A regular attack launched at Donald Trump in the recent US Presidential election campaign was his worryingly warm attitude to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, more serious was accusations of Russian hacking and complicity in various scandals through the campaign.
At the beginning of this year, it was reported that American intelligence agencies were conducting an investigation into how the Kremlin is influencing politics across Europe. There are major fears in US intelligence that the Russians are determined to exploit European disunity to undermine NATO, block US missile defence programs and revoke sanctions put in place after Russia’s actions in Crimea.
These alleged activities are not exactly unique to the US and there is increasing concern across Europe that Russia is attempting to play a more active role in elections.
Currently, Russia is in a very volatile place, economically damaged by a fall in commodity prices, Russia is also being punished by the EU for its secretive activities in Ukraine through a series of sanctions including trade embargoes and the freezing of the bank accounts of many of Putin’s allies.
In addition to that, the world is watching on as Putin’s forces put their full weight behind propping up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The horrendous images emerging from Aleppo showing the full extent of the carnage rained down by the Russian air force.
Faced with the prospect of ever worsening relations with near neighbours in Europe, it appears that the Russians either directly or indirectly have been trying to influence the outcome of elections in a number of states both inside and outside the EU.
An example of Russian influence on internal European political events was showcased in the Netherlands in April. Dutch citizens were asked to vote on the Trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine. The Dutch far left and far right arguably used this referendum to undermine the elected centre right, economically liberal government.
The Washington Post reported that there has been a large amount of Russian disinformation spreading in the Netherlands over the last few years with many of the “no” campaign’s arguments, literature and even photographs being sourced directly from Russia Today and Sputnik.
Russia agreed a deal in 2015 with Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to build reactors at the Paks power plant in return for €10 billion in tied credits. Orban has been one of Putin’s strongest supporters in the EU.
Hungary was the venue for only the second visit by Putin to an EU country since the conflict in Ukraine broke out. The arguably fascist leaning second largest party in Hungary (Jobbik) is firmly pro Russia, with its most senior member of the European Parliament being accused of being a Russian agent. Hungary is also littered with pro-Russian propaganda websites.
Ex-Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, recently resigned claiming that “We have the strong involvement of foreign factors when it comes to the process of Montenegro’s parliamentary elections.” A recent attempted coup allegedly had links with the Democratic Front, a pro-Russian political alliance in Montenegro which is Mr. Djukanovic main political opponent.
A Montenegrin prosecutor said unidentified Russian nationalists were behind the Election Day plot to assassinate the country’s prime minister and take over power because of his government’s NATO membership bid. The Kremlin has denied involvement.
Ahead of the German Federal elections next year, the head of the German intelligence service has gone on record as saying that he fears that Russia is “interfering” in campaigns. Hans-Georg Massen in an interview to Reuters recently echoed comments made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which she warned of Russian cyber-attacks and a disinformation campaign in the run-up to next year’s election.
Berlin also suspects Russia to be behind a number of cyber-attacks on German institutions, including a massive attack last year on the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, as well as separate attacks on the headquarters of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
In France, pollsters predict that Marie Le Pen’s Front National could win between 24-30% of the votes during the 2017 presidential elections. According to News 24, the massive growth of the Front National has coincided with a cash transfer of at least €9 million euros from the Russian Federation via the First Russian-Czech Bank in 2014. Information leaked this month revealed that due to the Front National being unable to receive loans from French and other European banks; they are currently in negotiations to receive a loan sum of €24 million euros from Russia.
In Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, a Russia-friendly newcomer to politics, won last Sunday’s presidential election by a wide margin, prompting centre-right Prime Minister Boiko Borisov to promise to resign. Radev entered Bulgarian politics on a wave of discontent with the ruling centre-right’s progress in combating corruption, disappointment with the European Union and concerns among voters over alienating an increasingly assertive Russia.
A former air force commander, Radev has argued Bulgaria needs to be pragmatic in balancing the requirements of its European Union and NATO memberships while seeking ways to benefit from a relationship with Moscow.
Radev has not advocated Bulgaria abandon its Western alliances, mindful of the financial impact of EU aid and the country’s long history of divided loyalties. But he has called for an end to EU sanctions against Russia and said Sofia should be pragmatic in its approach to any international law violations by Moscow when it annexed Crimea.
This week in the Seanad I raised my concerns that the Irish Government may, unwittingly, be supporting Russian state sponsored propaganda. Television station Russia Today is funded by the Russian Government to sum of $309 million in 2016, it has offices around the world including in Dublin. The worrying thing, in my opinion, is that their Dublin office is based in the Digital Hub. Based in Dublin’s Liberties, the Digital Hub is a state funded agency under the auspices of the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Environment. The Digital Hub is meant to be an incubation centre for emerging enterprises in the digital and media arena.
While there is no doubt that Russia Today, not broadcast in Russian, comes under media, I must query if the Irish Government should be essentially subsidising a channel has been sanctioned by Ofcom no less than 15 times being accused repeatedly seeking to deliberately mislead viewers by use of a political agenda.
Based in Dublin Rathdown, Senator Neale Richmond is the Government spokesperson on EU affairs in Seanad Eireann.