The Kremlin's Campaign to Make Friends; Communist? Right-Wing Nationalist? Sure! the Kremlin Is Courting All the European Allies It Can Find

By Matthews, Owen | Newsweek, February 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Kremlin's Campaign to Make Friends; Communist? Right-Wing Nationalist? Sure! the Kremlin Is Courting All the European Allies It Can Find


Matthews, Owen, Newsweek


Byline: Owen Matthews

Vladimir Putin knows how to make friends and influence people. It takes charm, a little anti-Americanism, a dollop of conservative family-values ideology, some visionary-leader atmospherics and, of course, money. Over recent years the Kremlin has been busy deploying all these tactics and more to attract, or in some cases to rent, allies across Europe. Now, with the West uniting against Russia, the Kremlin has ordered that campaign expanded. With Russia's economy nose-diving in the wake of EU and U.S. sanctions and falling oil prices, bringing influential Westerners over to Russia's side has become essential, politically and economically.

"Overall the plan is to have a way to subvert European unity, and ultimately Euro-Atlantic unity," says Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a study of the world of Kremlin propaganda.

Despite the annexation of Crimea, a bloody six-month separatist war in eastern Ukraine and crackdowns on gays, journalists and opponents at home, Russia can still boast some powerful European friends. Czech President Milos Zeman has condemned EU sanctions against Russia and called the conflict in Ukraine a "civil war;" French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who still heads the powerful center-right UMP party, said earlier this month that Europe should formally approve ceding Crimea to Russia. Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban believes Europe's "prevailing ideological winds" are "blowing from the East" and sees in Russia an ideal political model for an "illiberal state," which he admires. Orban welcomed Putin to Budapest this month, despite thousands of pro-European demonstrators who marched, symbolically, from Budapest's Eastern train station to its Western one.

Perhaps most oddly of all, Greece's new radical leftist Syriza-led government, chafing under the EU's economic constraints, has turned to right-wing Russia as its savior. "If there is no deal [with the EU] then we will have to go to Plan B," Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said recently. "We have other ways of finding money. It could be the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could be China." According to Nikos Chountis, Greece's deputy foreign minister, Moscow has already stepped forward with "proposals, offers I would say, for economic support."

Russia has been courting Syriza for some time. In May 2014, Alexis Tsipras--now Greece's prime minister--was received in Moscow as an honored guest by Valentina Matviyenko, chair of the upper house of Russia's parliament. Since then, Tsipras has echoed the Kremlin line that the government in Ukraine is composed of "fascists and neo-Nazis," supported separatist referendums in eastern Ukraine, and this month repeated Greece's opposition to more European sanctions against Moscow. Nikos Kotzias, a former professor at the University of Piraeus who is now Greece's foreign minister, is also close to Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose doctrine of "Eurasianism" combines a mystical, anti-Western philosophy with Russian ultranationalism. In December 2014, a Russian hacker group named Shaltai Boltai released a trove of emails linking top Syriza leaders with Dugin and Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who has bankrolled the separatist movement in Ukraine.

Russia's new friends come from a wide--and bewildering--variety of backgrounds. But they all have two things in common: a disdain for the European Union, and a dislike of U.S. hegemony. Most are also social conservatives. "Everyone from Venezuela to China who believes the West is degenerate and rotted by homosexuality has Putin as their poster boy," says Daniel Hannan, a prominent eurosceptic Member of the European Parliament for South-East England.

Some, like Zeman--age 70 and a fluent Russian speaker--are old Communists who have made friends with Russia's new capitalists. Zeman's Party of Citizens' Rights, for instance, was openly backed by Martin Nejedly, the Czech representative of Russia's Lukoil company. …

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