No one should doubt that the Kremlin will try to meddle in the European Parliament elections at the end of May. However, those who expect a conspicuous hack-and-leak operation similar to that used in the 2016 US presidential election might be disappointed. Most of the Kremlin’s influence activities in the EU elections will be far more subtle. By using disinformation to continuously undermine trust in Europe’s democratic institutions, the Kremlin laid the framework for these operations a long time ago. Come the end of May, Moscow hopes to reap the rewards of its long-term strategy.
This series will analyze the potential weaknesses that the Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem may try to exploit, the messages and channels that Kremlin media may employ to spread disinformation, and the particular countries that the Kremlin may target. It also aims to cover the European reaction to the threat of Kremlin disinformation campaigns and to glean lessons for future events that Moscow might target. If you would like to propose an article that would fit into this series, or if you have a suggestion for a particular focus, please drop us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This article, the first of the series, considers what the Kremlin seeks to gain from the EU elections.
The Kremlin’s interest in the outcome of the EU elections is evident in many of the warnings issued by European security services. The EU’s anti-disinformation website, EUvsDisinfo, has already launched a communication campaign warning against possible hostile information operations.
The general objective of Vladimir Putin’s regime is to weaken the EU as much as possible. To achieve this, Moscow aims to reduce the share of European Parliament seats held by pro-EU parties and to improve the electoral performance of anti-European and anti-Western parties. The ideology of such parties is irrelevant; the Kremlin does not care whether the parties are far-left or far-right. As the influential Russian thinker and fascist Alexander Dugin described a few years ago: “What we are against will unite us, while what we are for divides us. Therefore, we should emphasize what we oppose.”
In the post-Brexit European Parliament, the countries with the highest number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be Germany, France, and Italy. These three countries together will send more than one-third of all the MEPs. In all of their contingents, the Kremlin can find political allies: AfD and Die Linke in Germany, Marine Le Pen in France, or Salvini’s Lega and Five Star Movement in Italy.
Reviewing the European Parliament as a whole, the mainstream political groups like EPP (European People’s Party, conservatives), ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats), and Socialists should be more or less pro-European. (When it comes to the Socialists, however, there are individuals who may sympathize with the Kremlin.) On the other side of the pro-Western/pro-Kremlin axis, there are groups such as ENF, GUE/NGL, and EFDD that are frequently more loyal to the Kremlin than to the EU. In the new European Parliament, they will most likely be joined by members from Matteo Salvini’s Lega and, potentially, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz. (The latter seems to have increasing conflicts with the conservative yet pro-European EPP.)
According to the most recent Politico opinion poll, the notional pro-Kremlin coalition could send between 150 and 200 MEPs to the European Parliament. Given that over 700 MEPs comprise the body, such a pro-Kremlin coalition would likely not be numerous enough to threaten the ruling alliance of the last decade, consisting of EPP, ALDE, and S&D. It could, however, bring pro-Kremlin and anti-Western disinformation messaging into the mainstream.
The pro-Kremlin media ecosystem might employ the narrative that the elections are rigged to call their legitimacy into question. This narrative is a favorite of the Kremlin, one its media are currently using in their analysis of the Ukrainian presidential election. Similar media employed it a few weeks ago before elections in Slovakia; in 2017 in Germany; in 2016 in the United States and Austria; and in 2014 during the Scotch independence referendum.
Kremlin messaging will denigrate pro-European and pro-Western parties and candidates while lauding pro-Kremlin candidates. The look of these messaging campaigns will vary from country to country. However, there is one larger issue that the Kremlin may target and exploit in many European countries: the migration crisis.
This topic is one of the most divisive in European countries and consistently elicits strong reactions from politicians and voters. Pro-Kremlin media have exploited the emotion generated by the migration crisis many times before.
It is important to highlight one more mechanism used by the Kremlin to spread its desired messaging and obfuscate its role in the disinformation campaign: information laundering. Very often, non-Kremlin actors pick up the Kremlin’s disinformation and spread it among their respective audiences. This phenomenon has been documented in the cases of Beppe Grillo in Italy and President Miloš Zeman in the Czech Republic.
When it comes to migration, the Kremlin has the advantage of media allies who are willing to propagate its narratives. In Italy, the local version of Sputnik helped to polarize the debate about refugees a year before the actual elections. Pro-Kremlin disinformation about migration also frequently penetrates the non-Russian information space. Unfortunately, at least one major European politician has shown a willingness to use disinformation messaging: Viktor Orban’s pre-election campaigning has already been labeled as disinformation by the European Commission.
Whether through unwitting multipliers or committed political allies, the Kremlin wants to maximize the reach of its disinformation narratives that weaken political and social unity in the EU. Having friends in the European Parliament is the easiest way for Moscow to do so. As such, the Kremlin wants the May elections to produce a European Parliament comprised of parties and politicians friendlier than ever to Moscow. To win, Putin does not need a majority in Brussels; he only needs a large enough amalgam of political forces willing to encourage rapprochement with Moscow and skepticism of the Union. If its disinformation campaigns succeed, the Kremlin may be the biggest winner after the polls close in May.