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Russia Looks Out for Own Interests in Europe’s Elections But Risks Long-Term Blowback

April 19, 2017
Yuval Weber

As Europe faces key elections this year, and U.S. politics continue to reel from the controversy over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential race, liberals in the West have been ringing alarms over the prospect of Moscow’s meddling in countries from France to Serbia. Indeed, Moscow has openly aligned itself with Euro-skeptical, nationalist-leaning politicians across the continent. But, as with President Donald Trump, Russian preference for these political forces comes not specifically from ideological overlap or any secret financial links, but from the recognition that some candidates are much closer to satisfying Russia’s acute policy needs than others. Russia didn’t create Euro-skepticism or Marine Le Pen. As in Soviet times, Moscow merely recognizes the existing fissures in Western societies and tries to exploit them to its advantage. The contemporary Russian turn toward supporting far-right groups is similar to Soviet support for far-left groups in the 20th century: Both are anti-systemic forces weakening local elites and intra-bloc unity, obliging national governments to negotiate with Russia from a position of relative weakness. If the current state of U.S.-Russian relations is any gauge, Moscow’s efforts may yet backfire, with tactical successes giving way to renewed, entrenched, long-term Russophobia. But liberal societies’ options for countering Russian efforts to deepen existing cleavages or to “deliberalize” the political playing field must also be long-term, involving measures both to combat “false facts” and to more effectively promote the virtues of open societies.

Europe: What’s at Stake for Russia?

Even as FBI and Congressional investigations into Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential elections continue, Western officials and analysts fear that President Vladimir Putin seeks to replicate the purported “success” of electing Trump in Europe. The idea is that the Russian leader is deeply motivated to stay in power at a particularly difficult period of extended foreign policy commitments, and he is unbound by the lack of explicit rules in cyber-warfare. The ostensible goal of Russian intervention would be to disrupt European elections through calculated leaks or hacks to voting systems to place pro-Russian and Euro-skeptic politicians in power, or in coalitions, or simply to weaken mainstream Atlanticist politicians. The result would be less motivation in Europe to maintain sanctions against Russia, provide support to Ukraine and maintain pressure on Moscow to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, all achieved without expensive and dangerous conventional escalation. The particularly important elections this year would be in Bulgaria, France and Germany. (See table below for details.)

Moscow’s efforts to restructure the international order from Euro-Atlantic dominance to multipolarity have been ongoing for at least a decade. Russia supports far-right Euro-skeptic groups and politicians because it failed to forge common understanding with the European Union over basic cooperation even prior to events in Ukraine, which have only accelerated the division. The populist anti-EU forces in Europe existed long before Putin (indeed, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, founded the party she now heads in 1972) and they did not cause Putin to adopt Russia's political positions as such, but Putin recognized the congruence and moved accordingly to weaken the bloc. For the Euro-skeptic parties, there are some ideological overlaps with Russia and also the benefit of financial and diplomatic support that identify them as “important” enough for Russian attention and signals to domestic voters their distance from the Atlanticist-European mainstream.

New Means, Old Motives

Despite the oft heard claim that alleged Russian interference in last year’s U.S. election was unprecedented, that sort of activity fits into a long tradition. Russia used a variety of means to influence politics in Europe and the United States prior to and during the Cold War, which actually provide some clear historical lessons for today. From the post-revolutionary era through the end of de-Stalinization these means included overt, covert and semi-covert activities, run largely through the Comintern, Cominform and local front organizations. As the visceral ideological appeal of Soviet communism declined over the course of the Cold War and the revelation of Stalin’s crimes, the Soviet Union changed tack, supporting peace and anti-nuclear movements in the 1970s and 1980s. In this approach, the Soviet Union took advantage of political polarization in Western societies and the widening generation gap between those who lived through a traumatic event (World War II) and those who did not. By supporting groups that appealed to Western values but which were out of step with mainstream, anti-Soviet parties, the Soviet Union used the openness and political liberalism of Western societies against Western governments.

Today, too, Russia’s reported cyber intrusions are part of a larger toolkit and, as frightening as they may sound, they were described by the Obama administration’s former director of cybersecurity policy as “relatively unsophisticated and something that probably about 60 countries around the world have the capability of doing—which is to target third parties, to steal documents and emails, and to selectively release them to create unfavorable conditions for that party. It’s unsubtle interference.

