The controversy over Moscow’s involvement in the U.S. presidential elections is part of a broader pattern of Russian involvement in Western politics. The upsurge of populism in Europe, as in America, has provided Russia with a rich supply of sympathetic parties and organizations. They tend to be anti-establishment and anti-globalist, and many are working actively to undo the European project. In June 2015, the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a survey of “insurgent” parties and both government and non-government organizations in Europe. It found that, despite their differences, most of them advocate policies that promote Russia’s interests. Many also have unrealistic platforms that, if implemented, would undermine Western democratic institutions and procedures—also a Russian goal.
Moscow has embraced some of these organizations and often funds them. While the others are not Russian stooges or under Moscow’s direct control, their views do align with the policies of Putin’s Russia. They oppose Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia, for example, and are skeptical about the European Union. In this sense the unlikely charge in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign that Republican candidate Donald Trump—whose views are close to some of these European groups—is a Kremlin agent is not the point. What matters is that some of his positions probably would help Moscow, even if the Kremlin almost certainly does not control him.
The Kremlin directly funds various kinds of groups—government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and think tanks—that serve different aims of Russian foreign policy. GONGOs such as the Russkiy Mir Foundation and Rossotrudnuchestvo are based in Russia and have branches in Europe. They tend to focus on compatriots policy—cultivating ties with Russian speakers abroad—and are overseen by high-level political figures. As neighbors of Russia, the three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—receive more intensive exposure to Russian influence than other parts of the EU, so Russia’s intelligence services control of most of the compatriot NGOs there. Semi-official Russian think tanks—the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections, for example—legitimize elections in Russia-occupied areas. Another organization, the Berlin-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, coordinates a global network of Russian think tanks.
Many Russia-based think tanks such as the Valdai Discussion Club and produce analyses for the Kremlin or promote Russian foreign policy. The annual Valdai conference, established in 2004, attracts many well-known experts and European politicians, and regularly features a speech by President Vladimir Putin. Between conferences the club, created in 2011 by various pro-Kremlin organizations, is active on social media and organizes smaller conferences, papers and reports.
Two of this week’s CEPA briefs highlight this year’s Valdai deliberations. In our Estonia brief, a weekly newspaper summarizes the discussions, concluding that both sides are to blame for the current troubles between Russia and the West, in part due to mutual misunderstanding. Our Lithuania brief discusses how a Lithuanian-language, pro-Kremlin website covered Putin’s speech. This year, he repeated the old refrain that NATO is an obsolete structure which has failed to adapt to the new international reality. It’s unclear why these star-studded attendees are motivated to keep attending Valdai year after year—despite similar messages—but it is certain that the Kremlin will continue to use their participation as a sign of support for its foreign policy goals.