Russia’s Influence on Europe’s Political Movements

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By Nastassja Biles

Professor Federigo Argentieri

Professor Federigo Argentieri

On Wednesday, May 31, 2017, members of the Guarini Institute and the International Relations Society attended the international conference “Russia’s Influence Strategy in Europe: Moscow and Europe’s Left and Right Populist Movements,” moderated by the director of the Institute Professor Federigo Argentieri. The discussion revolved around the theme of Russia’s soft power, the fight for influence in Europe and how the EU must respond. The speakers featured in the conference were:

  • Luigi Sergio Germani, Drector of the Gino Germani Institute of Social Sciences and Strategic Studies
  • Fabrizio Cicchitto, President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies.
  • Alina Polyakova, Director of Research for Europe and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC
  • Jacopo Iacoboni, journalist and editorialist for Italian daily newspaper La Stampa
  • Anton Shekhovtsov from the Institute of Human Sciences of Vienna
  • François Géré, President of the French Institute of Strategic Analysis in Paris
  • Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations at the Berlin Office
  • Vineta Mekone, Senior Expert at the Operational Support Branch of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga

Luigi Sermoni talked about Russia’s use of soft power to gain influence, employing methods such as propaganda, collaboration with anti-system movements, the use of specialized experts to influence the opinion of the Russian elite, and the use of Russian intelligence services. He also mentioned Russia’s ideological clash with the “liberal West”, mentioning its more conservative society, and the belief that Russian values are above liberal “anarchy.” He concluded by observing that there is a widespread belief that Russia is seeking to destabilize the EU, a move provoked by the expansion of NATO.

Fabrizio Cicchitto said that Putin has revived tsarist era nationalism, steering towards a neo-imperial regime thus going against the liberal shift that happened in the West. He also reminisced about the time when Putin declared the breaking up of the Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the century. Finally, he talked about power politics and how Russia’s involvement in the Middle East restored its status as a world power.

Alina Polyakova stated that she does not consider Russia’s actions to fall under the umbrella of soft power, but instead under that of coercion and political warfare. She stated that the main goal of the Kremlin is to oppose European integration and NATO expansion, and to have European leaders who are supportive of Russia’s military activities in Ukraine and Syria. The Kremlin’s goal, according to Polyakova, is to create a fragmented political environment in Europe, which would increase the reach of Russia’s influence.

Jacobo Iacoboni agreed with Polyakova that soft power is not the right term for Russia’s actions in Europe. He drew parallels between populism in Russia and in Italy, focusing especially on the case of the Italian Five Star movement. According to Iacoboni, the Five Star movement is utilizing information coming from the Kremlin, which is instrumental in helping the party maintain its political status.

Anton Shekhovtsov talked about Russia’s funding of East Germany after the Second World War in an attempt to stop the national reunification process, as West Germany leaned so much towards Western ideals. He also mentioned how West Germany had a strong far-right movement at the same time in which there was the question of whether or not it should join NATO, stating that if West Germany joined NATO, then Germany would have been forever divided. Finally, Shekhovtsov said that Russia’s actions are attempting to copy what Russia thinks the West is doing to them. In other words, if they think a Western state is planning something against Russia, Russia will instead carry out said action against the Western state.

François Géré focused on French populism and how Russia is using it to spread its influence in Europe. One of his points was the fact that information is used as a weapon in dictatorships, whether that be censorship or releasing false information. Additionally, he stated that populism evolves to adapt to the political environment in which it is generated, that it does not exist in a vacuum. He explored the elements of Russian ideology, which revolve around nationalism, the integrity of the nuclear family, religion, rejection of migration, hostility against the EU and a rejection of globalization.

Gustav Gressel presented on the influence of Russia and populist groups in Germany. He started off by stating that Germany is quite different from the rest of Europe due to historical factors, which affect how much influence populist groups have upon German politics. Another point he made about is that the German radical left fell in love with Russian communism during the late Soviet Union era, and this sentiment still influences leftist populist parties today. Gressel said that Putin’s message was always that Russia is different and must stay different from the other states in Europe.

The final speaker, Vineta Mekone, said that people tend not to recognize propaganda and are therefore unknowingly exposed to biased information. Additionally, she mentioned how fake news and biased information help polarizing groups, thus creating more confrontation which helps authoritative governments keep control.