European Elections in 2017: Is Myth of the Omnipotent Russia Over?

Feeling this momentum, 2017 was mentioned as the year of change and revolutions by pro-Russian populist politicians such as Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega Nord, and Viktor Orbán, the PM of Hungary. There were widespread fears that the „populist international” with Russia, European populists on the left and right, and probably Donald Trump together can change the course of history and reverse the postWWII world order, which is based on globalization, multilateralism, free trade, and the dominance of liberal democracies.

These elections made Moscow more confident than ever before about her abilities to orchestrate political processes in Europe. The fact is, though, that we can see in all of these cases obvious Russian fingerprints in the campaigns – but in neither of these cases it can be proved that the election results were a direct consequence of Russian interference. Still, European populists and Moscow have both become overconfident and drive themselves to the comfortable, yet self-deceiving world of grandiose delusions. The year 2016 has led to the misconception, both in Moscow and the West, that Moscow plays a dominant role in influencing the European politics.

Russia Does Not Have a Strong, Controllable Ally in the Netherlands

Of course, the year is not over. However, the results of the Dutch and the French elections did not prove the notion that populists are overtaking the leadership of these countries – nor that Russia can be efficiently orchestrating elections.

Russian interference was rather moderate in the case of the Dutch elections in March. Here, Russia did not have a clear preference towards any particular candidate, despite the reserved pro-Russian sympathies among the radical-left Socialist Party, the radical-right PVV of Geert Wilders, and the movement of the political newcomer Thierry Baudet. While pro-Moscow disinformation campaigns clearly played an important role in the 2016 Dutch referendum where the Dutch voted against the Association Agreement with Ukraine, it was rather because the fears over EU enlargement and the Easterner hordes could have been exploited in the campaign.

The year 2016 has led to the misconception, both in Moscow and the West, that Moscow plays a dominant role in influencing the European politics.

Still, Russia does not have a strong, loyal, controllable ally in the Netherlands (like Marine Le Pen in France) that could have been worth to invest in, and the downing of the MH17 just made pro-Putinism a hard political product to sell. Still, the Dutch authorities warned before the elections that Russian misinformation aims to modify the results of the election – while Netherlands is not a country that is traditionally hostile towards Russia. The result of the election was the re-election of Mark Rutte, who follows a hardliner stance against Russia, especially since the MH17 plane catastrophe led to the death of almost two hundred Dutch citizens.

Putin´s Support Was Not Very Helpful to Le Pen

French presidential election was an even clearer refutation of the notion that Moscow is omnipotent in defining the outcome of the elections in the West. The Kremlin tried its best to change the vote, running the “anyone but Macron” strategy (pitting Fillon and Le Pen against Macron) and even trying to undermine the results with cyberattacks at the last moment. Le  Pen shook hands with Putin in Moscow late March before cameras – when it was rather obvious that she cannot win. And given that Putin is not really a popular figure in France, it was not very helpful.

The center-right candidate François Fillon, the far-right Marine Le Pen, and the far-left Mélenchon were all calling for better French-Russian relations and the abolition of the sanctions, so Putin could have thought— before the meteoric rise of Macron—that he could only win with this election. Yet in the end, the only serious candidate that Moscow did not want to win came first.

The Kremlin tried its best to change the vote, running the “anyone but Macron” strategy and even trying to undermine the results with cyberattacks at the last moment.

Furthermore, Moscow could make a hawk from a dove. Macron, a moderate compromise-seeker towards Russia at the beginning, who called for the possible abolition of the sanctions on his visit to Moscow not more than a year ago as an economic minister, changed his position totally on Russia as a consequence of the aggressive smear campaign run against him. And while a meeting between the two leaders is approaching, it is highly unlikely that Putin will be able to break the ice of distrust.

Putin has managed to establish good relations with two French presidents in the past, both of whom were rather reserved towards Russia in the beginning: Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. However, a brutal disinformation campaign against the new head of state, in which Macron was depicted as a gay Jewish US agent, is not a good beginning for a reset after the poisoned relationship with François Hollande. And Paris matters, both economically and politically.

As German Bundestag elections approach, Russia can do even more to alienate its other most important European ally. In fact, it already did a lot. The strong and obvious effort of Russia to weaken chancellor Merkel since the beginning of the refugee crisis via all kinds of active measures— such as exploiting the refugee crisis, supporting the radicals on the margins of both the right and left, launching a lot of fake news about refugees and their victims, and politically weaponizing the Russian diaspora in Germany—made the overall political mainstream in Germany strongly reserved towards Russia.

The strong and obvious effort of Russia to weaken chancellor Merkel since the beginning of the refugee crisis via all kinds of active measures made the overall political mainstream in Germany strongly reserved towards Russia.

Beforehand, “Putinverstehers” in all political sides were the most dominant in shaping bilateral relations. The “Moscow-Paris-Berlin triangle” that Marcel van Herpen described as Putin’s traditional strategy to keep Europe more distant from the United States seems to totally fade away politically, with Moscow doing its best to make it possible to return.

With building up the “populist international,” Russia seems to alienate its possible allies in the mainstream – who, contrary to the expectations, are not going to disappear from one moment to another. Putin, in his overconfidence following the series of “victories” in 2016, seems to have strongly miscalculated the chances of a populist breakthrough. If he does not change Moscow’s aggressive strategy, the result can be a diplomatic self-destruction with further isolation – and no chance of raising the sanctions on the horizon.

Péter Krekó

Péter Krekó is the Director of Political Capital Institute in Budapest, a think-tank based in Budapest. His research areas are political risk analysis of the countries of the CEE region, analysis of comparative attitude survey databases and political psychology. He regularly serves as commentator on the leading international media. His publications include: A Russian spy in Brussels, The Conspiratorial Mindset in Europe, Russian Influence, European far-right and Putin, a Hungarian Putin?

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