News and Views
Op-ed: Why is Russia supporting the Far-Right?
Why is Russia so closely aligned with far-right politics in Europe, asks Anthony Angelini, a lecturer with Adult Continuing Education (ACE) at UCC, who outlines concerns raised that Vladimir Putin is seeking to weaken the EU.
In the past year, serious concerns have grown that the Kremlin is seeking to manipulate Western elections in favour of populist parties seen as more favourable to Russia ’s interests. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, stated last October that, “Russia’s strategy is to weaken the EU”.
Moscow has undeniably capitalised on the growth of European movements that focus on restricting immigration and breaking up global economic and political structures (such as the EU). These groups regard the growth of multiculturalism and economic integration as a threat to concepts of national sovereignty and national identity. They believe in the need for a tougher response to Islamic fundamentalism and perceive Islam itself as a threat. In these areas, they view Vladimir Putin as an ally.
A recent BBC Panorama investigation uncovered the financial connection between Marine Le Pen’s major backers and Russia. This included a €9 million loan from First Czech-Russian Bank, with links to the Kremlin. Le Pen (who threatened to take France out of the EU if she was elected as President) refused to condemn Russia ’s annexation of Crimea, leading some to question whether the loans were a quid-pro-quo.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2016, Mika Pettersson, the editor of Finland’s national news agency, was quick to draw the connection between Russia and the populists: “I don’t know if these people are acting on orders from Russia, but they are clearly what Lenin called ‘useful idiots. They are playing into Putin’s pocket. Nationalist movements in Finland and other European countries want to destabilise the European Union and NATO, and this goes straight into Putin’s narrative.”
In recent years, anti-Western sentiment has grown, not only in Russia but in the West itself. The 2003 Iraq War and the global financial crisis of 2008 have been held up as evidence of Western corruption and hypocrisy. And, in those terms, they are difficult to dispute. The Iraq War was a catastrophic foreign policy failure that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the destabilisation of vast swathes of the Middle-East. Many would argue that it was a war of aggression and thus illegal under international law, but the politicians behind the decision to invade, remain untroubled. The 2008 crash was caused by a free-market that had run amok and yet the individuals whose fraudulent activities led to the destruction of their firms, walked away free with their massive bonuses protected. Taxpayers footed enormous bills and saw opportunities for social mobility crushed by austerity. These two events alone have shaken trust in Western democratic standards and it is this anti-Western sentiment that Russia is seeking to manipulate.
One of the most effective tools in Russia’s propaganda arsenal is RT (formerly Russia Today). Its underlying narrative is that while Russia is imperfect, the West is just as bad, and the US, in particular, is the source and cause of most of the world’s ills. The network highlights stories that show Western countries in a bad light, such as racial tension in the US, political scandals and failings in institutions like the NHS in the UK. All of these legitimate issues are presented as evidence of the West’s inherent corruption.
Russia has also targeted Western news outlets themselves. Hundreds of paid bloggers regularly flood comments sections of Western publications during periods of political change and crisis, raging at the immorality and hypocrisy of the West. Their posts often include links to obscure propaganda sites. They regularly cite the Iraq war or US drone strikes as examples of Western imperialism and human rights abuses. Each post immediately receives multiple up-votes, clearly indicating that the poster was part of a larger, connected group. These postings were most evident during the height of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 (where the Ukranian government were continuously described by trolls as fascists), the EU Referendum in the UK (where troll posters were decisively pro-Brexit) and the US election (where there was a consistent attempt to demean and smear Hillary Clinton).
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of the book Inside The Red Web spoke to the Guardian in 2015 about the mindset behind this organised trolling: “Trolls do not need to be that sophisticated, they are tasked with conveying an emotional message. The main goal is to present the Kremlin as the only alternative to the morally corrupt West.”
The absence of strong political leadership has led to what Dr David Fitzgerald, of UCC’s History Department, describes as a “warping of perspective”. Many people on the right (and the left) have been so angered by incidences of fraud and hypocrisy in the West, that they see a type of moral equivalency between our own governments and that of Russia. There is, according to Dr Fitzgerald, “a need for intellectual honesty”. We must recognise the need to improve our political system, whilst understanding that at its core, the Western democratic system is the most just. We need to critique and analyse our political systems and demand the changes that are needed, but we must not let cynicism lead us to believe that our political system is morally equivalent to that of Russia or any other authoritarian regime.
The root causes of this dissatisfaction remain; growing inequality caused by the failure of trickle-down economics, job insecurity caused by globalisation, the threat of terrorism, concerns about the effects of rapid, large-scale immigration. The simple truth is that Western politicians have too often acted in their own self-interest; they have become far too close to business leaders and far less focused on the needs of ordinary people. If politicians across the continent are unwilling to deal with the very real struggles that people are enduring, then the extremists will fill the vacuum, the far-right will grow stronger and the voices advocating a return to nationalism and nativism will become louder.