This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 20 November 2016

Most people associate Russia’s influence campaign with targets in the former Soviet Union—Ukraine, the three Baltic republics and Georgia. However, Central and Western Europe are also Kremlin objectives. Although Moscow uses no single formula to determine its optimal mix of instruments to strengthen Russian influence in a specific county, in Western Europe it often seeks to build a “web of allied political leaders and parties who will legitimize Russia’s aims and destabilize European unity and undermine European values.”

Two outstanding studies published in recent weeks cast light on Kremlin-sponsored activities in Europe. The first, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses, published by the Atlantic Council, includes expert contributions on Russian activities in Germany, France and the UK. In some cases such as the National Front in France, Kremlin financial support for political parties is explicit. In the UK, Russian support is more opaque since British society is more impervious to Kremlin influence. In Germany, network building occurs through cooperation and cultivation of long-term economic links, which open German domestic politics to Russian penetration. Behind this web of networks, the report concludes, Moscow’s “long-term goal is to upend the Western liberal order by turning Western virtues of openness and plurality into vulnerabilities to be exploited.”

The second study, Putin’s Useful Idiots: Britain’s Left, Right and Russia, by Dr. Andrew Foxall of London’s Henry Jackson Society, focuses only on Britain. Foxall finds that over the past five years, individuals, movements and parties on both ends of the political spectrum have deepened ties with Russia. The right lauds Putin for standing up to the EU and defending traditional values from the corrupting influence of liberalism, while the left’s admiration for Russia has survived the end of the Cold War. This week’s CEPA monitoring brief on Estonia shows how Russia’s information operations can also bridge the East-West divide. It describes how Moscow tries to propagate false narratives via an Estonian member of the European Parliament, including the lie that the EP censors Russian-language websites. Such charges strengthen the myth that Europe violates its own values by limiting free speech, press freedom and access to online information.

Both of these fine studies recommend sound, sensible steps the West can take to counter Russian influence operations. The Jackson Society report urges a combination of actions by government, concerned citizens and journalists to help fashion a response that includes increasing public awareness of ties—especially financial ones—between Russia and European political parties, and legislation that forces politicians to declare all the media appearances they make, and whether they receive money from them or not. The other report offers similar recommendations.

To some extent NATO and Western societies—especially in the Baltic States—have responded.  But the threat is increasing, not decreasing; Marine LePen and her National Front are among the most powerful political forces in France. Italy, one of the more vulnerable EU members, will soon hold a constitutional referendum; it has been the focus of Russian government-funded TV broadcaster RT in recent weeks, no doubt with an aim to foster instability. Time is working against Europe’s ability to craft an adequate answer.