A report examines how the EU is countering Putin’s messages, “In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front says Russia is doing a better job in Syria than Europe. In Britain, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage appears on Russia’s state-funded RT television channel, blaming the EU for the crisis in Ukraine. And members of Italy’s Five Star Movement share blog articles about small-business owners suffering because of Russian sanctions.
The upstart political parties’ messaging fits neatly into a pro-Russian narrative that, in recent months, has led experts and politicians to see a “Trojan horse” link between Europe’s rising anti-establishment movements and Moscow’s disinformation campaign. It’s one they say is aimed at undermining trust in democratic institutions, weakening NATO, and shifting debates in Europe to benefit Russia.
A recent study of 45 insurgent parties by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found a majority sympathized with the Russian government’s positions.
“What we are seeing now is a lot of backsliding on democratic values, democratic institutions, and media freedoms across the post-socialist space,” Alina Polyakova, co-author of a new Atlantic Council report on the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts in Western Europe, told Foreign Policy. “A lot of those negative changes are being brought about by populist politicians who are often aligned with Russia.”
Long an issue in Eastern and Central Europe, Western European countries are just waking up to the scope of Russian propaganda and influence as election season in Germany and France looms. It has prompted new investigations into the mechanics of Kremlin strategy and stepped-up efforts to counter fake news and promote EU democratic principles.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament passed a strongly worded resolution responding both to Russian disinformation and Islamic State propaganda. The report outlined how Russia has intensified its propaganda efforts since annexing Crimea from Ukraine and called for more funding to support media freedom and education. It was approved amid loud dissenting voices from populist members of the parliament who warned that lumping Russia into a report that also deals with Islamist terrorists is “hypocritical” and may goad Moscow into renewed Cold War tensions.
A headline from Tass, Russia’s state-owned news agency, said the report showed “liberal Europe’s weakness.” Russian President Vladimir Putin also weighed in, calling the resolution an example of “political degradation” of democracy in the West, according to RT. From Moscow’s perspective, the West is engaged in its own version of information operations. Putin has often argued that Washington has sought to undermine governments in Ukraine and Georgia under the guise of democracy promotion programs.
“This report is insane. It fosters hysteria against Russia and neo-McCarthyism in Europe. It’s a caricature of Russia,” said parliamentarian Javier Couso Permuy of Spain’s far-left Izquierda Unida coalition. He called for lifting sanctions and relaxing tensions with Russia.
Despite a year where Russian hacking and troll factory-generated news served as a backdrop to the U.S. election, the links between authentic political conviction of Europe’s populist parties and Moscow’s influence are far from straightforward.
Experts are quick to say it’s mostly impossible to track the extent to which pro-Russian positions in Europe are directly shaped by the Kremlin. It is extremely difficult to trace foreign investments that sometimes go through obscure channels and offshore accounts. Additionally, many European policy stances that could benefit Moscow genuinely stem from historical geopolitical concerns and skepticism of U.S. intervention. They’re also the result of legitimate criticisms of European dysfunction and the EU project.
“Russia has made the most out of it; benefited from it, [and] to a certain extent, is using it,” said Fredrik Wesslau, the director of ECFR’s Europe program. “But it is not the cause of European populism.”
Yet plenty of suspicious signals point to a symbiotic relationship. They include the discovery of an $11 million loan to France’s National Front that was routed through the Moscow-based First Czech-Russian Bank in 2014 and trips to the Russian capital by high-ranking deputies from anti-establishment parties like Italy’s Northern League and Five Star Movement.
Many experts and European officials believe Russia is mainly exploiting the same democratic conventions that protect free speech to help amplify its view. Arguments first spotted on Sputnik, notorious for trafficking in distorted information and even outright lies, increasingly end up on political blogs and filter into mainstream arguments.
“You can say there’s a certain zeitgeist right now,” Mitchell Orenstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said at an Atlantic Council event this month. “There are many people in Europe, as well as in the United States, who are certainly not being paid by the Kremlin and yet are taking pro-Russian stances on foreign policy.”
“The danger is not only that there are agents of influence,” Orenstein said. “The danger is winning the hearts and minds of quite a lot of people in Europe.”
Moscow’s narrative, analysts say, isn’t aimed only at loosening the consensus on EU sanctions against Russia over its armed intervention in Ukraine. The propaganda effort is also an attempt to muddy the waters around controversial domestic issues on the continent, such as immigration and LGBT rights, and to undermine the EU by portraying it as an unwieldy and incoherent governing body.
