By Corey Cooper
A modern strain of populism is currently metastasizing across the European Union, threatening to turn political establishments upside down and reverse the process of European integration. These European populists are uniform in their Euroscepticism, opposition to globalization, and xenophobia. If elected in the upcoming Dutch, French, and German elections, these populists and their policies could further destabilize the European Union. Russia is supporting the populist candidates in these elections because their proposed policies would weaken and divide the European Union and, as a result, allow Russia to pursue its geostrategic interests more freely.
From Russia’s perspective, it is in the country’s national interest to back Eurosceptic populists, as they are likely to support, or at the very least not oppose, Russia’s foreign policy goals in Eastern Europe. Russia has sought to assert its influence in these elections by forming direct and indirect relationships with populist candidates and by engaging in cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns that target mainstream candidates, parties, and institutions. The Kremlin is assisted in these efforts by a network of hackers, news organizations, and individuals. In the fast approaching European political contests, Moscow is using its instruments and affiliates to favor specific candidates in a manner similar to its interference in the US presidential election.
The Dutch parliamentary elections on March 15 will be the first test for Europe’s populists this year. Compared to other forthcoming elections, the Kremlin’s level of involvement in this election is limited, although Russia does have a vested interest in the results. Dutch intelligence officials claim Russia has attempted to hack servers belonging to the Dutch government and its agencies, which is why the ballots will ultimately be counted by hand. In an April 2015 referendum, Russia waged a disinformation campaign designed to dissuade Dutch voters from accepting a trade agreement with Ukraine. It is expected that a similar campaign will attempt to influence the outcome of this election. Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who has been called the “Dutch Donald Trump,” has a real chance of winning the most seats for his populist Party for Freedom, although it remains unclear how he would form a coalition government. While Wilders has not directly aligned himself with Moscow, he does want the Netherlands to exit the European Union, which would please the Kremlin.
In the French presidential elections, scheduled for late April and early May, it is clear that Moscow is backing Front National leader Marine Le Pen. She is a staunch critic of the European Union and has pledged to hold a membership referendum if elected. She has also suggested withdrawing France from NATO. Le Pen has taken a soft stance on Russia; in an interview this year, she argued that “there was no invasion of Crimea” because it “has always been Russian” and called the current EU sanctions regime against Russia “completely stupid.” These stances align with President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. So far, Le Pen has borrowed approximately 11 million euros from Russian lenders and enjoys constant praise from Russia’s state-sponsored news outlets. Meanwhile, her main opponent Emmanuel Macron is being subjected to a barrage of “fake news” from Russian-sponsored media and claims that Russian cyber-attacks have targeted his campaign.
Perhaps the most geopolitically consequential elections this year are the German federal elections set for late September. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been called “Frau Europe,” a tribute to her principled leadership during the 2008 financial crisis and her steadfast commitment to the European project. Since the election of Donald Trump, many have suggested that Merkel is now the leader of the liberal international order. Additionally, she is a strong supporter of the sanctions regime against Russia. Her defeat would be seismic and destabilizing for both Germany and the European Union. Russia and its affiliates are backing Alternative für Deutschland, a populist party that advocates for closer ties to Russia and whose leader, Frauke Petry, has forged relationships with government officials in Moscow. Petry is unlikely to become chancellor, but Moscow’s support for her party may cost Merkel the election. Denying Merkel her fourth term is Russia’s highest priority in the German elections because her leadership is synonymous with the modern notion of European unity. Russian hackers have targeted Germany’s mainstream political parties previously and disinformation and cyber attacks are expected to play a role throughout this election as well.
The dismantling of the European Union is a goal shared by Europe’s populists and Putin, but for different reasons. The populists say they want to reclaim sovereignty for their respective countries. The Kremlin, on the other hand, views a fracturing European Union as a means to achieve its foreign policy goals, particularly in Ukraine, because the current sanctions regime is unlikely to hold without collective European resolve. Absent the threat of political and economic reprisal from a united Europe, Russia would feel emboldened to act more aggressively in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. If Russia is able to influence the outcome of even just one of these upcoming elections in its favor, it will succeed in considerably weakening European unity, which will have serious consequences for traditional European values and geopolitical interests.
Corey Cooper is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a Research Associate in US Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Corey earned his BA in International Studies from American University in 2016. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own.