Russian resurgence: how the Kremlin is making its presence felt across Europe
Coming off the early shift at Hungary’s sole nuclear power station, on the Danube south of Budapest, Jozsef, a 30-year-old turbine engineer, is grateful to have a relatively secure job that pays considerably more than the national average.
Hungarians have never been big fans of the Russians. But Jozsef knows whom he has to thank for his job security – , the Russian president, who is making a rare visit to an EU country with a trip to Budapest on Tuesday.
sealed a deal last year with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to build reactors at the Paks power plant in return for €10bn (£7.4bn) in tied credits. Orbán has been one of Putin’s most consistent supporters within EU circles.
But it is not only in that the Russians are back. All over Europe, and particularly in central and southern Europe, the Kremlin is making inroads at a time when relations between Russia and the west are at their most tense and brittle in the post-communist era.
Russia is actively projecting its influences in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, and has been noticeably cultivating ties with parties on the left and right further west in .
In Hungary, there were no tenders nor a bidding war for the nuclear project, no public debate. Hungarians first learned of the news from Russian websites. “I only know what I see on television. I don’t know how the deal was done,” Jozsef shrugs.
“I did not know about it,” admits Attila Azódi, the Hungarian energy commissioner and a professor of nuclear engineering. “There were definitely reasons for that, if you look at the international situation. You have to ask the prime minister to understand the details.”
The Russians already supply 80% of Hungary’s natural gas. If things go to plan at Paks, in a little more than a decade Russian technology and expertise will also be supplying 56% of Hungary’s electricity.
Orbán appears entirely comfortable with that dependency. He is the leader of a country in the EU and Nato, but voices only contempt for western “liberal democracy” and holds up Putin as a leader to be admired and imitated.
When John McCain, the US senator, challenged him last year on his pro-Moscow leanings, Orbán, said a source who witnessed the exchange, replied: “I don’t care what you think. You don’t matter. Russia matters because of energy. Germany matters because of jobs.”
In Budapest, the Putin-Orbán bonding will be reinforced in what is only the Russian leader’s second state visit to an EU country since the Ukraine conflict broke out a year ago. The first was , where he was also sympathetically received by a government stridently opposed to EU sanctions on Russia.
If Ukraine has turned into the battleground between east and west, Budapest often feels like the conflict’s playground. Websites and social media hum with Russian propaganda, conspiracy theories and paranoia. The neo-fascist Jobbik party, second biggest in parliament, is avowedly and loudly pro-Russia, its most senior member in the European parliament .
“It’s surprising how open the Russian influence is,” said Péter Krekó, a Hungarian analyst at the Political Capital consultancy. “It’s not hidden. We are exposed. The Russians are making complete fools of us. Orbán has become a puppet of Putin. He thinks he can play east against west.”
Moscow’s influence extends far beyond Hungary. The Putin regime is bankrolling France’s National Front on the far right. On the hard left, it has whose leftwing foreign minister has said Greece could be Russia’s “military and economic ally”.
In Serbia and Bosnia, Russian politicians, military, and energy lobbies are said to be calling the shots, influencing policy, and disrupting both countries’ hopes of joining the EU.
Senior European and American diplomats and officials are also convinced, without supplying hard evidence, that the Russians have infiltrated, or are helping to fund, NGOs campaigning in Europe against fracking and the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and the US, and that they have also been quietly encouraging the Scottish and Catalan secessionist movements in Britain and Spain.
The talk among policymakers in European capitals struggling to counter what they see as the slick Kremlin operations aimed at dividing and enfeebling Europe is of “Putin’s useful idiots”.
Through its skilled and lavishly funded television, propaganda and social media operations, the Kremlin is influencing the arguments over , often winning over European public opinion.
“It’s beyond irony,” said a senior figure in the European commission in Brussels. “You can hear Putin say he had to act in Ukraine to stop fascism, while he’s financing fascists right, left, and centre all over Europe. We’re naive in the west.”
Another commission official dealing directly with Russia said: “These developments are part of an overall strategy going way beyond the conflict in Ukraine. The nationalist rhetoric has been developing in Russia for years. In helping the far right, the aim is to undermine our values and fundamentals. It’s very worrying.”
In cultivating the far right and the hard left in Europe – between them they now control more than a quarter of the European parliament – Kremlin strategists are activating a policy that is at least a decade old, say Russian experts.
“Links between Russian nationalists and the European far right go back to the 1990s,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic who researches far-right movements, citing Russian figures such as the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky or the neo-fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin. “The major difference is that in the 90s the cooperation was done by individuals and groups, and they did not really think the state would benefit.”
