By: Krystel Von Kumberg, Columnist
Photo credit: The Guardian
Despite the varied political, economic, and social developments that have occurred in postwar European states, the continent is still haunted by the specter of the past, as far-right extremism has reemerged in recent years. Just as societal bonds are weakening due to growing frustration over economic inequalities, the refugee crisis is introducing further strains in civil society by heightening the identity crises facing European states. This internal dissatisfaction offers a compelling explanation for the reemergence of far-right populism, but the oft ignored factor of Russian meddling is arguably more salient. Russia is exploiting and exacerbating the aforementioned destabilizing factors within European polities and is perniciously shaping Europe’s democracies in a way that transcends borders. By projecting an image based on popular democracy and nationalism, parties like The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, the Front National (RN) in France, Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in Italy, and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany are all seeing electoral success. Recently, we have begun to witness a recurring trend, almost akin to Eisenhower’s domino theory, of states falling to populism. Indeed, even moderate European states like Sweden, frequently branded as the “exception” to the rule, have fallen into the same distinct pattern, with the Sweden Democrats gaining 1/5 of the votes in the 2018 General Election. [i] This is concerning because the relationship between Russian meddling and right-wing populism in Europe is becoming increasingly evident.
It therefore becomes vital to pinpoint the extent of Russian interference occurring within European borders to inform voters of Russia’s collaboration with far-right parties and counteract Putin’s undermining both of democratic institutions and the transatlantic alliance that have undergirded peace and prosperity in Europe for decades. [ii] It is important to craft a clear-cut strategy highlighting the fact that Russia is primarily motivated by its national interest, not the interests of European populaces. Putin is successfully rebranding Russia’s role on the international stage. As Stephen Kotkin noted so eloquently in March 2017: “the Cold War was won, but the Post-Cold War was [or is in the process of being] lost.” [iii]
The extent of Russia’s political meddling must be unveiled to successfully be combatted. Yet, the media seldom discusses the Kremlin’s financial support for UKIP and its interference in the UK’s June 2016 referendum. While we have yet to unravel the extent of Russian meddling, it was evidently significant as evidenced by the fact that it is still being investigated. Indeed, Prime Minister Theresa May has actively condemned Russian actions. [iv] The UK Electoral Commission is also investigating the subversion of facts and similar dirty tactics used to fuel Brexit, as “investigative journalists have…raised questions about the sources of sudden and possibly illicit wealth that may have been directed to support the Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign.” [v] Interestingly, despite the overwhelmingly alarmist news coverage that ensued after Brexit, the role that the Russian government may have played is seldom mentioned. But it is the missing dimension of the puzzle! Brexit is, in many ways, a trophy for Putin. It not only serves to bolster his domestic nationalist agenda but also functions to project a powerful image of a Great Russia abroad, as Russia’s foreign policy successes are starkly juxtaposed against the failures of crumbling Western institutions. [vi] Brexit also benefits Russia in terms of sanctions, as the EU’s commitment to sanctions is considerably diminished absent the UK’s support. [vii] While many within Europe underestimate Russia’s power, its capabilities have certainly become much sharper, as recent international events, like Brexit and the European sovereign debt crisis, have been working in its favor. This presents the West with an array of security concerns that it must address.
The problem is not limited to the UK, though. Russian interference in Italy also highlights the Kremlin’s increasing penetration of far-right movements in Europe. The Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), formed in 2009, has surged in popularity in recent years with a clear-cut anti-establishment message. Its foreign policy objectives notably support Russian interests. Indeed, its platform includes an end to Russian sanctions, normalization of relations with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and even potential recognition of Russian control of Crimea. [viii] Furthermore, M5S opposes Italian participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has called for a referendum on Italy’s inclusion in the Eurozone. [ix] These objectives, if achieved, would increase Putin’s control and alleviate one of his primary security concerns: Western encirclement through NATO. The M5S has gained ground through Russian funding and the dissemination of fake news, crafting labels that offer simple explanations to complex problems. [x]
Politicians must, therefore, develop a clear-cut counter-narrative. European populations must understand the historical context of Russia’s revisionist mindset to filter out fake news. Furthermore, media and politicians must provide a greater and more nuanced understanding of far-right parties, as these parties’ leaders are little more than Putin’s puppets. Simply put, they are intent on tainting European democracy for their own narrow, self-serving interests, which ultimately serve the Kremlin’s national security goals. Most importantly, in an era of increased political fragmentation in the West and an overwhelming revival of populism and nationalism, the value of interdependence and cooperation cannot be forgotten and must remain the central pillars of Europe. Retaining a liberal state of mind is key to understanding the breadth and scope of Russian interests and successfully counter Russian interference.
[i] Ivar Ekman, “Swedish Unexceptionalism,” Foreign Affairs, September 10, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sweden/2018-09-10/swedish-unexceptionalism.
[ii] B. Cardin, B. Corker, J. Risch, M. Rubio, R. Johnson, J. Flake, C. Gardner, T. Young, J. Barrasso, J. Isakson, R. Portman, R. Paul, R. Menendez, J. Shaheen, C. Coons, T. Udall, C. Murphy, T. Kaine, E. Markey, J. Merkley and, C. Booker, “Senate Report; Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe; Implications for US National Security,” U.S. Senate, 10 January, 2018, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf.
[iii] Stephen Kotkin, “Trump and Putin? What in the World is up?” 16 March, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot4OPfWZubM.
[iv] B. Cardin, B. Corker, J. Risch, M. Rubio, R. Johnson, J. Flake, C. Gardner, T. Young, J. Barrasso, J. Isakson, R. Portman, R. Paul, R. Menendez, J. Shaheen, C. Coons, T. Udall, C. Murphy, T. Kaine, E. Markey, J. Merkley and, C. Booker, “Senate Report; Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe; Implications for US National Security,” U.S. Senate, 10 January, 2018, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf.
[vi] Elizabeth Buchanan, “Brexit’s gifts to Putin,” Foreign Affairs, August 24, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2016-08-24/brexits-gifts-putin.
[viii] B. Cardin, B. Corker, J. Risch, M. Rubio, R. Johnson, J. Flake, C. Gardner, T. Young, J. Barrasso, J. Isakson, R. Portman, R. Paul, R. Menendez, J. Shaheen, C. Coons, T. Udall, C. Murphy, T. Kaine, E. Markey, J. Merkley and, C. Booker, “Senate Report; Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe; Implications for US National Security,” U.S. Senate, 10 January, 2018, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf.