Former intelligence officers on RT France and presidential candidates calling not to defend Eastern Europe – pro-Kremlin influencers have penetrated Europe’s ‘engine room’, France and Germany, writes Anastasia Kirilenko, an investigative journalist based in France and the author of the documentary Putin and Mafia.
In both capitals of the European engine, Berlin and Paris, Russian agents of influence have infiltrated the media, big business and politics.
Pro-Russian politicians in Europe are congratulating President Vladimir Putin on changing the constitution and advancing conspiracy theories about Alexei Navalny’s poisoning or the Russian GRU-organised explosions in the Czech Republic, they have Russian wives and partnerships with “true German businessmen” of Russian origin. Such activism should not be underestimated.
Emmanuel Macron is criticised by anti-Putin crusaders for his policy of dialogue with Russia. But what can he do if such a policy satisfies the French audience and only grows Macron’s ranks?
In every media debate, Russia’s Verstehers – self-appointed experts of Eastern Europe – explain the importance of Moscow. In a minute of frankness in the newsrooms, I’ve heard that “post-Soviet countries, excluding the Baltics, are in Russia’s area of influence”, while “Crimea is of course Russian”.
In general, the French press is doing the bare minimum of mentioning that the “referendum” in Crimea was illegal. I have not seen, however, reports on abductions and executions of Crimean Tatars activists.
Too complicated and too far away? It seems not – the voice of Russia, politician Thierry Mariani, is distributing press releases on the Crimean Tatars and “suspected of terrorism by Natalia Poklonskaya”. Meanwhile, Le Monde, in addition to its good work, has published a very popular video, Crimea is Russian, pretending to explain geopolitics for dummies.
A couple of years ago, there was even a media project in France with a working title, What if Putin is right? It was not broadcasted and, hopefully, is already forgotten.
Projects of ‘understanding’ Putin are regularly filmed with less scandalous titles. This, of course, is the EU’s freedom of speech, which Russia uses skillfully to advance inaccuracies, conspiracies, direct lies.
Lithuania, in this context, could lead educational initiatives to explain what is really happening in Russia, the European Parliament, and elsewhere.
“During the Soviet era, Lithuania developed a capacity of mistrust towards authoritarian regimes. Now it serves Lithuania not only for relations with Russia, but also, for example, with China,” Anne-Marie Goussard, a retired French military and honorary consul of Lithuania, told me.
A striking moment for the Baltics, unnoticed by media, happened during the March 2017 presidential election debate in France.
“France has its own [nuclear] weapons, but France cannot participate in defence systems integrated into Europe, which would lead it to participate in a war as soon as a Baltic country has problems with their neighbour,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former candidate from a far-left party who finished fourth in a narrow race.
“And they have had problems with the Russians for a thousand years! I prefer that we keep a distance that will help keep the peace, instead of getting involved in madness,” he added to a chorus of approval.
Only Benoît Hamon, an outsider who received just 7 percent of the vote in the election, strongly opposed this kind of realpolitik. Macron remained neutral and won the presidential race.
France never recognised the incorporation of Lithuania into the USSR according to the pact between Stalin and Hitler. Until 1991, French civil servants were banned from official trips to the Baltics. The same now applies to Crimea.
This ban for the officials to travel to the peninsula is already a solid base for Europe’s policy, but democracy allows various agents of influence to be invited for such trips to Crimea and to spread their views back home.
Propaganda’s modest, but permanent, success slows down debates in Western Europe about what Russia really is. In this regard, Lithuania needs to continue to inform, inform and inform the EU, politicians and civil society and do so without any arrogance or reproaches.
Prague remains too far from the French-German ‘engine of Europe’. And despite the push by Lithuania and other countries, Eastern and Central Europe has failed to rally the EU to impose stronger measures against Moscow in response to the events in the Czech Republic.
However, a large amount of French documentaries on “Russian subversion” in Europe commissioned for the upcoming autumn are a sign that the problem is starting to be taken seriously.
Gradually, Eastern Europe itself is becoming more and more pro-Western. Thus, the pro-Russian forces in the Czech Republic have lost significant support.
Russia experts, gathered by Macron’s office in 2017, say that the French president initially wanted to lift the bloc’s sanctions against Russia. However, by speaking with the experts, he soon discovered the true reality of the Moscow regime.
Only following the outrageous arrest of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich on the diverted Ryanair plane, did the French president invite a delegation of Belarus opposition to attend the next G7 summit.
Other messages of support were also numerous, including the Western airlines’ boycott of the Belarusian airspace.
But surprisingly – or rather unsurprisingly – Moscow banned Air France and Austrian Airlines from its skies in retaliation. Moscow does not even hide that Belarus is its proxy. The Russian State TV quickly compared Protasevich with the Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout who was convicted in the US.
For Russia, this may be a continuation of its attempts to exchange Bout for Ukrainian hostages. Russia believes that the United States values relations with Ukraine or Belarus so much that the exchange could actually take place.
Now, headlines in Europe seem much more alarmist than when the crackdown against Belarusian protesters began – what is this powerful pirate state, which is capable of diverting a European passenger plane with a fighter jet to arrest a young ‘hipster’?
The Kremlin’s voices, like RT France, insist that, if true, the Ryanair incident would suggest that Lukashenko is crazy. But the head of state cannot be crazy, so they repeat that “nothing is clear” and “we need an investigation”.
This is what the French call “to drown a fish” – an extremely boring demagoguery. Nobody really believes it.
However, RT France has also managed to recruit a former intelligence chief of the French intelligence agency, DGSE, as their anchor. Last autumn, the French Russian Dialogue association also had a high-profile retired French security officer to discuss the French-Russian alliance against terrorism.
In exchange for its cooperation, Russia wants to blackmail the civilised world into recognising the cases of Navalny, Pratasevich and the explosions in the Czech Republic as “not clear” and the new sanctions to be forgotten.
Russia works restlessly with Europeean businesses, media and politicians to push its tactic of “drowning a fish”.
Not surprisingly, special reporters are sent to Vilnius, including the French. Obviously, this is to listen to the exiled activists of Belarus, now invited by Macron for an expert talk.
This is also a good opportunity to receive expertise from Vilnius itself, which is now in the vanguard of research into Russia’s subversive acts in the world.
Perhaps, also thanks to the efforts of Lithuania, the EU will be able to resist authoritarian Russia more effectively, for the benefit of the whole world, including the Russian people themselves.