Russia in Europe: A New Game, An Old Playbook

By Absalom Sink

Things fall apart; the centre looks less like it’s able to hold, as the European Union continues to be buffeted by the widening gyre of euroskeptic nationalism. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the rise of the European far-right isn’t exactly organic. In fact, you’d almost need to be willfully ignorant in order to miss the signs of Russian influence. The Kremlin has a well-established habit of supporting right- and far-right euroskeptic political parties and movements in Europe and beyond. In the short term, Russia’s goal is to agitate for the lifting of sanctions imposed on it following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But its long-term goals are no less transparent: Russia wants to weaken NATO and the EU, and reestablish its hegemony over former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin did, after all, call the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

Hence, Russia’s support for nationalists, particularly the euroskeptics: illegal funding for Italy’s Lega Nord; the Ibiza scandal involving Austria’s far-right deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache; potential links between Russia and Germany’s AfD, the official opposition party; the miraculous loan from a mysterious Russian bank that kept Marine Le Pen’s Front National afloat in 2014; the list is long, and that’s without even touching on the likelihood of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2016 United States presidential election. Still, if we remove the latter two—obviously huge wins for Russia if they tipped the scales in either case—the win-loss record is decidedly mixed. While Lega Nord did end up in a ruling coalition Italian government, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron, and the Ibiza affair led to Strache’s resignation in Austria, to say nothing of apparent far-right failures in a handful of other European states recently.

But Russia’s record is spotty only if we count a Russian victory as being the installation of a sympathetic party in those countries. In reality, the Kremlin may be playing a much more nuanced game, one that instead harkens back to the Great Powers competition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before World War I, European states sought any advantage they could to tip the continental balance of power. An increasingly common tactic over that period was to back anti-colonial nationalist movements in opponents’ colonial empires, as a way to force that opponent’s focus inward. The Russian Empire themselves supported Armenian and Kurdish nationalists as a way to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. Nazi Germany revived the practice during World War II, hoping to undermine the British war effort by supporting Indian and Arab nationalist movements.

Remember, Russia’s goal is the disruption of the NATO and EU status-quo. In that regard, anything that weakens either is a point for Russia. The Kremlin certainly would have benefitted from a victory by Marine Le Pen, but it would be naïve to think that they haven’t benefitted simply from the uncertainty and political polarization that came with the contested 2017 French election. Even the renewed majority government that Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS)—famously frosty in its relations with Russia—won earlier this month is something of a minor victory for Russia, given PiS’ euroskepticism. If the Kremlin’s playbook in Europe is a throwback to those pre-WWI great power tactics, Putin and pals’ implementation is remarkably effective.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and roses for Russia. Their short-term goal of getting economic sanctions lifted is seeing little success. And even though Putin still looks to have his strongman hold over the country, “the shrinking economy, the shrill nationalism as a distraction from internal decay, an inward-looking elite feuding over the division of spoils while taking its monopoly on power for granted” might be signals of a crumbling grip, that some new revelation is at hand. If that’s the case, it yet remains to be seen what rough new beast will slouch towards Moscow to be born.

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