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UE: POL 110HA - (Reynolds, Spring 2018): How Putin Undermines Democracy

Condoleezza Rice's Democracy

How Putin Undermines Democracy

How Putin Undermines Democracy

Russia’s actions to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and help then-presidential candidate Donald Trump win were similar to its activities to build a network of far-right political parties and movements in Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is using this network to advance his policy objectives at home and abroad.

In this effort, Russia is motivated by both the desire to lead a conservative revival against Western liberal democracies and a flawed interpretation of recent waves of popular uprisings against autocratic rulers that sees an American conspiracy behind them.

Putin has adopted a deliberate strategy to directly challenge the liberal international order led by the United States. That global system helped end the historical pattern of devastating wars among major powers and brought much of the world an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity since the end of World War II.

It has been 25 years since the conclusion of the Cold War, and many Americans have lost touch with the value of the military and political alliances that helped the United States prevail in that conflict. Russia has not.

And even though it remains weak relative to the United States, Putin’s Russia is aggressively pursuing its objective to divide those political alliances to help regain its strategic position in Europe.

The bond between the United States and European democracies, forged during the last 100 years, is built on the shared values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Putin’s Russia rejects all of those values.

Putin oppresses or jails his political opponents, sends his assassins to murder dissidents who leave Russia, uses state-run media to suppress dissent and stifle the independent press and mocks the rule of law as he enriches himself and his associates at the expense of the Russian people.

Putin is now trying to export his brand of leadership. He has formed an alliance with many European far-right political parties and their leaders, who have delivered consistent adherence to Russian interests even when it contradicts some of their previous positions.

This backing of Putin is hard to explain unless it is in exchange for Putin’s overt and covert support. These far-right parties are capitalizing on economic and security crises in Europe to build popular support and now operate as a fifth column that is undermining the Western liberal order from within.

President Donald Trump’s unwavering support for Putin and his pursuit of policies that advance Russia’s goals show disturbing similarities to the European far right that are equally difficult to rationalize.

This report examines Russia’s efforts to support far-right parties in Europe; identifies the ideological and strategic motivations for its actions; and provides case studies on seven political parties in six countries that either have held elections recently or will hold them within the next year. The report also includes key findings and recommendations that are summarized below.

Key findings

  • Russia’s covert influence operations are not simply mischief. Rather, they are a deliberate strategy to achieve its domestic and foreign policy objectives through unconventional means that has ideological, political and strategic support from a broad section of leading Russian intellectual, government and military figures.
  • Russia deploys an array of tools to help its designated partners—actions that range from the relatively benign practice of elevating the profile of European far-right leaders to disinformation, propaganda, alleged illicit financing and covert influence operations.
  • Russia, in return, obtains a strikingly consistent level of support from these far-right nationalist leaders, who all praise Putin as a strong leader. They promote Russian policy objectives, even if doing so works against their own national interests, with these parties having no prior history of backing similar actions unrelated to Russia.
  • Trump is following the same playbook as the Russian-backed far-right European leaders, adopting eerily similar language and pursuing the same policies that advance Russia’s objectives, even when they are inconsistent with previous Republican policy positions. Trump or top Trump administration officials even met with four of these far-right European leaders during the presidential campaign or during the transition.


  • Keep in place sanctions imposed on Russia, both for its actions in Crimea and for targeting the U.S. election, if Russian-influence operations continue in Europe.
  • Impose new sanctions on Russia if it interferes in upcoming European elections.
  • Congress should pass legislation imposing sanctions on Russia if the Trump administration is unwilling to act to punish and deter Russia.
  • Congress should require the director of national intelligence to submit an annual report that details Russia’s influence operations targeting democracies.
  • NATO should form a Committee on Democracy to develop strategies to protect the integrity of democratic institutions in member states.
  • Establish a joint U.S.-EU Commission on Protecting Democracy to share information and develop strategies to defend against Russian attacks on democratic institutions.
  • Create a bipartisan, independent commission to thoroughly investigate and issue a public report on Russia’s actions targeting the U.S. presidential election.
  • Appoint a Special Counsel to investigate Trump officials, since the American people can have no confidence the Trump administration can be trusted to investigate itself.

The shared values of Americans and Europeans have again made them a target for those who reject those values. Just as governments and populations on both sides of the Atlantic rallied in mutual defense of our security following terrorist attacks in Paris; San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida; and Berlin, we too must rise to meet the common challenge to our democracies.

To be sure, this is not the beginning of a new Cold War with Russia. However, if we fail to take action to protect the core institutions of our democracies, we will weaken ourselves and strengthen our adversaries, making future conflict more rather than less likely.

