While the EU may have successfully extended its visa bans and asset freezes targeting Russian politicians and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine last week, the signs that disinformation and interference are increasing Russia’s soft power across the continent are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Amateurish antics on the part of Salisbury’s most notorious tourists aside, populist movements in Italy, Austria, and Hungary now often find more common cause with Moscow than Brussels.
There are growing concerns over a broader schism in the European consensus, and the major question for major EU and pan-European institutions is this: will Russia succeed in splitting Europe by forcing it to renege on its founding principles?
Russia and the art of persuasion
Many of Moscow’s most impressive results from its meddling in EU affairs can be chalked up to social media. For a country that once feared the influence of sites like Facebook and Twitter, Russia has now embraced an approach that uses the malignant potential of these technologies to their full extent. Russian bots, trolls and fake accounts are now instrumental in spreading disinformation across Europe.
This has forced Facebook, at least, to make fighting fake news a top priority before European parliamentary elections in May 2019. Twitter has belatedly taken more of a whack-a-mole approach to the issue.
Russia’s online media presence has clearly already had real-world political effects. New research from Australia suggests Russia-linked Twitter bots were more influential than actual people during the U.S. presidential debates in 2016. In Europe as well, the Kremlin’s Weltanschauung is gaining political traction as it garners support from sources that have historically been opposed to its policies. Bot activity supporting Sweden’s far-right Sweden Democrats grew considerably in the weeks before the Swedish election earlier this month, in which the party earned a landmark score.
A new axis of power?
Moscow is lapping up the opportunity to forge new relationships with far-right parties in Europe. In helping them break through their traditional electoral limits, Putin’s regime hopes to bring about a continent-wide geopolitical realignment that breaks Russia out of its current isolation – without having to make any concessions on democracy, human rights, or occupied parts of Ukraine.
The leader of Austria’s pro-Kremlin Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache, signed a “co-operation agreement” with Russia’s ruling party as early as 2016. The agreement includes provisions for information-sharing on international and bilateral issues that are feared to be compromising the trustworthiness of Austria’s intelligence agency. With the FPÖ now a coalition partner in Austria’s government and Strache serving as Austrian vice-chancellor, Vienna has significantly cozied up to Putin. Even Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for the relaxation of sanctions “step by step”.
Putin’s party has signed a similar deal with Italy’s populist Lega Nord, also a ruling coalition partner. Its leader, interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, is one of the most outspoken European political figures in his criticism of EU sanctions against Russia.
A regular visitor to Moscow, Salvini has repeatedly threatened to use Italy’s veto powers in the EU to get Brussels to relent on its sanctions regime against Russia. Salvini went so far as to declare to Russia Today – the same Russia Today that broadcast the poorly stage-managed interview with Putin’s Salisbury assassins – that the sanctions are “senseless”.
While, in Hungary, the far-right opposition party Jobbik may be the Kremlin’s most vocal ally in Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are also known for their close links to Russia. With most Hungarian media under Fidesz control, Russian state propaganda is freely broadcast through the airwaves.
A threat to human rights
While there is plenty of cause for concern over these parties gravitating towards Russia, Moscow’s country-level soft power plays remain a more latent threat for now. If the main issue facing European policymakers is Moscow’s desire to upend Europe’s political consensus based on shared values, there is a much more immediate threat playing out in Strasbourg.
At this very moment, the Council of Europe (CoE) – Europe’s foremost human rights organisation and the body responsible for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – is effectively being held hostage by Russia. After the Russian delegation to the CoE’s parliamentary assembly (PACE) were revoked in response to the Crimea crisis, Moscow decided to withhold its payments. The 47-member Council now faces a funding shortfall of €33 million out of its €450m budget.
Faced with this budgetary shortfall, the CoE seems ready to fold. Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland is currently pushing to reinstate the country’s voting rights, even though Russia has yet to fulfil any of the conditions necessary to trigger a review of the sanctions. While the Council of Europe is not an EU institution, Russia’s alliances with populist and far-right forces continue to work to its benefit within the institution. Members of the PACE who are sympathetic to Moscow are unsurprising pushing for Russian reinstitution without preconditions. Those forces are making common cause with members such as Austria’s Stefan Schennach, who has been a vocal critic of the lasting suspension of Russia’s vote within the assembly.
Granting Russia’s assembly delegation its voting rights back under these conditions would be akin to giving in to blackmail by Moscow – and could weaken the wider European response to Russian infractions.
It’s abundantly clear that European unity on Russia, both at a national level and within its multilateral institutions, is under assault. Putin continues to support his allies in the populist movement by adding fuel to the backlash against liberal values. In doing so, he is consciously undermining the very institutions and legal instruments upon which European unity and security depend.
If Europe hopes to thwart Russian attempt to break its unity and commitment to shared values, the continent needs to start pushing back in defence of human dignity and democracy. The Council of Europe, whose entire purpose is to defend those values, would be an ideal place to start.