote the Kremlin’s views, stir divisions and distract international communities from more pressing issues.

Regardless of their primary goals, pro-Kremlin NGOs take resources away from independent NGOs, marginalize discussions of human rights, and erode democratic norms, serving as a key tool for disseminating the Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.

About the author:

Olga Shorina, a co-founder of Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and a Free Russia Foundation fellow.

She worked with Boris Nemtsov, as a first as a press-secretary of Solidarity movement (2009-2012) and then as an executive director of PARNAS party (2012-2015). Took part in preparing Nemtsov’s independent research report on corruption in Russia, the Sochi Olympics, and the last one «Putin.War» which he planned to publish and which was finished by his colleagues.