The Cable

Austrian Far-Right Politicians Travel to Moscow to Grease Ties Between Trump, Putin

They reportedly met with Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn in New York last month.

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If Putin can’t mend ties with European governments, he’ll at least always have Europe’s far-right parties. On Monday, the leaders of Austria’s far-right Freedom party, fresh off an election loss, traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian leaders on an unsanctioned “diplomatic” mission.

Heinz-Christian Strache, Freedom Party leader, and Norbert Hofer, the candidate who narrowly lost Austria’s presidential election earlier this month, signed a “working agreement” on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, according to a statement from the Freedom Party. The statement also said Strache visited New York last month to meet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s nominated national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Trump team did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.

Strache in the statement called the Freedom Party a “neutral and reliable mediator and partner” to mend ties with the United States and Russia. He said he hoped to broker an end to the “harmful and ultimately useless sanctions” the United States and European Union slapped on Russia after the onset of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.

The Russian and Austrian parties pledged to exchange their respective experience conducting “legislative activity,” according to Austrian newspaper Der Standard, which obtained a copy of the working agreement.

The Freedom Party’s Moscow trip is just the latest in a growing trend of anti-establishment European parties from across the political spectrum forging ties with Russia. Fringe political parties from France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, have been accused of cozying up to Russia in exchange for financing, though it remains unclear who funded the Freedom Party’s most recent Moscow trip.

But it’s not just Europe. Senior U.S. intelligence officials, including the CIA and FBI, have concluded that Russia meddled in the presidential elections in favor of President-elect Donald Trump.

On Friday, President Barack Obama said his administration will conduct a full review into Russia’s reported hacking of U.S. political operatives during the election. Obama indicated that the hacks were directed personally by Putin. In October, the U.S. intelligence community stated it was “confident” that the Russian government directed hacks in relation to the U.S. elections, and “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

Those revelations didn’t faze the president-elect. Trump, who showered Putin with praise on the campaign trail, dismissed the allegations as “ridiculous.” The potential for a U.S.-Russia rapprochement under Trump may explain the Austrian Freedom Party’s maneuvering to become a go-between for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Other anti-establishment parties have had success bypassing traditional diplomatic channels to reach the incoming Trump administration: Brexiter Nigel Farage, whose leadership of Britain’s UKIP party helped spur London’s divorce from Europe, has been in close touch with Trump during and after the campaign.

Intelligence officials worry that European countries are next on Russia’s electoral hit list. Germany’s intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maassen warned in November that Russia could sway the country’s upcoming 2017 federal elections by falsifying media stories.

If there were any such hijinks in Austria during the most recent elections, though, they didn’t work. Pro-European Union candidate Alexander Van der Bellen beat Hofer in Austria’s presidential election 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent on Dec. 4; the first, vote, in May, was so close it had to be done again. Had Hofer won, he would have been Western Europe’s first elected far-right head of state since World War II (though Austria has flirted with rightists in 1999 and 2003, including the formation of coalition governments including Jorg Haider, then head of the Freedom Party.)

Hofer gave an interview to Russian state-funded media outlet RT on Dec. 16 urging Europeans to forge a new friendship with Russia. He’s not the first to make an RT cameo. In 2015, Michael Flynn gave a paid speech at RT’s annual gala dinner, seated at a table with Putin. Flynn defended the move, straight-facedly comparing the state-run Kremlin mouthpiece to American news outlets like CNN or MSNBC.

Photo credit: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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