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 RUSSIA WIELDS AID AND IDEOLOGY AGAINST WEST TO FIGHT SANCTIONS

RUSSIA WIELDS AID AND IDEOLOGY AGAINST WEST TO FIGHT SANCTIONS

The Kremlin’s goal seems to be to sow division, destabilize the European Union and possibly fracture what until now has been a relatively unified, if sometimes fragile, consensus against Russian aggression.

Peter Baker and Steven Erlanger of The New York Times delve into the matter in their article published below.

WASHINGTON - The war in Ukraine that has pitted Russia against the West is being waged not just with tanks, artillery and troops. Increasingly, Moscow has brought to bear different kinds of weapons, according to American and European officials: money, ideology and disinformation.

Even as the Obama administration and its European allies try to counter Russia's military intervention across its border, they have found themselves struggling at home against what they see as a concerted drive by Moscow to leverage its economic power, finance European political parties and movements, and spread alternative accounts of the conflict.

The Kremlin's goal seems to be to sow division, destabilize the European Union and possibly fracture what until now has been a relatively unified, if sometimes fragile, consensus against Russian aggression. At the very least, if Russia can peel off even a single member of the European Union, it could in theory prevent the renewal later this month of economic sanctions that are scheduled to expire absent the unanimous agreement of all member states.

President Obama arrived in Germany on Sunday for a Group of 7 summit meeting at which he plans to rally European allies to stand firm against Russia, especially as violence flares again in eastern Ukraine despite a shaky cease-fire. In the days leading up to his trip, both American and European officials publicly voiced concerns about President Vladimir V. Putin's subterranean - and sometimes more overt - efforts to win allies in the West.

"As it tries to rattle the cage, the Kremlin is working hard to buy off and co-opt European political forces, funding both right-wing and left-wing anti-systemic parties throughout Europe," Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a speech last month at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit."

That is a conclusion shared by Britain's government.

"On the question of Russian money, yes, of course we are concerned about what is clearly a Kremlin strategy of trying to pick off, shall we say, the brethren who may be less committed or more vulnerable in the run-up to the June decision," said the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, last week. "It will not have escaped the Kremlin's notice that this is a unanimity process and they only need one."

Whether the strategy will succeed remains uncertain.

American officials and European diplomats said they were confident for now that the sanctions would be renewed at a European Union summit meeting to be held in Brussels on June 25 and 26. Germany, the union's most dominant member, supports extending sanctions until next January, and smaller nations may be loath to defy Berlin. But there is no appetite for adding more sanctions, as some American officials would like.

Russia's efforts to influence the West have taken on different forms.

Russia has traditionally used its status as an energy supplier to sway customers in Europe, and it is now pressing countries in southeastern Europe, including struggling Greece, to support a new natural gas pipeline project with promises of economic benefits. Russian oligarchs have long kept so much of their money in Cypriot banks that the island nation is seen as a financial outpost for Moscow.

For several years, Russia has paid for a government-sponsored insert in newspapers and websites in 26 countries (including in The New York Times). More recently, it has proposed expanding RT, its international television network, which broadcasts in English and three other languages and delights in pointing out the foibles of the West, to French and German.

American and European officials have accused Moscow of financing green movements in Europe to encourage protests against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a move intended to defend Russia's gas industry. And a shadowy "troll farm" in St. Petersburg uses Twitter to plant fake stories about chemical spills or Ebola outbreaks in the West.

Since long before the Ukraine crisis, money has been a means for Mr. Putin to try to shape events in the West.

After Chancellor Gerhard Schröder stepped down in Germany, he was given a lucrative position with Gazprom, the Russian state energy giant. When President George W. Bush was in office, Mr. Putin asked "would it help you" if Donald L. Evans, Mr. Bush's close friend and former commerce secretary, were given a high-paying Russian corporate job. (Mr. Bush rejected the idea.)

Russia appears to be getting some traction lately in countries like Greece, Hungary, the Czech Republic and even Italy and France. Not only is it aligning itself with the leftists traditionally affiliated with Moscow since the Cold War, but it is making common cause with far-right forces rebelling against the rise of the European Union that are sympathetic to Mr. Putin's attack on what he calls the West's moral decline.

The most prominent example has been the National Front in France, which under Marine Le Pen has confirmed taking an $11.7 million loan from the First Czech-Russian Bank in Moscow, which has been tied to the Kremlin. She has denied a news report that the money was just the first installment of an eventual $50 million in loans to help her party through a presidential election in 2017.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party denied charges of dependency on the Kremlin, allegations made by its left-wing rival, the Social Democratic Party after the Freedom leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, posted pictures of himself and other party leaders at a conference in Moscow that called for an end to sanctions against Russia. Mr. Strache said in a statement that "we are convinced of our neutrality and we do not get financial donations or credits" from Russia.

The German tabloid Bild reported that the anti-euro Alternative for Germany Party had benefited from cheap gold sales from Russia, which the party denied. There have been investigations into some members of Hungary's far-right Jobbik Party for any financial ties to Russia. And there have been similar accusations and inquiries in Bulgaria, with its far-right Attack Party; in Slovakia, with its People's Party; and in the Baltic States, especially with Latvia's pro-Russian party.

Far-right parties seen as aligned with Moscow vote against resolutions in the European Parliament critical of Russia and have sent observers to referendums and elections in separatist-held regions of Ukraine like Crimea and Donetsk, alongside members of some far-left parties like Die Linke in Germany and KKE in Greece.

The Political Capital Institute, a research organization in Budapest, which first documented Russian interest in Eastern European far-right parties in 2009, reported in March that Moscow's interest had now spread to Western European countries as well. It listed 15 far-right European parties as "committed" to Russia.

The institute's report said the newfound affiliations "are not necessarily financial, as commonly assumed," but may involve professional and organizational help. Either way, it said, "Russian influence in the affairs of the far right is a phenomenon seen all over Europe as a key risk for Euro-Atlantic integration."

Carl Bildt, a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden, said the trend was a major concern for Europe. It is "very clear that the Kremlin has every interest in fracturing Europe in whatever ways possible," he said by email. "And it actively seeks to play on every division that it sees."

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has expressed similar worries about what he calls Russia's "ability to employ other instruments of power" besides armed force.

"President Putin considers NATO to be a threat and will look for opportunities to discredit and eventually undermine the alliance," he said in an email forwarded by a spokesman. "Putin's ultimate objective is to fracture NATO."

But Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence officer on Russia and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that with the exception of Ms. Le Pen's party in France, the assertions about Russia financing European parties seemed based more on speculation than facts.

"The question is how much hard evidence does anyone have?" she asked. "And it's useful for the Russians themselves not to refute rumors and maybe even perpetrate some of them. They want everyone to think everyone is corrupt, everyone can be influenced."

Either way, David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state under Mr. Bush and now a scholar at the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington, said he thought that any Russian financing of European parties could backfire by alienating the governing elite in Europe.

"It is a big concern," he said, "but I wonder if at the end of the day they're going to shoot themselves in the foot and waste this money."

 
 
 
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