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Putin’s Strategy is Divide and Conquer

Vladimir Putin

Russia’s support for far-right parties in Europe is part of a pragmatic, long-term strategy to fragment and weaken the European Union. Putin can condemn “fascists” in Ukraine and applaud far-right European parties in the same breath because, for the Kremlin, anything that undermines a united Europe is a good thing. Since Stalin, Russia’s foreign policy has been more pragmatic than ideological. Right and left make no difference: Putin’s goal is to sow dissent and discord within Europe’s ranks and erode the unity of the EU.

The exact scale of Russian support to far-right European parties is unknown. In 2014, France’s National Front — the Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant party led by Marine Le Pen — received a $10 million loan from the First Czech Russian Bank, an institution run by an oligarch close to Putin. The National Front had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and the Russian loan was crucial to securing its victory in the 2014 European Parliamentary elections. Le Pen is now one of the leading contenders for the French presidency in 2017. If Le Pen wins, Putin will have an anti-NATO, anti-EU ally in Paris who owes him a favor.

The Eurosceptic and anti-NATO forces are already working in Russia’s favor — all Putin needs to do is nudge them along. Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has visited Russia several times since the ascension of his left-wing Syriza party in January, receiving a warm welcome from Putin and his entourage of oligarchs every time. Last March, the leaders of a dozen far-right European parties met in St. Petersburg to pay homage to Putin’s militaristic foreign policy and bigoted domestic policy, perhaps hoping to receive some loans of their own.

In addition to Russia’s scheming, a rebirth of nationalism has accelerated Europe’s internal fragmentation. Scotland’s referendum on independence last year came in at a nail-biting 54-46, and the independence movement has promised to hold another referendum as soon as possible. Then there’s the upcoming British referendum on whether to continue the country’s EU membership, scheduled to occur before the end of 2017. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on a “Brexit” is closely connected to the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage. UKIP, like France’s National Front, is a staunchly anti-EU party that has had its relationship to Russia called into question as well.

Russia’s Game Plan Isn’t About Sanctions

European foreign ministers agreed in July to extend economic sanctions against Russia for another six months. Commentators had speculated that Russia’s overtures to Athens and other EU countries were to secure a veto of the sanctions — intended to punish the Kremlin for its support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. That’s plausible enough as a theory, but it ignores Kremlin’s long-term strategy: to weaken the EU to such an extent that it can never again longer pose a serious threat to Russia. It’s in Russia’s interest to neutralize the EU as an economic power and NATO as a military giant completely. Grexit, Brexit, Ukraine’s demonization, and the rise of anti-Brussels parties across Europe all serve Moscow’s political and economic interests. A non-EU Greece would be a linchpin for Russia to evade European sanctions. A France led by Le Pen would be an anti-EU ally. An independent U.K. would be effectively neutralized. A failed Ukrainian state would ruin Europe’s plans of containing Russia.

Indeed, the crux of the Kremlin’s attention has been focused on destabilizing Ukraine (and by proxy, Europe) specifically by empowering its own geopolitical Trojan horse: the separatists that have made the Donbass their home. After the annexation of Crimea, the Russian propaganda machine was deployed in defense of the Novorossiya project that aimed to extend a land bridge from the Russian mainland to Sebastopol via Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa.

Even before the rebels abruptly retired the Novorossyia project in May, the damage done to Ukrainian unity seems irreversible. Currently, Donbass residents are seen by both public and official opinion as second-class citizens or worse, as Russian sellouts.

However, unlike Euroskeptic parties, whose final showdown is the ballot box – and who, despite their appeal, have so far failed to occupy the political center and emulate the big-tent strategy, Ukraine’s Putin-backed separatists are kept in power through a combination of external financing and weapons. The rebels enjoy marginal support in the Donbass; a May poll showed that more than half of respondents saw Novorossiya as a political machination meant to break up Ukraine.

But these facts have failed to make themselves heard in Kiev, where the elites have been calling in recent days for a “full blockade” on the Donbass.

Such a course of actions would be misguided to say the least. Were the blockade to go ahead, Ukraine would be playing into Russia’s own strategy to permanently divide and weaken Ukraine and nudge it perilously close to a failed country status. Civil society has stepped in to bridge this dialogue gap. For example, Restoring Donbass, an apolitical project that seeks to enforce Ukrainian unity by stopping the humanitarian crisis in Donbass and restarting the region’s economy, has made strides in devising a new economic strategy for the region. Other initiatives like this are sorely needed.

On July 7, Russia delivered an unexpected blow to the separatists, after it announced it has cut electricity supplies to Donbass, citing missed payments as a reason. It’s unlikely that this event will put Russia on the defensive as there are no reasons to suspect that Moscow has had a change of heart. After all, the Kremlin’s goal is to seek to block Ukraine’s EU orientation by fanning the flames of a low-level conflict that drains the cash strapped government in Kiev of both finances and legitimacy. The Greek referendum on austerity, the Scottish referendum on independence, the upcoming British referendum on EU membership and the increased popularity of anti-EU, anti-NATO parties — all point to a crisis moment for a united Europe. Putin doesn’t have to do much to speed up Europe’s fragmentation — the EU and Ukraine itself are doing a great job of that already. The course has to be reverted. Now.

This post has been updated.



James Nadeau

Originally from Maryland, James Nadeau is a European affairs advisor and foreign policy analyst currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His writings have been featured in The Kyiv Post, The Hill and RealClearWorld.