Spies, disinformation, and ‘fake’ MEPs: How the Russians are helping the far-right

The recent farcical Russian elections are a reminder that democracy is a very precious gift from the past and requires eternal vigilance to maintain, especially in these strange times when a hard nationalist right seems to be drawn moth-like to the Putin flame. 

Right-Wing Watch

With the European Parliament elections just two months away, Russia it seems, is up to its old tricks, using every dirty tactic in the election war chest to undermine the EU’s unity and democracy and, ultimately, influence European politics.

Efforts have allegedly involved the recruitment of MEPs as ‘influencer agents,’ the financing of far-right groups, and the orchestration of numerous disinformation campaigns online. The alleged interference echoes suspicions about the role that Russia played in helping clinch the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum in Britain. While Russia strongly denies it interfered with the EU referendum, multiple sources argue evidence exists that demonstrates the Russian government attempted to influence public opinion. Though it was ignored at the time, Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s 2018 report on disinformation and fake news, highlighted the impact of the Russian Embassy in London, and state-backed media platforms Sputnik and RT, in supporting the Leave campaigns.

While UK ministers were accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to any Russia interference in the EU referendum, which was the conclusion of a parliamentary Russian Report on the issue, Europe is taking no such chances.

In February, the European Parliament accused the Kremlin of attempting to ‘sow divisions between European citizens,’ while expressing its complete outrage and grave concern’ about the continuous efforts by Russia to undermine European democracy through various forms of interference and disinformation. 

Russia is no stranger to targeting EU elections. During the 2019 elections, European Commission analysis found that the Russians used ‘continued and sustained disinformation activity’ to undermine the EU’s democratic legitimacy and sow public anger.

But with ambitions to weaken support for Ukraine, some argue that Russia’s efforts this year are especially intense. Anton Shekhovtsov, a Vienna-based Ukrainian political scientist who studies connections between the far-right in Europe and Russia, notes:

“Their main target will be to undermine as much as possible political and public support for Ukraine. They will use, most likely, scare tactics… saying that people or politicians who help Ukraine are dragging societies into a war with Russia.”

Analysts warn that the efforts could result in victories for MEPs who do not support giving aid to Ukraine or who are even pro-Russian.

Voice of Europe

News broke this week that a Russian-backed ‘propaganda’ network has been dismantled for what authorities in several countries claimed was spreading anti-Ukraine stories and paying unnamed European politicians. Citing intelligence sources, the Czech media reported that politicians from Poland, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands were paid by the Voice of Europe news site. Pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch and ally of Putin, Viktor Medvedchuk is alleged by the Czech Republic to be behind the network. The Czech ministry said that Medvedchuk, who was transferred to Russia in 2022, had been covertly financing the Czech-registered Voice of Europe’s influence operations ahead of this year’s European Parliamentary election, including financial support for European politicians. Artyom Marchevsky, was also named by Czech authorities, who reportedly managed the day-to-day business of the website. Both men were sanctioned by Czech authorities.

“This decision is in the security interest of the Czech Republic, as well as contributing to the protection of the democratic nature of the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament,” the Czech foreign ministry said.

The Voice of Europe website has its roots in the Netherlands, as reported by Dutch daily NRC. According to the newspaper, an entrepreneur linked to the site at the time “worked with” far-right leader Thierry Baudet in 2016 “to bring about the Ukraine referendum.” The report referred to a nonbinding vote in which voters in the Netherlands opposed a political association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. 

On its YouTube page, Voice of Europe features a number of EU lawmakers that belong to far-right Eurosceptic parties, committed to demeaning the Green Deal, attacking Ukraine, and forecasting an imminent collapse of the EU.

The Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that Russia had approached MEPs and “paid [them], to promote Russian propaganda.”

Talking to Politicos’ Brussel Playbook, the European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, called the revelations “very troubling.”

“We can’t afford to be one step behind Putin and his propaganda army on a chess board … We have to constantly bear in mind he will use the disinformation and foreign interference as a weapon to divide Europe.