Moreover, much of Russia’s support for the European parties it favors is completely out in the open. Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, has signed memoranda of understanding with Italy’s Northern League, Austria’s Freedom Party and Greece's Independent Greeks; it has hosted members of the European Parliament from Italy’s Five-Star Movement and leaders of Le Pen’s National Front (NF), Germany’s Alternative for Germany, Hungary’s Jobbik, Bulgaria’s Ataka and others at lower levels of official interaction, such as participation in conferences. Le Pen herself has openly sought and received financial assistance from Russian-linked banks and paid a high-profile visit to Moscow in March.

Boomerang Effect?

For Moscow, there may be an irony in “successful” interventions in European elections: If one party is seen as winning because of Russian interference that poisons local societal relations or is carried out in unacceptable ways (like covert funding or vote rigging), then the short-term tactical success of helping put a willing interlocutor in office could quickly descend into long-term Russophobia. The current mood in Washington gives a taste of that: While Russia may have affected the U.S. election outcome at the margins, the perception of Moscow as a player in that contest has generated opposition on a much more sustained basis.

In Europe, we could very well see a similar backlash. After the fallout from Brexit, for example, some Euro-skeptics have grown disappointed, reflecting increased uncertainty to the tune that “maybe Europe isn’t such a bad thing.” If Moscow were seen as complicit, that could cast Russia in a negative light.

The combination of polarization in Washington and wariness in Brussels also threatens Russia with a difficult long-term strategic outcome—a collective view of Russia as a revisionist power. If elections in France and Germany retain liberal politicians alongside the same result in the Netherlands, then it is more likely that the Euro-Atlantic community reaches broad agreement on an adversarial view of Russia because of its interference in domestic politics abroad. Policy measures in any one state meant to limit or punish Russia could inspire similar efforts in other states.

What Is To Be Done?

Now, as during the Cold War, Russia does not seem able to determine the basic outcomes of foreign elections, but it certainly can muddy the waters by disturbing the informational space and it often does so by exacerbating open societies’ most salient political differences. A recent remark by former Estonian President Toomas Henrik Ilves could apply as easily to the Cold War era as to current affairs: “What they do is asymmetric—what they do to us we cannot do them. This applies to all authoritarian regimes. Liberal democracies with a free press and free and fair elections are at an asymmetric disadvantage because they can be interfered with—the tools of their democratic and free speech can be used against them.”

The policy response for the West is to recognize that openness might be a weakness in an information war, but it is a source of strength for the societies themselves. Curtailing that openness to tighten up tactical defenses would be shortsighted and strategically unwise in conceding a key source of attractiveness to others. Direct retaliation would only justify escalation on terms favorable to those who were seeking to avoid conventional confrontation in the first place.

To limit the impact of foreign interference in elections, the fixes are long-term. First, this would mean a two-pronged, supply-and-demand approach to fighting so-called false facts: various forms of self-policing by the purveyors of information, on one hand (such as the nascent efforts by Facebook), and promoting “informational literacy” among young people—i.e., teaching them to tell apart real news from fake—on the other. In addition, a widely watched draft law in the German Bundestag aims to equate purposefully misleading news-like stories (“fake news”) with hate speech and incitement, putting the onus on social networks to remove such objectionable material or else face punitive fines. Passage of the bill looks likely ahead of September’s elections, and EU officials are already exploring how to implement the law across Europe.  Second, the political elites in Western countries must recognize that anti-establishment, isolationist and nationalist messages are finding fertile ground because of popular dissatisfaction with macro-level political and economic changes, just as in the 1970s-1980s. Defining attractive anti-populist messages could undercut the popularity of populist rhetoric and false facts, and draw greater distinctions between open societies and closed ones.

Major European Elections in 2017




Alleged Russian involvement/ connections/ interference









Candidate Marine Le Pen received a 9-million-euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014 and her party’s Cotelec fund got a 2-million-euro loan from a Russian-backed fund in Cyprus.

Le Pen has criticized the EU for mistreating Russia, has urged an end to sanctions against Russia and has been supportive of Russia’s military operation in Syria and its annexation of Crimea. She is actively anti-NATO.



Candidate Emmanuel Macron’s party chief has said Macron is a “fake news” target of Russian media and his campaign faced “hundreds if not thousands” of cyberattacks from Russia.

Macron supports EU sanctions on Russia and believes NATO is a strategically important alliance. He likewise wants to strengthen the EU.