“The target audience is precisely the people who have a certain distrust toward the elite or the established opinions,” said Sijbren de Jong, a strategic analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.
“One of their most popular tactics is to consistently, whenever they do something wrong — and they very often do — to point out that the others are just as bad,” de Jong said. “They know we tolerate dissenting voices, whereas they don’t, so they make ample use of this.”
The resolution passed on Wednesday recommended that EU institutions monitor sources of financing for anti-European propaganda. It called for beefing up task force powers to highlight disinformation tactics and for asking the European Commission to provide more funding to independent media outlets. But the report itself doesn’t have much teeth to implement these policies.
Even so, said Anna Fotyga, a Polish member of the European Parliament who oversaw the drafting of the report, said it was an achievement in itself to establish an official EU position and raise awareness among member states. “For the first time, the EU decided to speak in a very open way in areas that were well-known but lacking in description,” she told FP.
Some experts say specialized strategic communication units are the key to making sure disinformation campaigns don’t get free rein to muddy up fast-breaking news narratives. The case of the false “Lisa story” in Germany from January is often cited as a textbook example: Mainstream news media reported allegations that a German-Russian girl had been raped by migrants in Berlin before German authorities had time to verify the information and respond. When the story was debunked, subsequent accusations of a cover-up — even fueled by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — led to large protests.
A year ago, the EU established a disinformation task force, East StratCom, that employs 11 mostly Russian speakers who scour the web for fake news and send out biweekly reviews highlighting specific distorted news stories and tactics. So far, the newsletter has 20,000 readers each week. Last week, the EU parliament voted to increase its funding.
But the impact of such initiatives remains unclear in an internet age where people cocoon themselves in information bubbles to reinforce their strongly held views. East StratCom currently doesn’t have enough resources to measure public impact and can only count the number of subscribers and Twitter impressions its work generates.
It can also be tricky to calibrate a response beyond pointing out disinformation that doesn’t overstep the bounds of free speech and democratic values. After all, EU politicians and experts say there is little point to fighting propaganda with propaganda or conspiracy theories with more conspiracy theories.
“It’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking that Russia is behind everything, and is everywhere, and is 10 feet tall,” Wesslau said. “The risk is that we overreact and take measures that undermine our open societies.”
Latvia and its large Russian-speaking population walked the edge of the dilemma this year. The country temporarily restricted Russian media three times in 2016, citing examples of hate speech and warmongering, including TV personalities who accused Ukraine of “undertaking genocide against Russians” and urging viewers against negotiating with Ukraine and instead to “destroy it militarily.” The content was still accessible online, but Una Bergmane, a researcher at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, said the ban was more a statement of values and less an attempt to completely shut down the flow of information.
“How effective that is, we don’t know yet,” she added.
Other experts say pointing out false information emanating from state-sponsored outlets like Sputnik and RT is low-hanging fruit. They say the Kremlin’s web of influence runs much deeper and requires significant steps to increase transparency and expose individuals or groups receiving Russian money.
“StratCom usually captures these very blatant kind of lies, but you have this more subtle influence through ownership,” said Ruslan Stefanov, a director at the Bulgaria-based Center for the Study of Democracy. He recently released a report attempting to chart the relationship between money and Russian influence, and recommended European countries provide more transparency around media ownership and foreign investments.
Still, others are less concerned that populist foreign-policy stances are swaying voters. Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech Republic’s energy security ambassador-at-large, called Russian propaganda “ineffective” and said voters were more interested in the economy.
“What they are selling is simply not something people want,” he said. “I mean, they spend billions of dollars on building a TV network, RT, radios, online magazines, influence — and what do they get for it?”
On the other hand, underestimating the potential effects of Russian disinformation would be “naive,” Polyakova, the Atlantic Council co-author, said.
“The EU project right now is teetering, and what Russia is doing is stirring the pot,” she said. “This is the time to act to reinforce democratic institutions to respond to disinformation by countering it and also investing in our own principles and values.”
Ultimately, the spread of fake news and the rise of populist voices echoing Kremlin talking points are reminders for the EU to look in the mirror, said Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe.
“It is easy and necessary to criticize Russia and advocate a robust response to its disinformation,” he said. “But we should, I think, also state at home and understand what is so dysfunctional about our own democracies that enables such obvious lies to gain traction.”