Russia keeps prodding the inner harmony of Europe

By luring Eastern Europe with low energy-bills, reaching a hand towards troubled countries such as Greece and funding Front National in France, Putin is hurting the inner cohesion of an already divided Union. 

While Merkel and Hollande were negotiating peace with Russia last month, Putin was also occupied with other EU-meetings: he had to prepare his travel to the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, draft a military contract with Cyprus and offer medicine for the financial headaches of Greece. “This must have hurt in Brussels,” says Tony van der Togt, senior researcher on the EU-Russia relation for the Clingendael institute.

Putin knows this and besides the hard politics he is often associated with, he also uses a more sophisticated way of playing chess by searching for small cracks in the not so united union and tries to make gaps out of it, or as the Bulgarian president put it last week: he wants to “blow [up] the EU from inside”.

An example of this strategy became clear when the newly elected Greek government entered office. Putin was quick to say that the two countries will “work together effectively to resolve current European and global problems.” Russia shortly after, proved those weren’t empty words by offering a helping hand when Greece was facing a downgrade by rating agency Fitch at the end of January and during the constant wrestle with Brussels for its debt conditions. Although there hasn’t been concrete assistance so far, Putin knows that by only offering the help he strengthens the negotiation position of Greece in Brussels.

NGOs fighting for Russia
Of course a favour requires a favour. Shortly after this helping hand, Greece questioned further European Union sanctions against Russia. “Resistance from these countries makes it more difficult to push for a harder line on Russia,” says Gustav Gressel, researcher at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations.

Greece is not the only example of Putin’s interference. “Russia is, and has been for some time, actively undermining the cohesion of the Union, trying to play member states off against one another. Apparently, one of President Putin’s goals is the weakening and eventual demise of the EU,” writes Roland Freudenstein, deputy director and head of research at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, affiliated to the European People’s Party. “Russia is using all its political, economic, NGO and mafia influence,” he explains.

“When Romania for example was planning to become more energy-independent by investing in shale gas, environmental NGO’s popped out of nowhere with a lot of money. Probably funded by Putin,” adds Van der Togt.

Buying political power doesn’t only take place in the Balkan. Western EU-states have also noticed this sly influence at the flanks of their political landscape: “In Austria, they started in 2004 to mend ties with conservative and nationalist groups. The business community has been vulnerable ever since, especially when the ‘comrades turned corporate,” says Gressel.

Putin doesn’t seem to care if he buys his power at the left or at the right side of the political spectrum. Whatever divides the bunch seems to be worth an investment: “In countries with anti-American sentiments he anticipates on left-wing thoughts,” explains Van der Togt. At the same time Putin knows how to use conservative feelings, according to Gressel: “The image of ‘the last Christian empire’ and ‘protector of Christianity’ works to gain influence among right-wing parties. Especially when they are opposed to multiculturalism and Muslim migration.”

Information warfare
Russia’s latest investment will be regarded as its most significant one because of the potential power it involves. Marine Le Pen, leader of Front National, became a surprising friend and foe in December when she accepted a €9.4m loan from Russia. Another additional €2m came from an unknown company based in Cyprus: an island that is well known for storing the money of the Russian elite. “First of all I doubt the chance that Le Pen will become France’s new president, but if she does, Europe has to deal with a big and powerful block in favour of Putin. That’s more worrying than Hungary taking money,” says Van der Togt.

Although the influence in a potential governing French party seems worrying, experts nowadays are more anxious about Russia’s propaganda cannon that recently swerved in the direction of Western Europe. At the end of last year, Russia Today, a broadcast organisation knowingly under the direct influence of Kremlin, launched two new channels: a German and a French version. “Information warfare is an integral part of twenty-first century conflicts, involving traditional media, web-based social media and other forms of communication,” says Freudenstein. “All these efforts are ultimately coordinated by Russian intelligence.”

This way of influencing the minds of western Europeans may have a bigger impact than Putin charming the leaders of Hungary, Serbia or Greece. “Each of these countries needs the bigger EU-countries. Especially Germany so they have not yet challenged the sanctions policy in place or veto important NATO decisions.”

Backfiring Putin’s strategy
Another point is the doubt if Russia can really embrace troubled EU-countries: “Due to heavy spending on the Ukraine and low gas and oil prices, Russia isn’t rich enough to take over the debts of Greece and Cyprus,” says Van der Togt. “Brussels can easily call Russia’s offer towards Greece a bluff.”

Vice-president of the European Union, Frans Timmermans, revealed his worries about a divided union last week in a Dutch radio-interview: “The greatest gift we can give president Putin now is European disunity. If he succeeds in creating this, I doubt we can solve the Ukraine problems.” Uniting 28 different countries has always been difficult and something the High Representative of the Union is still struggling with: “Federica Mogherini is at the moment more busy with getting the different national leaders on one line, rather than really representing an united union. Mogherini, called the Russian minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, during the Minsk talks to say that she backs Merkel and Hollande. It’s typical that the EU follows Germany and France instead of the other way around,” says Van der Togt.

More ‘Europe’ seems the obvious solution if it didn’t include the paradoxical effect of resistance from nationalist and separatists pushing back: “Societies in Central and Eastern Europe have already opened up and liberalised considerably. Further ‘Europeanisation’ will happen, but needs time. The economic crisis has aired Euro scepticism in all of these countries.”

Freudenstein agrees: “I don’t think more Europe is the solution to every problem. But in energy or defence, we need more integration. Although energy independence won’t happen overnight, it’s possible in a few years. In the meantime we have to seek for alternatives pipelines and apply full EU law against the mafia-like methods of Gazprom.”

But as Russia teaches us, uniting your own union works better while splitting the neighbour. Van der Togt: “Putin aspires an united union as well: the Eurasian one. By inviting Belarus and Kazakhstan more to our negotiation tables, we will probe the dissension in this group as well.”

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