Continued 2


The ideological basis for Russian support of the European far right

Russian intellectual Alexander Dugin is the main architect of the neo-Russian imperialism called Eurasianism. In a series of lectures, articles and books, Dugin has sought to “rehabilitate fascism in Russia.” 1 He has borrowed from obscure 19th- and 20th-century political theories, adopted a sympathetic interpretation of Nazism that attempts to separate it from the Holocaust and sought to thwart what he and many Russians believe is a conspiracy led by the United States to contain Russia. 2 Dugin has called for a “Russian spring” and the domination of Europe through Ukraine. 3

Dugin views Russia as leading a Eurasian conservative revival that, according to scholar and political commentator Matthew d’Ancona of Queen Mary University in London, “supports tradition against liberalism, autocracy against democratic institutions [and] stern uniformity against Enlightenment pluralism.” 4 The conservatism that Dugin describes is, in his words, “not the same as the U.S. version, which values a small state. Here, conservatives value undivided political power, with economic power rooted in and subordinate to it.” 5

Eurasianism takes these ideological foundations and overlays them onto a geographic interpretation of political conflict. For Dugin, most of history can be lumped into a conflict between a more liberal maritime alliance, called Atlantis, against the conservative land-based Eurasian societies. 6

This is shockingly similar to the fictional dystopian totalitarian states of Oceania and Eurasia in George Orwell’s 1984. This is no accident, as Orwell and Dugin drew inspiration from similar historical theorists, although Orwell viewed with horror what Dugin seeks to build upon. 7

Dugin’s book The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, “became a pole star for a broad section of Russian hardliners,” according to Russia scholar Charles Clover. 8  John Dunlop, an expert on the Russian political right at the Hoover Institution, says of Dugin’s book, “There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted a comparable influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elites.” 9Dugin’s views are certainly consistent with Russian military action in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria during the past two years. 10

In Dugin’s 2009 book, The Fourth Political Theory, he seeks to create a defining ideology for Eurasianism, which is, in his words, an alliance from “Lisbon to Vladivastok,” which is a “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism.” 11 It calls for a “global crusade against the United States, the West, globalization, and their political-ideological expression, liberalism,” and ultimately, “the American empire should be destroyed.” 12

Dugin began building a network of contacts among Europe’s far right in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He traveled to France in 1989 and then again in 1992, where he forged connections with at the time still young National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen. 13 Dugin hosted conferences with National Front officials through the 1990s and 2000s, and one official even joined the editorial board of his journal, Elementary14Dugin’s ties to the Italian far right are more extensive, with close links between Italy and Russia during Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s tenure, “enabl[ing] the synergy between Italian and Russian far right groups.” 15

In the United States, however, Dugin is practically a complete unknown, and when he is mentioned, as he was recently byNew York Times columnist David Brooks, he is typically described as “Putin’s ideologist” or something similar. 16 But according to Marlene Laruelle, editor of the recent book Eurasianism and the European Far Right, Westerners must avoid “the trap of assuming that Dugin is Putin’s “guru” and that the relationship is “more a marriage of convenience than one of true love.” 17

Regardless of how deep the bond goes, the reality according to Laurelle is that “in Europe the Kremlin has recently acquired more or less the same allies that Dugin has cultivated for more than two decades.” 18

Putin’s motivations for supporting the European far right

Putin is no radical ideologue. He is a ruthless strongman who, during his first two terms as president, was more defined by pragmatism than recklessness. 19

And it’s not completely gone. Russia simultaneously worked with the United States and other Western powers to secure the Iranian nuclear agreement, while at the same time Putin was involved in a major confrontation with those same powers over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea. This differentiation of approaches with Western powers shows Putin still has a pragmatic streak.

It is clear that something changed in Putin from how he governed through his first two terms ending in 2008, prior to winning a new term as president in March 2012. He has taken a far more aggressive approach in his third term than he had previously. Russia’s brazen move to invade and annex Crimea and to directly intervene in Syria are the prime examples.

There are likely many causes that stretch well back into the history of post–Cold War U.S.-Russia relations, but three events clearly shaped how Putin would see the threats to Russia and what tools he could use to combat them.

The first is the series of popular movements that overthrew autocratic regimes in three former Soviet republics, known as the color revolutions. These all occurred while Putin was president during the first go-round—the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. 20

The Russians do not view these uprisings as spontaneous events, but rather as part of a conspiracy by the United States and European countries to challenge Russia’s near abroad—the independent states that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In 2014, scholar Anthony Cordesman attended a Russian government security conference at which the Russians presented the view that the color revolutions represented “a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties.” 21

The second event was the Arab Spring, another wave of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread in 2011 to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. 22

The Russians, according to Cordesman, hold a view of the origins of these revolts that is similar to their view of the color revolutions. From the same conference, he says, “[k]ey Russian officers and officials presented a view of the US and the West as deliberately destabilizing nations in North Africa, the Middle East, and the rest of the world for their own ends.”23

And finally, in December 2011, there were protests around Russia’s parliamentary elections that witnessed approximately 25,000 people on the streets of Moscow, an unprecedented show of opposition to Putin that had not occurred since he assumed the presidency in late 1999. 24

These protests clearly shook Putin, and he intimated that the United States was behind the uprising and was following the same playbook as it had in the color revolutions and the Arab Spring. He even accused then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving opposition leaders “the signal,” who then “with the support of the US State department began active work.” 25

This cemented Putin’s animosity toward Clinton, which was one of the drivers behind his aggressive push to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

As the conference that Cordesman attended made clear, Putin was not alone in his assessment of the United States and the West fomenting popular unrest in countries as another means of warfare.