“It is just a bitter joke to call this operation of Russian interference the ‘Voice of Europe’ but it shows clearly the level of contempt Putin has towards our democracies,” said Jourová.

Russia’s disinformation network has links to the far-right in Europe. Last week it was exposed that two MPs with Germany’s far-right AfD party, which currently has nine MEPs, and believes Europe must resume cooperation with Russia to ensure peace and prosperity, has alleged links to the pro-Russia propaganda network.

Senior Alternative for Germany officials are reportedly going to quiz Maximilian Krah, the party’s lead candidate for June’s EU Parliament elections, and Petr Bystron, a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament in Berlin, over their alleged links to the Europe-wide, pro-Russia disinformation network.

Both Krah and Bystron deny wrongdoing, but the German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said that the investigation into the influence network had dealt an “important blow” to Russian disinformation.

The fact that leading AfD politicians have repeatedly appeared on the Voice of Europe website shows that “Putin friends are repeatedly allowing themselves to be harnessed here and made part of the Russian propaganda apparatus,” Faeser said.

Meanwhile in France, authorities are investigating a former far-right MEP over allegations that he led a campaign to promote Russian interests ahead of the elections. Jean-Luc Schaffhauser has well-established links to Russia, having reportedly organised two loans to Marine Le Pen’s National Front party. One 9.4m Euro loan made in 2014 came from a Russian bank.

A disinformation battleground

As part of its EU Under Pressure series examining major issues ahead of the European elections, Investigate Europe points to Russia’s disinformation battleground. French researchers, for example, recently detected 193 websites criticising the West and promoting false claims about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In January, a major pro-Russian disinformation campaign was unearthed in Germany, which found that around one million tweets were sent from 50,000 fake accounts in just four weeks. The posts criticised the German government and its support for Ukraine.

In Italy, where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has adopted a staunchly pro-Ukraine position, a ‘Russia-Italian’ friendship network has been launched. An investigation by the Financial Times found the network aims to advance Russia’s political narratives at a local level. In February, the Italian media reported that in 2022, the country’s right-wing populist League Party renewed a five-year agreement with Putin’s United Russia party to facilitate the “expansion and deepening of multilateral cooperation and collaboration” between the two countries.

Even in Spain and Portugal, pro-Russian propaganda agendas are gaining a footing. In Spain, the right-wing campaigning organisations HazteOir – Make Yourself Heard – and CitizenGo, which are known for promoting anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-feminists agendas, have reportedly received funding from oligarchs with close ties to Moscow. In Portugal, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, which was created by decree by Putin in 2007, as a government-sponsored organisation committed to promoting the Russian language and Russian culture worldwide, has, as Investigate Europe reports, built a strong presence. For several years, the foundation has run study centres at three Portuguese universities. However, in 2023 the universities cut ties with the group following public pressure and criticism from the EU over the group’s advancing of ‘pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian propaganda.’

But despite the many examples of attempts by Russia to influence on the EU and European politics, its actual influence remains largely unknown. It could even be said that, despite their best efforts, Russian infiltration of European politics is failing, given that on February 29, MEPs voted overwhelmingly to support Ukraine, with “whatever is needed for Kyiv to win its war against Russia.’

But can the same be said in Britain, where Russia’s meddling in the Brexit referendum remains debated and ‘officially’ unproven, but where it is claimed that evidence exists which proves the Russian government attempted to influence British opinion into voting to leave the EU?

In his A vote for Brexit was a vote for Putin report, Jon Danzig, a former investigative journalist at the BBC, lists the ‘mounting evidence’, that there had been deep involvement and interference by Russian ‘agents’ whose aim was to destabilise the EU by enabling Britain’s departure from it.’ The evidence includes the 400 fake Twitter accounts which were believed to be run from St Petersburg about Brexit. Both the Guardian and the Telegraph made the fake accounts and concerns with claims about Russia’s meddling with the referendum front page splashes. The Times meanwhile reported:

‘Russian Twitter accounts posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently coordinated attempt to sow discord.’

