BERLIN — The United States is far from being the only country where connections between politicians and Russian officials have recently come under renewed scrutiny. European parties — ranging from the far right to the far left — are facing similar accusations.
In an extensive new report, focusing on Western and Southern Europe, the Atlantic Council think tank examines the extent to which Russia has succeeded in influencing the parties that are currently believed to be most favorable toward the Kremlin.
The think tank's authors believe that Russia's influence may be strongest in Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement is currently topping the polls. The movement attracts both right-wing and left-wing supporters and is hard to classify within the conventional political spectrum. It was founded by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose appeal among voters has been compared to President Trump's. The Atlantic Council authors, however, believe that the movement's rise in the polls is no laughing matter.
“The party’s documented pro-Kremlin stance combined with its grassroots mobilization capacity make it a particularly important ally for the Kremlin, and thus a dangerous force against the EU, NATO, and the transatlantic partnership,” they write. A possible election win in March next year could “dramatically shift Italian foreign policy away from EU cooperation, support for common defense, and continuation of economic sanctions against Russia.”
The movement's policy stances in favor of closer ties to Russia are well documented in speeches. Meanwhile, other more serious accusations that it is cooperating with Russia to win next year's election remain in question. In an interview with my colleague Ishaan Tharoor this week, the movement's top candidate Luigi Di Maio rejected accusations that the Five Star Movement has benefited from Russian disinformation campaigns, calling such reports “fake news.”
“It's not Beppe Grillo who visits Putin every month,” he responded to Tharoor, referring to Italian competitor Silvio Berlusconi's close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former Italian prime minister is also preparing to run again in next year's elections.
Contrary to Italy, one of the Greek parties accused of being most influenced by Russia is already in power. The left-wing Syriza party appears to have established extensive ties with the Russian government, mostly at a time when Italy's relations with the European Union declined because of disagreements over its bailout conditions. The party has denied that it reversed its foreign policy stance to become more pro-Russia because of hopes that it may receive Russian bailouts.
Russia's influence in the country goes far beyond the deployment of “fake news,” the Atlantic Council observed:
Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin have bought stakes in Greek media. Russia’s state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, purchased large stakes in Greek energy firms. And most notably, Putin has maintained a close relationship with the Greek leadership.
Whereas Russia sees an ally in the left-wing government, it also supports a party on the opposite side of the political spectrum: the far right and ultranationalist Golden Dawn party.
In a nation that kept the far right restricted to the parliamentary sidelines for more than 50 years, the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) marked a watershed moment this September. Although there is so far no evidence that the German elections were directly influenced by Russia, the sympathies the far-right AfD and the Russian government have for each other did not go unnoticed.
The AfD made closer ties to Russia one of its top priorities and “campaigned aggressively in districts with a high concentration of Russian speakers while Russian state media provided favorable coverage,” according to the Atlantic Council.
France has been a driving force behind tough sanctions on Russia under the former Socialist and the current centrist government. That probably would have changed had conservative candidate François Fillon, populist left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon or far-right politician Marine Le Pen had won the election earlier this year. They all advocated for a more open approach toward Russia.
France's most pro-Russian party remains Le Pen's National Front. The far right politician has taken loans from Russian banks and has repeatedly praised Putin.
During a meeting with the Russian president this March, Le Pen said: “Putin’s Russia is our role model for a patriotic economic policy.” In return, Russian state media openly supported her in the French election, and she “was propped up by Russian sponsored social media accounts,” as the Atlantic Council authors write.
The campaign of Emmanuel Macron, which won the presidential race, later accused the Kremlin of election meddling, saying that servers belonging to the team had been hacked by a group likely associated with Russia. The Macron team argued that Russian hackers may have been searching for dirt on their candidate to help Le Pen's campaign.
British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Putin this week of trying to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord” in Britain and other Western countries. May was specifically referring to the perpetuation of “fake news” stories, according to my colleagues Michael Birnbaum and William Booth.
The comments came as researchers were examining possible attempts by the Russian government to influence the Brexit referendum last year, in which Britain voted in favor of leaving the European Union. The party which rallied most Brexit supporters behind it early on was the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) with its former leader Nigel Farage, who remains supportive of Putin.
Only hours after Theresa May's remarks, her Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, made similar accusations. According to his government, authorities recorded an “avalanche” of bots spreading “fake news” during Catalonia’s independence referendum, which took place last month. Authorities believe that the vast majority originated in Russia.
Concerns over growing Russian attempts to influence politics there were shared by the Atlantic Council authors who write that “Madrid’s desire to balance a pro-EU foreign policy with multilateralism” could make the country a likely target. In Spain, Russia is believed to support the left-wing and increasingly pro-Russian Podemos party.