In 2013, the Russian military chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, developed a new theory of what he described as nonlinear war based on the belief that the color revolutions and the Arab Spring were a new model being employed by the United States to achieve its foreign policy objectives. 26 Gerasimov wrote that the “role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” 27

Gerasimov’s analysis, often called the Gerasimov Doctrine, is not really a doctrine and was never intended to be one. 28 Its tenets were certainly deployed to great effect during the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the subsequent fighting in eastern Ukraine. 29 But it is not as if Russia has abandoned more traditional forms of military force, such as the intervention in Syria. 30

All of this came together during a new round of popular unrest in Ukraine that began in November 2013, following its withdrawal from an association agreement with the European Union and ultimately forced the pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014. 31

That prompted Putin to go into action, organizing a plan to, in his words, “begin the work to bring [the Ukrainian region of] Crimea back into Russia.” 32 Since then, Russia’s relationship with Europe has not been the same.

Putin is using this new tool kit to achieve very specific goals. First, he is seeking allies to provide him political cover that can be used both domestically and internationally. This network of “far-right political leaders praise Putin’s aggressive foreign policy in public,” according to Alina Polyakova of the Atlantic Council. 33 Representatives of far-right parties have served as election observers in Crimea, recognized Crimea’s annexation and spoken out against Western governments encroaching on Russia’s interests. 34

The second Putin objective is to use these far-right parties to weaken political consensus in the West and undermine the institutions that support the liberal international order that Russia views as a threat.

As Antonis Klapsis, former visiting fellow at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, writes, “Pro-Russian far-right parties can act as Trojan horses for the Kremlin in its attempts to undermine the internal cohesion of the EU and NATO.” 35

One need look no further than the successful campaign by pro-Russia Nigel Farage and his U.K. Independence Party to get Britain to withdraw from the European Union. This burgeoning fifth column will be examined at length in the next section.

Pro-Russian European far-right political parties

Some of Russia’s activities in support of far-right political parties occur in the open and are typically legitimate forms of international engagement, even if they are pushing policies and messages that are inconsistent with liberal democratic values.

The Kremlin arranges large international conferences, mostly in Russia, to bring together like-minded political leaders from across the continent to share strategies, messages and tactics. It seeks to elevate far-right leaders—and obtain a measure of political cover—by inviting them to high-profile meetings with Russian leaders. It gives far-right politicians airtime on its television networks. And, in some cases, it has even provided indirect financing.

The tool kit does not end there, however, and Russia frequently engages in influence and propaganda operations targeting public debate and the political process. Disinformation campaigns using fake material are also sometimes used. Additionally, there are allegations that several European far-right political parties receive covert funding from Russia, although no public evidence has emerged to prove those charges and the parties involved deny it. 36

What follows in the wake of these activities is a striking alignment among these far-right parties in favor of Russian objectives. There is near-universal praise of Putin as a strong leader. Each of these parties denigrates its domestic political leadership and European institutions in eerily similar language. They all support lifting EU sanctions on Russia even though there is little, if any, evidence that they have opposed other EU sanctions or any clear indication of the benefits for their own countries.

These parties blame the European Union and NATO for precipitating the Ukraine crisis. They back Russia’s actions in Syria and its so-called fight against the Islamic State. Researchers at the Institute for Modern Russia have calculated that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who belong to the pro-Russian Europe of Nations and Freedoms group vote in favor of Russian interests 93 percent of the time. 37

There is far too much consistency in these positions across these parties for it to simply be the result of ideological convergence or admiration for Putin’s leadership style. When assessed in the context of the Kremlin’s interpretation of the color revolutions and the Arab Spring, it appears there is a strategy unfolding of Russian overt and covert support for far-right parties that then become a fifth column helping advance key Russian objectives from inside Russia’s European adversaries.

The following sections examine seven far-right parties in six countries, each of which had major elections in 2016 or have upcoming elections in 2017 or early 2018. This is not the complete list of countries and parties that the Russians are targeting; rather, this list focuses on countries in Western Europe with recent or upcoming elections. Russian influence operations appear to have targeted, or are targeting, each of these countries around their elections, and far-right parties are gaining ground in each of these nations.