Former PM Francois Fillon, once the frontrunner in the race, reportedly received 50,000 euros for setting up a meeting between Putin, a Lebanese billionaire and a French oil executive in 2015.


Like LePen, Fillon has long called for better Franco-Russian relations and for lifting sanctions on Russia and has signaled support for the Crimea annexation, but he grew more critical of Moscow after Le Pen’s high-profile visit there, calling Russia “dangerous” and “not identical to a Western democracy.”



Two “well-researched books” have brought attention to Russia’s “intense lobbying … in [French] cultural, political and business circles.”

France has said it would take “retaliatory measures” if Russia or “any other state” interferes in elections.





Germany, parliamentary


Candidate Frauke Petry of the far-right Alternative for Germany has met with the speaker of the Russian Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, as well as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia and a vociferous critic of the West.

Petry has called for sanctions against Russia to be lifted and is anti-NATO. Her party has supported the annexation of Crimea, and sought formal and informal ties with Russia’s dominant party and other Kremlin-friendly institutions, like the Russian Orthodox Church and the Young Guard youth movement. Petry has criticized Merkel over Germany’s support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.



Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany is under threat of cyberattacks and disinformation from Russia that could affect the election.

Merkel has been the leading politician within Europe on the issues of supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, and has led the imposition and maintenance of sanctions.



The EU’s East StratCom Task Force, set up in 2015 to counter Russian propaganda, has reportedly found Merkel to be the target of thousands of demonstrably false news stories across a range of languages.




Germany’s domestic intelligence chief has said the Kremlin is trying “to influence public opinion and decision-making processes” ahead of the elections and publicly accused Russia of cyber-spying and attempts at sabotage following a hacking attack against the Bundestag, which authorities suspect was “steered by the Russian state.”

Germany is home to several million Russian-speakers, including voters, whose views can be affected by Russian-language media among other factors.



The German state also found itself trying to counter a viral campaign based on an alleged rape of a Russian girl that was deplored by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but which turned out to be a hoax.






Netherlands, parliamentary


The Dutch Safety Board was the target of cyberattacks, reportedly by a pro-Russian hacker group, in 2015 as it was about to present a report on the MH-17 downing.

The Dutch Safety Board blamed Russia-backed separatist rebels for shooting down a Malayasian Airlines passenger jet that carried mostly Dutch citizens.



In the run-up to the election Dutch intelligence accused Russia of being particularly active in foreign hacks of state employees’ email accounts, possibly including Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s. Some IT analysts have linked the attacks to the same groups suspected of cyber-interference in the U.S. presidential race, APT28 and APT29, a.k.a. Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear.

Rutte has supported the European Union’s policies of seeking resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict via implementation of the Minsk Accords, as well as sanctions against Russia over the MH-17 bombing.



Fears of electoral interference led Dutch election authorities to hand-count every vote to ensure accuracy; the interior minister said Russia was among the external actors that could influence the vote.

While anti-establishment candidate Geert Wilders has not openly sought support from Russia, as the country remains generally unpopular in the Netherlands after the MH-17 bombing, his agenda dovetails with the Kremlin’s in terms of favoring a weaker EU.








Ahead of presidential elections in 2016, the opposition Socialist Party reportedly received a secret strategy document from a Kremlin-connected think tank proposing a road map to victory at the ballot box, involving planting fake news and promoting exaggerated polling data; the roughly 30-page document was allegedly delivered by a former Russian spy on a U.S. sanctions list.

Socialist Rumen Radev won Bulgaria’s presidency on a platform of better ties with Moscow and the lifting of European sanctions against Russia, which his party believes hurt Bulgaria. Radev’s victory led former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to say he would resign.




With pro-Russia sentiment running high among the electorate, both of Bulgaria’s biggest parties, although sticking to a pro-EU platform, said ahead of parliamentary elections that they would boost economic cooperation with Russia.




Borisov’s center-right GERB party narrowly won the snap elections in Bulgaria but was forced to form a coalition with a group of nationalist parties with strongly pro-Russian positions.

Bulgaria is a NATO member and is due to hold the EU's rotating presidency next year.

Table compiled by the author, RM student associate Sarah VanSickle and RM editor Natasha Yefimova-Trilling.


Yuval Weber

Yuval Weber is a visiting assistant professor at Harvard's Department of Government and a fellow at the university's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is also an assistant professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Photo by ZeroTwoZero under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.