From Russia with Disruption

As Vladimir Putin’s party consolidates power the confirmation that the Kremlin was behind the destruction of a commercial airliner underlines the threat Russia poses to Europe.

By, Desmond Molloy SAR ’19

Even strongmen need popular support. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has become infamous worldwide for his ruthless suppression of dissent, poisoning some political rivals and jailing others, he still relies on the Russian working class to back his nationalistic agenda. So it came as a relief to the Kremlin when September elections for the Russian Duma (Parliament) reinforced Putin’s United Russia party, which gained 105 seats. The celebration was somewhat muted a week later. After two years of investigation, a Dutch prosecutor confirmed long-held suspicions that Russia had supplied pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine with a surface-to-air missile used to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines flight, killing nearly 400 passengers (1). Thousands of people have died in the Ukrainian conflict, which began when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula after the Maidan revolution of 2014 and sent undercover troops into the largely Russophone provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia’s use of force on its neighbors has faded from the headlines this year. But the election will change that. Emboldened by his party’s electoral prowess, Putin is likely to ramp up a longstanding policy of incrementally undermining European unity by any means possible.

If the recent election had been decided by the issues that usually take center stage in a democracy, United Russia might now be in the minority. Growth has been stagnant for many years and has grown worse as European Union sanctions incurred by Russia’s adventurous foreign policy have devastated the country’s fossil fuel exports. Alcoholism and intravenous drug use have metastasized into epidemics. Nevertheless, Putin has managed to remain in power by exploiting nationalist passions (2). He has emphasized the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church as a mainstay of Russian society, publicly rejected “Western values” such as freedom of speech and secularism, and convinced Russians that they are under attack at home and abroad.

Putin’s approach is clearly on display in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Shortly after Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in the Maidan revolution of 2014, Russian national broadcaster RT began to spread rumors that the Russophone minority in Ukraine’s industrial east was facing mass persecution by Ukrainian nationalists (3). As Moscow supplied arms and soldiers to the pro-Yanukovych rebels in the border provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, facilitating the creation of a splinter state known as “Novorossiya” (New Russia), TV viewers at home were told that the mass violence engulfing their neighbor was the product of quasi-fascist forces in Kiev, supported by Brussels and Washington. While the violence in eastern Ukraine has fallen off this year, Russian propaganda continues unabated. RT continues to warn the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) that they are at risk of genocide and the Kremlin has indicated a willingness to insert itself into Baltic affairs if it feels doing so will advance Russophone interests (4). By perpetuating the narrative of a Russian-speaking world under attack, Putin may strengthen his political hand even as his constituents’ quality of life continues to decrease.

Further west, Russian money and influence is being used to create similar nationalistic fervor in the European Union. In France, the rightist Front National (FN) received up to 9 million in loans from a bank with Russian ties during the last round of national elections in 2014. Russia came closest to success, however, in Greece. The leftist Syriza party, which took power in 2014 among widespread discontent with the EU’s insistence that Greece implement austerity measures as a precondition for debt relief, is quite friendly toward Russia. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for the EU to end sanctions shortly after taking office, and his colleagues in the European Parliament opposed action against Moscow following the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine (5). Syriza has lost its momentum since a controversial debt-relief referendum in 2015, and is no longer a reliable ally for the Kremlin. But as the future of the European Union becomes less and less certain following Brexit, parties sympathetic to Russia are likely to see their political stock increase. Nor is Europe the only area where Russia has been able to undermine opposition to its adventurous foreign policy. The recently concluded United States presidential election was marred by Russian intervention. Hackers affiliated with Moscow spread fake news across the American Internet, boosting the victorious campaign of pro-Russian Republican nominee Donald Trump (6). The unfavorable results of the MH17 investigation and more recent criticism over Russian policy in war-torn Syria both seem unhelpful for Putin. But the appearance of strength at home, and a support network abroad, are likely to shelter him from the consequences. United Russia’s prolonged electoral success is a product of a long-running campaign to make nationalism the dominant flavor in Russian politics. They are likely to stick to the script going forward.

  1. Government of the Netherlands, Ministry of General Affairs. (2016, September 28). Response PM Rutte to JIT presentation of criminal investigation MH17 [Press release]. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from https://www.government.nl/topics/mh17-incident/news/2016/09/28/response-pm-rutte-to-jit-presentation-of-criminal-investigation-mh17
  2. Aron, L. (2016, September 16). Election Day for Putin’s Russia. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.aei.org/spotlight/election-day-for-putins-russia/
  3. Ostapenko, R. (2015, January 29). The Success of Russia’s Propaganda: Ukraine’s ‘Banderovtsy’. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://cambridgeglobalist.org/2015/01/29/success-russias-propaganda-ukraines-banderovtsy/
  4. Kara-Murza, V. (2015, January/February). Russia and the Baltics: Once Friend, Now Foe. World Affairs Journal. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/russia-and-baltics-once-friend-now-foe
  5. Pulse poll shows conservatives have 8 point lead over SYRIZA. (2016, September 28). Kathimerini. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.ekathimerini.com/212377/article/ekathimerini/news/pulse-poll-shows-conservatives-have-8-point-lead-over-syriza
  6. Timberg, Craig. “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread Fake News, Election Experts Say.” The Washington Post, November 24, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Photo Credit: NBC News