EU leaders to discuss Russian political meddling

EU leaders are to discuss covert Russian funding of far-right and fringe parties in Europe in light of intelligence findings that show that Moscow is interfering in European domestic politics.

Amid deteriorating relations with President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s bombing of Syria, concerns that the Kremlin is meddling in national politics in Europe will be discussed at this week’s EU summit in Brussels.

The EU debate on Russia, scheduled months ago, comes a fortnight after Washington accused Moscow of interfering in the US presidential election by directing cyber attacks on American politicians and parties.

Citing growing anxiety in Europe about Russian financial support for far-right and populist movements, senior EU diplomats told the FT that the intelligence agencies of “several” countries had stepped up scrutiny of possible links with Moscow.

For security and political reasons, intelligence findings are not centrally shared between European member states. But a senior diplomat involved in preparations for the talks in Brussels said there was evidence in some cases to substantiate suspicions of Russian involvement.

“It’s a serious concern. It becomes an existential concern,” the diplomat said. “It’s all about situational awareness. We don’t have the tools to look centrally.”

EU leaders will discuss all aspects of Europe’s relationship with Russia at a private dinner on Thursday, the part of their regular two-day summit meetings traditionally reserved for the most sensitive discussions.

Opinion against Russia has sharpened since the attacks on the Syrian city of Aleppo, quashing the prospect of a push to dilute economic sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Italy, Hungary and Greece are among the countries that have questioned these sanctions in the past.

Moscow has long denied meddling in Europe, but several European diplomatic figures have cited concerns over secretive Russian efforts to disrupt and distort political debate.

“Russia is obviously not the mastermind behind the rise of populism in Europe but it’s clear that Russia is embracing it and, in some cases, actively supporting populist movements and far-right parties with pro-Russian sympathies,” said Fredrik Wesslau, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.

“Moscow sees these populist parties as useful allies in pursuing its objectives in Europe, such as ending economic sanctions or undermining European support for Ukraine.”

European concerns about covert Russian activities are shared by the US. In laws enacted last December in Washington, the US intelligence chief was instructed to assess “the funding of political parties and non-governmental organisations in former Soviet states and countries in Europe by the Russian security services.” On Sunday US vice-president Joe Biden suggested the Obama administration may launch a retaliatory cyber strike against Russia in response to what Washington believes to be interference in this year’s election

In France, anxiety intensified after Marine Le Pen’s National Front received a €9m loan in 2014 from a Russian bank said to be close to Mr Putin. Further questions were raised a year ago when the European Parliament stripped immunity from an MEP from the militant ultranationalist Hungarian party, Jobbik, so prosecutors could pursue an inquiry into whether he spied for Russia.

Russia is obviously not the mastermind behind the rise of populism in Europe but it’s clear that Russia is embracing it

European diplomats also saw reason for concern in a Dutch referendum this year that rejected an EU trade deal with Ukraine, despite deep suspicion of Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

Threat assessments published by the national security agencies in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia routinely refer to Moscow’s involvement with local pro-Russian groups. Last June, the Czech government accused Mr Putin of trying to “divide and conquer” the EU by supporting rightwing populist politicians across the bloc.

In a report last week, a Washington-based research group said Russia has mounted a campaign of covert economic and political measures to manipulate the governments of Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Latvia, all EU member states. The Center for Strategic and International Studies said Russia had also targeted Serbia, which is not an EU member but hopes to join.

The report said Russia has co-opted sympathetic politicians in these countries and made attempts to dominate energy markets and other economic sectors.

No policy conclusions are expected from the EU summit. Diplomats say the question of any response is riddled with difficulty, not least because of the covert nature of Russia’s activities.


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