The report continued that most of the tweets the researchers had investigated encouraged people to vote for Brexit, an outcome which Russia would have regarded as destabilising for the European Union.’

At the time, Tory MP, Damian Collins, then chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, described the findings as the “most significant evidence yet of interference by Russian-backed social media accounts around the Brexit referendum.”

The Russia Report

In 2020, the long-delayed and highly awaited Russia Report was finally published by the intelligence and security committee. While the report did not explicitly say whether Russia had directly meddled in the UK’s most significant democratic event in generations, it concluded that neither the British government nor the intelligence agencies made any effort to investigate the alleged hacking of the referendum.

£8.4m – the biggest ever political donation in British history, made by British businessman Arron Banks to the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign – cannot be ignored in this discussion. Banks’ close associations with the Russian government are not disputed. His own published accounts of his involvement in the Leave campaign recorded meetings with Alexander Yakovenko, a close association to Putin. Alexander Udod, a Russia spy, was tasked with getting close to UKIP, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks. It was also revealed that Banks had been in Moscow and at least three business deals were offered at the Russian embassy or by Russian agents to Banks and his associate Andy Wigmore. The Russian ambassador and the spy Udod were invited to parties hosted by Banks.

Banks was referred to the National Crime Agency by the Electoral Commission, but Theresa May failed to order the intelligence agencies to help provide evidence. Banks has not been found to have breached electoral law. 

It wasn’t until Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, that the Tory government finally acted on ridding London – aka Londongrad – of dirty Russian money. Boris Johnson was keen to prove to the world that Britain was imposing sanctions against companies and individuals connected to Putin. However, some within the party worried if the government had left it too late. Additionally, in April 2023, an investigation by the Good Law Project found that a year on since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Conservative Party was still receiving large donations from individuals and companies with links to Russia. The investigation found that, since the start of the war in 2022, the Tories accepted at least £243,000 from Russia-associated donors – including at least £61,000 flowing into Tory coffers in 2023 alone.

While it might have taken Russian boots on the ground to spur the UK government to at least look like they were taking action against Russian money and influence, the EU seems to be taking a much more proactive position about democracy being potentially corrupted by the actions of a foreign power.

On March 29, political groups in the European Parliament said they will demand swift action over Russian interference allegations. Following the investigation by Czech authorities which uncovered the pro-Russian influence operation in Europe involving the Voice of Europe platform, the groups are demanding action to shield the institution and its reputation ahead of the EU elections in two months. 

“A full and transparent internal investigation by the President of the European Parliament is now needed,” said Renew Europe Group President, Valérie Hayer.

Bas Eickhout, the Greens co-leader candidate for the European Elections, wants to go a step further, urging “a swift and thorough European-wide investigation.”

“The European elections are in 10 weeks’ time. We need to be sure none of the candidates for these elections are being paid by the Russians,” he told reporters.

Inevitably when dealing with intelligence matters, we enter a murky world. After all, ‘red scares’ have a long and not particularly honourable history – think the fake Zinoviev letter, purported to be a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, head of the Communist International in Moscow, published and sensationalised by the Daily Mail four days before the general election in 1924. Nevertheless, the recent farcical Russian elections are a reminder that democracy is a very precious gift from the past and requires eternal vigilance to maintain, especially in these strange topsy-turvy times when a hard nationalist right seems to be drawn moth-like to the Putin flame. 

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press leaps on Sunak’s warning to ECHR

Appealing to right-wing Conservative MPs who have continuously pushed for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the Prime Minister delivered his strongest hint yet that he could back leaving the Convention.

Talking to the Sun’s Never Mind the Ballots programme this week, Sunak defended his approach to tackle small boats crossing the Channel, but suggested he would be willing to leave the ECHR if it blocked the government’s Rwanda policy.

The following day, the anti-immigration, anti-ECHR, pro-Rwanda policy right-wing press leapt all over the PM’s comments. The Express made it its lead story, asserting the remarks were the PM’s ‘most forthright statement yet on the UK’s future within the ECHR.’

