An expert's point of view on a current event.

Europe’s Extremists Are Not Putin’s Fault

Europeans should look to Brussels — not Moscow — for the source of their extremism problem.

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It was recently reported that in June 2015, the U.S. Congress directed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to investigate possible funding of European political parties and non-governmental organizations by the Kremlin. The directive alleges that Russia seeks to weaken European unity, with the goal of ending sanctions levied for its involvement in eastern Ukraine and undermining NATO’s missile defense plans.

This is only the latest chapter in an ongoing effort to expose Russia’s meddling in European politics. Allegations of Russian infiltration have been made by leading publications, politicians, and think tanks. They warn that bankrolling like-minded parties is only one component of Russia’s operations meant to manipulate public opinion in its favor. The Kremlin has also worked to shape attitudes through the slick and compelling — and conspiracy-filled — programming on its global news channel. Some analysts have even consider Russia’s propaganda and lobbying campaign to be an aspect of “hybrid warfare” alongside its more muscular actions in Ukraine. The new wrinkle is that, for the first time, the U.S. government is conducting its own investigation.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it confuses cause with effect. If Russia is, in fact, assisting sympathetic groups in Europe (and it should be noted that these are still mostly rumors), it is not because Putin is a puppet master, manipulating unsuspecting politicians with crafty subterfuge. It is because he has been invited in.

Europe’s underlying problems — economic stagnation, massive refugee inflows, dissension among EU members, and the perceived indifference of mainstream politicians to ordinary people’s concerns — have driven some voters to the extremes of the political system. As crazy as it seems, these voters, and the parties they turn to, find aspects of today’s Russia attractive. It is unsurprising that quasi-fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik would admire a strongman like Vladimir Putin, who exudes the kind of masculine authority their voters crave. As a bonus, Putin’s current incarnation as a defender of “traditional values” resonates with these right-wing parties’ core beliefs. If Russia is stirring the pot, it is because the ingredients have been prepared.

There are also concrete policies on which the two sides converge. Parties once considered “fringe” but which now poll at respectable numbers, such as the U.K. Independence Party and France’s National Front, thrive on being contrarian. They distinguish themselves from mainstream parties of the center-right and center-left by opposing policies that the establishment favors, such as deeper European integration and sanctions against Russia. The fact that the Kremlin is only too happy to see these policies, which it loathes, challenged by Europeans themselves doesn’t mean that this sentiment is not a genuine European phenomenon.

So far the only proven case of Russian patronage is a 9.4 million-euro loan to France’s National Front, which its leader Marine Le Pen claimed she accepted after being denied loans from French banks. There is no evidence that other parties described as being “in the Kremlin’s pocket” have accepted Russian money, yet their pro-Russian foreign policy orientation alone is enough to cause alarm in respectable policy circles.

The accusers are not necessarily paranoid. Since Russia faces a united front of European support for sanctions, it’s not surprising that it would lobby individual states to try to get them to break ranks. We know that the Kremlin has used punitive measures, including cutting off the gas supply in the winter, and offered incentives, such as loans and investment pledges, to cash-strapped E.U. members. Of course, from Russia’s point of view, this strategy of divide-and-rule is no worse than Western efforts over the past two decades to absorb post-communist states into NATO or the E.U. over vehement Russian objections.

But the current high pitch of elite rhetoric focused on Russia’s alleged efforts to infiltrate western politics runs two risks.

First, the insinuation of guilt by association is a seductive yet devious way to discredit popular Euroskeptic parties. This is an old tactic, used by politicians in autocracies and democracies alike, but it can lead down dark paths. Putin himself is notorious for sliming his opponents by arguing that they received support at some point from the U.S. government. Does this make them stooges of Uncle Sam? Putin would like the public to believe so.

The corollary of alleging a hidden hand is that the accuser disregards the beliefs of everyone who supports the cause, no matter how just. Again, Putin himself has led the way, failing to acknowledge the genuine grassroots support for the 2011 mass protests against his return to power, and the hundreds of thousands who willingly participated in Ukraine’s Euromaidan.

European politicians have proven themselves good pupils of their nemesis, invoking the Russian menace to discredit whole movements when their demands are unwelcome. In June 2014, NATO Secretary-general Anders Rasmussen blamed Russia for anti-fracking protests in several European countries, alleging that it used “sophisticated information and disinformation operations” to “maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.” Greenpeace and other participating NGOs — who, of course, oppose fracking not only in Europe denied the allegation.

Rasmussen acknowledged that his assertion relied on the claims made by pro-fracking politicians in Lithuania and Romania, who themselves lacked direct evidence. In the charged geopolitical atmosphere of the Ukraine crisis, it rang true enough. But it should trouble citizens of democracies when officials respond to legitimate grievances not by disagreeing on the merits of the issue, but by linking them with nefarious outsiders. Historically, exploiting feelings of insecurity to achieve domestic political goals has led to shameful episodes that democracies later came to regret.

A second hazard of trumpeting possible Kremlin influence is that it distracts politicians from addressing the issues that really do sustain pro-Russian parties. The multiple forces buffeting the continent pose perhaps the greatest challenges that have faced the E.U. in its lifetime. They should be faced squarely, not minimized by reference to external enemies.

As much as it bothers European elites that Russia might be exerting financial and ideological pressure to deepen the continent’s existing divisions, there is no quick solution that would not also risk compromising European values. (Would it make anyone feel better to pass a law requiring NGOs that accept foreign money to register as foreign agents?) Open societies run a greater risk of penetration by outsiders than autocracies, and if they want to remain open, they must accept that tradeoff.

Naturally, democracies should require political parties to reveal where their funding comes from. If voters are turned off by Russian (or Saudi, or hedge fund) donors, they can register their objections at the ballot box. And insofar as Russian disinformation and opportunistic propaganda ploys mislead and confuse the public, governments and the media have an interest in actively disseminating accurate information.

Even if Russia were to mind its own business entirely (as, if we’re honest, no major power ever does), European voters would be no more content. It is only by addressing the underlying causes that have allowed extremist parties to flourish — as difficult as this is — that Europe can regain its footing and address its vulnerabilities.

If the E.U. breaks up, the Kremlin may rejoice. But the fault for this disaster would lie in Brussels — not in Moscow.

In the photo, a supporter of the Greek ultra-nationalist party Golden Dawn raises his fist during a pre-election rally in Athens on May 23, 2014.

Photo credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Scott Radnitz is Associate Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.