Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
In late November, France’s nationalist party Front Nationale accepted a €9 million loan from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank. Party leader Marine Le Pen, who may well be France’s next president, has long been a critic of EU policies towards Russia and Ukraine, and intends to chart an independent foreign policy for Europe’s second largest economy. She is not alone; Russia has increasingly found friends in anti-EU circles throughout the continent, as many countries fear a loss of sovereignty to Brussels and their continued Islamization as independent border and immigration controls move away from national governments. Moscow’s brand of social-conservatism and foreign policy independence is for many an increasingly popular alternative to the Euro-Atlantic model where individual capitals take a back seat to Brussels and Washington. This trend is highly likely to continue and jeopardizes Western solidarity toward Moscow.
France’s Le Pen makes no secret of her admiration of Vladimir Putin. She describes Russia’s president as “a true patriot and defender of European values…the Christian heritage of European civilization” and she is hardly alone in her support. Prominent French businessman Philippe de Villiers plans to help Russia develop Crimean infrastructure, including a theme park on the peninsula. In a press conference, Villiers expressed hopes to foster closer Russo-French relations despite current diplomatic tension. His role is particularly important because his brother, Pierre, is the chief of the French Military’s General Staff.
Further fostering Russo-French relations are social-political organizations such as the Franco-Russian Dialogue Association, which are often described as the “Putin Lobby” by the French press. Elements of said lobby may well act as fronts for extensive Russian intelligence activity in the country, but genuine business and political factors do drive Paris and Moscow together.
In protest of agricultural sanctions on Russia for example, French farmers blocked roads and dumped produce and manure on government buildings. Some 36,000 farmers participated in roughly 150 demonstrations protesting the collapse in the price of cereal, milk and grain that followed EU sanctions that threaten their livelihoods. Some went so far as to torch a tax office during their protest.
Politically, Le Pen’s unprecedented popularity reflects the decisive turn in public opinion against mass immigration and the EU, and towards genuine French sovereignty modeled on Gaullism. This provides an opening for Moscow to position itself as an alternative partner to Brussels and Washington. Russia has already delivered a 25 meter Christmas tree to Notre Dame Cathedral to gather the support of French conservatives who have recently become more assertive in their defense of traditional marriage and the nuclear family.
This is evidence that although relations between Russia and the French establishment have been troubled following divergences on Syria and Ukraine, ties between the two are undeniably growing. Postponed deliveries of French Mistral-class ships notwithstanding, a Paris-Berlin-Moscow coalition is growing in appeal for many in all three countries.
Russia’s extensive trade and political ties with Germany are well known. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder accepted a board chairmanship with Gazprom in one high profile case, and has recently re-surfaced in supporting Moscow’s position on Ukraine. Putin himself has called Germany Russia’s most important partner in resolving the Ukraine crisis, building on strong pro-Russia sentiment in Germany. 40% of Germans polled accepted Russian ownership of Crimea, urging the need to continue dialogue rather than pursue ineffective sanctions which hurt Europe as much as the Kremlin.
Moscow is likely to benefit from deteriorating relations between Berlin and Washington that have followed the NSA spying scandal. The unique relationship between Berlin and Moscow has posed an important question for Western strategists, as Germany increasingly finds itself in the role of a geopolitical middle-man. She is central to Western security structures (as one of the West’s largest arms manufacturers), but finds herself increasingly integrated with Eastern economies and thus adverse to military adventurism. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has repeatedly argued against NATO membership for Ukraine, instead stressing the need for partnerships with both Kiev and Moscow outside of martial frameworks.
Recent nation-wide demonstrations against radical Islam included sizable protests against the West’s treatment of Russia. Protests against sanctions gathered as many as 15,000 people. It is likely that, as in France, many Germans see Russia as an alternative partner, one better suited to deal with Europe’s continued Islamization and the contradictory loss of sovereignty to Brussels and the EU’s economic dependence on Germany.
Similar opinions are also shared in neighboring Austria. In particular, the conservative and anti-EU Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has proven an important partner for Moscow. Members of the party served as observers in the Crimean and Donetsk referendums, leading the participants to be declared Persona Non Grata by the new Kiev government.
Prior to the project’s cancellation, Austria was resolutely committed to the South Stream Pipeline, disregarding EU pressure against the project. Its status of neutrality during the Cold War likely helps foster more positive relations with Russia. Common security concerns, such as radical Islamism in the Balkans, likewise play a role.
Hungary and the Czech Republic
Like Austria, Hungary is strategically positioned in Central Europe. It shares a direct border with Ukraine, which hosts a small Hungarian minority in the mountainous Carpathian region. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has actively fostered closer partnerships to the East, despite the concerns raised by Brussels and Washington. Orban has openly criticized EU policies, including sanctions against Russia, which have proven to be to the mutual detriment of both Russia and Europe.
With its independent foreign policy, Budapest pursues a pro-Hungarian policy with each actor in the region and is not subservient to any power bloc, including those to which it belongs. Of all members of the Visegrad Group, Hungary is alone in maintaining good relations with Russia, and (as previously assessed by Leksika) could potentially serve as a middle-man between Russia and other Central European powers, namely Poland. That said, there have been reports of increased Russian intelligence activity in the country and a certain admiration for “Putinism” among members of the ruling center-right (and increasingly Eurosceptic) Fidesz party.
In the nearby Czech Republic, there is likewise a widespread understanding of Russia’s position on Ukraine, which has drawn criticism from the EU establishment. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has refused to allow NATO troops to be stationed on Czech Territory and has sought to lighten existing sanctions as a means of de-escalating the conflict. Even more directly, former president Vaclav Klaus published an essay defending Russian actions in Crimea, opinions shared by the country’s sitting President, Milos Zeman. The Czech position is particularly telling, given the country’s complicated history with Moscow, and demonstrates the extent to which many in Prague oppose fanning the flames in their backyard.
Serbia and the Balkans
Support for Russian positions can also be found throughout the Balkans and South Eastern Europe. Serbia, a traditional ally of Moscow, has extended especially visible and vocal support for Russia. Serbian volunteers (many of whom are veterans of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s) have been very active in the Ukrainian conflict, acting to defend the Crimean referendum and to join the Novorossiyan war effort in Ukraine’s east. Such volunteers are motivated out of religious solidarity with the pro-Russian rebels, to repay the hundreds of Russian volunteers which fought alongside them in the 1990s, and out of revenge for the NATO attacks on their country.
On an official level, it was recently announced that the Russian and Serbian Air Forces will hold joint-exercises in 2015, adding to existing military cooperation between the two nations. Shared concerns over NATO expansion and the presence of Jihadist groups in the Balkans are likely driving this cooperation, in addition to the deep ethnic, religious, historical, and cultural ties between the two countries. Furthermore NATO’s role in the Kosovo War provided Russia with her justification in annexing Crimea, demonstrating the enduring legacy of such conflicts in the wider region.
What to Watch
- Continued Russian support for European conservatives, Christian groups, and Eurosceptics continent-wide
- Continued internal rifts in the EU and NATO between countries with divergent interests in Ukraine and Russia
- A continued increase of Russian intelligence activity in pivotal countries such as France, Hungary, Austria, and Germany
- Rising resentment towards the EU in the face of mass immigration and economic instability
- The rise of independent foreign policies in the face of the above issues