Russia’s meddling strategy in Europe

The man behind the Brexit referendum funding scandal, Aaron Banks, is being criminally investigated about Leave.EU’s funding sources as foreign contributions to British political campaigns are illegal

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

In its annual threat assessment published on March 12, Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (Efis) warned that France, Germany, and Italy are Russia’s main targets for its meddling in the European Parliament (EP) election. According to this report, Moscow’s objective is to turn the EP into ‘an amplifier of its anti-EU propaganda’.

So what’s new? It seems that Putin’s Russia has been regularly meddling in democratic elections in the West, besides intruding in the UK’s Brexit referendum.

Questions over the legal validity of the Brexit referendum of June 2016 have been raised following ongoing investigations on alleged Russian interference by the UK Electoral Commission, the UK Parliament‘s Culture Select Committee, and the United States Senate.

The man behind the Brexit referendum funding scandal, Aaron Banks, is being criminally investigated about Leave.EU’s funding sources as foreign contributions to British political campaigns are illegal.

Arron Banks was the largest donor to the Brexit campaign. Prior to the donations, Southern Rock, Banks’ underwriting company, was technically insolvent and needed to find £60m to meet regulations. It was saved by a £77m cash injection, mostly in September 2015 from another company, ICS Risk Solutions which Banks claimed to own.

In September 2015, Banks started having meetings with Russian officials at the Russian embassy in London. According to his South African business partner, Christopher Kimber, Banks had been trying to raise funds by offering Russian investors a stake in a gold mine.

In October 2015, Arron Banks sent an email to Steve Bannon and others to request help from Cambridge Analytica with fundraising in the US for the Leave.EU campaign. A month later, Banks, Andy Wigmore, and Cambridge Analytica executive Brittany Kaiser launched the Leave.EU campaign.

Months after the Russian cash injection, Banks started making large donations to political causes including the £8m to the Brexit campaign. The UK’s Electoral Commission concluded it had “reasonable grounds to suspect that Mr Banks was not the true source of the £8m reported as loans”. This led to the criminal investigation of Banks.

Banks sent financial statements to the BBC’s Newsnight programme to prove that no Russian money was involved but an email attached to the statements included the text “Redact the reference for Ural Properties and any references which include sensitive info e.g. the account numbers the money was sent from.” Ural Properties is a Gibraltar-based company offshore property company that owns two flats overlooking Portsmouth Harbour.

Was it therefore just a coincidence that in a speech in March 2016, Philip Hammond, then Secretary for Defence and Foreign Secretary and now the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated “the only country who would like us to leave the EU is Russia”?

Today we know that the Leave.EU campaign was organised and funded by men with links across the global network of far-right American demagogues and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia had a direct interest in promoting Brexit because it would destabilise a strategic rival and Russia has interfered in elections in North America and Europe.

Apart from the Brexit referendum, there is no doubt that organisations linked to the Kremlin are working to advance right-wing politics in the West.

When Marine Le Pen, president of National Rally, a political party previously named National Front, needed cash for her bid for the French presidency, an obscure Russian bank agreed to help.

The money failed to deliver Le Pen the French presidency in the 2017 Presidential campaign, denying the Kremlin a powerful ally in the heart of Europe. Unlike the US and the UK, France managed to maintain its democratic integrity as French institutions have better protected the integrity of elections than those in other countries.

Leaked emails also featured in that election. However, those who hacked into the Macron team’s emails made several mistakes. Some fake emails were added along with the leaked documents but they were so absurd that they were hardly credible. Macron’s campaign team reacted by denouncing the hack on social media and turning it into a complete farce.

In Italy, three weeks ago, L’Espresso magazine revealed that Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord last year sought a €3 million funding commitment from Kremlin-linked entities to finance his political campaign. The scheme, reportedly organised by a loyal aide and former spokesman to Salvini enabled the money to flow to Lega Nord covertly, under the guise of an ordinary oil export deal between Italian and Russian companies.

L’Espresso reported that there is no clear indication of whether this money ever actually made its way to Salvini and his party, but this was yet another example of people or organisations linked to the Kremlin working to advance right-wing politics in a Western nation. In this particular case, the deal, regardless of whether it ever came to fruition, shares elements with President Donald Trump’s Moscow tower initiative – another business negotiation during an election that was carried out by a right-leaning politician’s trusted aide who had or was seeking discussions with Russian officials.

Recently, it was found that the daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman works as an intern in the European Parliament in Brussels, and has unhindered access to various EU documents. Yelizaveta Peskova, the 21-year-old daughter of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, serves as a trainee with Aymeric Chauprade, a French member of the European Parliament that has publicly supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Up until late 2015, Chauprade was a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Front before he quit the party to become an independent MEP and subsequently joining the other right-wing populist group in the chamber, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).

And it goes on and on.

Within another two months or so, citizens of EU member states will be voting to elect their MEPs in the European Parilament. The EP elections are the biggest electoral contest in Europe, but they frequently leave many voters indifferent. The elections in May 2019, less than two months away, have been labelled as decisive by many European leaders.  

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the La Lega party declared that the elections would be “a referendum between the Europe of the elites, of banks, of finance, of immigration and precarious work” versus “the Europe of people and labour”. Parties such as Salvini’s League, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally are expected to do well.

How successful will Russian meddling be in these elections?