The Russian state became interested in cooperation with the European far right as early as 2004, he added. Elections in Kremlin-backed breakaway states such as Abkhazia or Transnistria, in Georgia and Moldova respectively, would be observed and validated by far-right politicians from the EU.
There was an ideological component to the partnership, given the increasing social conservatism of the Russian elite – homophobia, anti-immigration, opposition to the EU, anti-Americanism.
Konstantin Malofeev, a wealthy Russian oligarch, Putin-backer and extreme nationalist who has said Ukraine is an artificial creation, appears to be a central figure in the funding and wooing of Russian support in Europe.
He funded and attended a lavish event in a Habsburg palais in Vienna last year for leaders of the European far right, ostensibly devoted to marking 200 years since the alliance between the Russian tsar, the Austro-Hungarian emperor and the king of Prussia following Napoleon’s defeat.
Malofeev has been blacklisted by the EU for his role in Ukraine – he helped finance and supply the pro-Russia insurgency, some of whose leaders were his former employees – and cannot now travel to Europe. As he could not attend a wedding in thrown by an oligarch friend, he invited the entire party of 90 to his estate south of Moscow in October. The attendees included Panos Kammenos, the new Greek defence minister and leader of the nationalist Anel party – Tsipras’s junior coalition partner.
Thewedding details emerged from a batch of 700 emails of a diplomat at the Russian embassy in Athens, hacked in December . The emails reveal Russian diplomatic contacts with Greek and Italian neo-fascists.
They also show Nikos Kotzias, the new Greek foreign minister, corresponding with Dugin, a key Putin ideologue and extreme nationalist. Kotzias started his job as foreign minister a fortnight ago, .
Previously, as a politics professor at Piraeus University, Kotzias organised several studies and polls on Greek attitudes to Russia. He concluded that many Greeks were disenchanted with their western allies and inclined to favour Russia. “For Greeks, Russia is a potential military and economic ally whom they respect and seem to know relatively well,” he wrote, according to the hacked emails.
Alexander Lebedev, the Russian businessman who owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, says it is not always clear whether wealthy Russian ideologues cultivating politicians in Europe are acting on direct Kremlin orders or just currying favour with the regime.
“You can never tell whether they are trying to read the mind of their bosses in advance or whether they have been told what to do,” he said.
But a €9m loan to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France from the Russians – disclosed a couple of months ago – could only come with strings attached, said Lebedev.
“What is the point of giving such a loan? The only way the party can repay the loan is by doing something politically.”
A Putin ally and MP from his United Russia party in Lyon in November, in which he claimed Russia better understood the European people. “The will of the people of European countries is being subsumed by the will of a few little-known officials from the EU who in reality are simply American puppets,” declared Andrei Isayev.
“In Russia, we think that democracy should respect the rights of the minority, but should mainly be about the will of the majority, which is based on traditional values. I am certain that in Europe, the vast majority of people would agree.”
Le Pen would agree – as may Nigel Farage, of Ukip, who has voiced his admiration for Putin. But at present Orbán matters more because he heads a strong government with an unassailable two-thirds parliamentary majority and no opposition to worry about.
In the past year, he has purged around 200 diplomats from the Hungarian foreign ministry. Those remaining, say disgruntled former officials in Budapest, have been asked to detail the timings and contents of past contacts with US diplomats.
“Now, like in the old days, it’s an advantage for a Hungarian diplomat to have studied in Moscow,” said Krekó.
“It is clear that Russia is providing support for all these political parties all over central and eastern Europe,” said Tamás Lattmann, a law professor at Budapest’s National University of Public Service. “This is a very serious problem because when they get a certain amount of presence, if nothing else, then they can at least block, for example, the sanctions against Russia.”
Alone among western leaders, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has warned recently that in his drive to divide and weaken the EU from within, Putin is also targeting aspiring EU members in the Balkans.
Twenty years after the Bosnian war ended, the Russians for the first time abstained in November on a UN vote extending the EU peacekeeping mission in Sarajevo.
Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political analyst, told Radio Free Europe: “I do not mean military intervention, there are not going to be little green men in the Balkans. But in his attempt to disunite Europe, I believe that Putin can very well instrumentalise the lack of political stability and economic prosperity ... they see the Balkans as a place where they can use their power to disrupt.”
As Putin goes to Budapest for what has become a rare experience – being welcomed by a friendly EU government – the turbine engineer in Paks is aware of the contradiction, but is not bothered by it.
“Hungarians are prejudiced against the Russians,” said Jozsef. “But people are happy about the Russians being back here.”
Additional reporting: Kim Willsher in Paris and Daniel Nolan in Budapest