Naturally, the Sun wanted to get a controversial front-page headline out of its self-labelled ‘no-holds-barred grilling’ of the PM in its weekly politics show, and Sunak’s comments on ECHR membership didn’t disappoint. ‘Rishi: I’ll quit Euro court,’ it splashed.

The Murdoch-owned tabloid has long backed the controversial Rwanda deal.

‘It would be a blessing for migrants to go to Rwanda, says Suella Braverman as deal with meddling judges moves closer,’ the newspaper headlined in March 2023.

‘Handing Rwanda an extra £150m IS worth it to slash migrant hotel bill, minister claims as total costs hits £290m,’ it splashed in December.

The Sun’s support of the divisive policy comes despite Rwanda’s poor human rights record being well known, including political opposition to the current regime, dissent and free speech. In January, the government even admitted that Rwanda still has ‘issues with its human right record,’ despite claiming it was a safe country.

As for ECHR, the right-wing newspapers have long expressed their opposition.

‘The Sun Says European judges are a grotesque affront to our democracy – this madness must end,’ preached the newspaper in June 2022.

‘The Sun Says European Court of Human Rights can still dictate our border policy and who we can deport… that must end,’ splashed the newspaper this week.

The pro-Brexit, anti-immigration political tribe and their supporting media have never got over the images of an empty plane returning to the hangar as the ECHR made an eleventh-hour intervention to ground the first planned flight to Rwanda in June 2022.

As for Sunak, he’s probably making such ‘hints’ in a desperate last hour bid to shore up rapidly fading support among the right of his party and to thwart any more defections to Reform UK.

Smear of the Week: Tories sink to new low with fake footage designed to smear the London Mayor

Returning to fake news, misinformation and disinformation, this bizarre attack ad by the Tories takes some beating.

A video posted on the Conservatives’ X account in support of the London mayoral candidate Susan Hall, showed chaotic scenes in a subway station in New York following false reports on gunfire in 2017. The caption accompanying the footage read: ‘Fact: London under Labour has become a crime capital of the world’ alongside a wilting red rose emoji.

Observers quickly pointed out how the scenes were of a New York station and not London, prompting the ad to be withdrawn and replaced with a video with the US subway station scenes cut out.

Sadiq Khan said that Londoners were ‘disgusted’ that Conservatives’ attempts to mislead them. Talking to PA News Agency, he said:

“I’ve been speaking to Londoners today and listening to them, many of them have seen the original video put out by my Conservative opponent, by the Conservative Party.

“They’re disgusted that the Conservatives will try and mislead Londoners.

“It beggars’ belief that you’ve got somebody aspiring to be the mayor of this great city talking down this great city, by using lies, misinformation but also images and pictures from another country, another city.”

Even without the deceptive footage of a city that is more than 5,500km from London, the video is utterly bizarre. Posted in black and white, a menacing narrator with a US accent plucks off some intentionally alarming so-called stats about London under Labour. Taking aim at the ‘Labour mayor master,’ the narrator claims Khan has ‘implemented attacks on driving, “forcing people to stay inside or go underground.”

 “A 54 percent increase in knife crime since the Labour Mayor seized power has the metropolis teetering on the brink of chaos.

“And in the chaos, people seek a desperate reprieve.”

This is another misleading ‘fact’ given that people are less likely to be victims of crime in London than across the country as a whole, as confirmed by the Crime Survey for England and Wales last month. Additionally, London has one of the lowest rates of antisocial behaviour, hospital admissions from gun assaults have fallen in the last year, murder rates have dropped under the last three mayors, and there are fewer incidents of stabbings and gun crime than in other parts of England, as separate analysis has found.

And why on earth is the video so long? 1 min 40 seconds of pure desperation. Wouldn’t 30 seconds have been more impactful? And with Rishi Sunak warning of the dangers of extremism and polarisation just a couple of weeks ago? Someone please, sack the comms team.

Fortunately, such smear tactics are unlikely to pay off. As one dismayed viewer summed up:

“Toxic, dangerous and utterly shameful.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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