Putin’s ever tightening grip on Europe

| April 17, 2019

It is another five years before Vladimir Putin is due to stand down from his now seemingly permanent place as Russian head of state (although who would bet against him finding a way to cling to power). Western Europe, however, should not be popping champagne in celebration just yet – write Louis Auge.

For these final five years, the rest of Europe must remain on high alert. The puppet master in the Kremlin has been pulling Europe’s strings for almost two decades and shows no signs of easing up.

Perhaps Putin’s most publicised strategic interference occurred outside the confines of Europe during the 2016 US Elections. It triggered a comprehensive counterintelligence investigation, producing the now infamous Mueller Report, which has dominated headlines and Presidential Twitter output for the past two years.

This week Putin casually dismissed the final report as if a ‘mountain gave birth to a mouse’. His trivial, nature-themed metaphors should not distract us from the significance of Mueller’s findings.

Digging below the surface, we find that, even though Trump was found to have not directly colluded with Russia, Putin’s hands were hardly left clean. The Kremlin’s influence in the elections was substantial enough for Mueller to indict 25 Russians on various charges that ranged from hacking emails to spreading fake news online.

Back home, the resounding public relations success of Russia’s World Cup last year afforded Putin some much needed breathing room. The intense international scrutiny he had been subjected to after the Salisbury poisoning attacks last year had placed him firmly on the backfoot.

He has benefitted from European political heavyweights being distracted by more pressing concerns: Britain’s Brexit woes, rioting gilets jaunes in France and a German immigration crisis that has nudged Angela Merkel out of the door after thirteen years in power. Tucked away behind his iron curtain, Putin’s campaign of influence has taken on a new lease of life.

The Kremlin propaganda machine has been operating at full force, tightening their stranglehold over Russia’s Eastern European neighbours. Former Yugoslav states in particular have been targeted by a plethora of underhand means.

Take the newly released Russian-Serbian action film The Balkan Line for example. Serbian audiences have borne witness to a subtle retelling of the Kosovo War, reframing Russia as the true heroes of the conflict as they hold off the aggressive bombing campaign of the war-hungry Nato forces.

These blatant acts of disinformation will no doubt advance Putin’s consistent goal – to whip up anti-Western sentiment and further assert Russian influence in the region.

But perhaps even more concerning is the evidence that Putin’s influence is starting to spread further west. Typically liberal, progressive Western democracies, such as the Czech Republic, have begun to stick in Putin’s web. This should make us all take note.

Outspoken Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ concerning proximity to the Kremlin has been turning heads. If it wasn’t for the now almost inevitable indirect Kremlin interference in the Czech elections of 2017, Babis might never have come to hold office. He owes his job to Putin and it shows.

Just last month Russia and the Czech Republic announced a joint project that will look to tap into the markets of third world countries. To many in Europe, a partnership with Putin would be unthinkable. For Babis, it looks like he is paying back a favour.

His murky past does little to silence doubters. Despite Babis’ best legal efforts to supress the story, he was found to have acted as an informer for communist Czechoslovakia’s secret police during the Cold War.

The communist connections do not end there. Today his minority government is entirely dependent on the support of the 15-seat strong Czech Communist Party. After the 2017 election, most other parties had refused to form a ruling coalition with his populist ANO party on account of criminal charges hanging over Babis. The scandal-laden nature of the current Prime Minister’s administration sparked mass public demonstrations in November, when tens of thousands marched on the streets calling for his resignation.

Babis’ populist, Eurosceptic rhetoric has helped drive his people away from the EU and into the outstretched arms of the gleeful Russian President. Putin may count on the right-wing pairing of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini for support, but Babis holds the power to enact real change in his Central European country right now. The effects of his rule will have far more impact in the long-term and may damage the Czech Republic’s standing within Europe irreparably.

The fact that the Czech President Milos Zeman is also great admirer of Putin only heightens Czech susceptibility. Zeman’s support of the annexation of Crimea, and to end sanctions on Russia, is unique for a head of state within the EU.

It is easy to forget that Putin has extended his influence whilst shackled by EU and American sanctions. His impact would be more impressive if it wasn’t so terrifying.

Putin’s former Presidential Advisor Sergei Karaganov summed it up best, ‘We seem to be victorious everywhere.’ With the Czech Republic now seemingly beyond the point of no return, is it now a case of who’s next?

 

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Category: A Frontpage, Politics, Russia

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