The Kremlin's Campaign to Make Friends

Greece's new Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, left, smiles as he arriving for a news conference after his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Vladimir Putin knows how to make friends and influence people. It takes charm, a little anti-Americanism, a dollop of conservative family-values ideology, some visionary-leader atmospherics and, of course, money. Over recent years the Kremlin has been busy deploying all these tactics and more to attract, or in some cases to rent, allies across Europe. Now, with the West uniting against Russia, the Kremlin has ordered that campaign expanded. With Russia's economy nose-diving in the wake of EU and U.S. sanctions and falling oil prices, bringing influential Westerners over to Russia's side has become essential, politically and economically.

"Overall the plan is to have a way to subvert European unity, and ultimately Euro-Atlantic unity," says Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a study of the world of Kremlin propaganda.

Despite the annexation of Crimea, a bloody six-month separatist war in eastern Ukraine and crackdowns on gays, journalists and opponents at home, Russia can still boast some powerful European friends. Czech President Milos Zeman has condemned EU sanctions against Russia and called the conflict in Ukraine a "civil war;" French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who still heads the powerful center-right UMP party, said earlier this month that Europe should formally approve ceding Crimea to Russia. Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban believes Europe's "prevailing ideological winds" are "blowing from the East" and sees in Russia an ideal political model for an "illiberal state," which he admires. Orban welcomed Putin to Budapest this month, despite thousands of pro-European demonstrators who marched, symbolically, from Budapest's Eastern train station to its Western one.

Perhaps most oddly of all, Greece's new radical leftist Syriza-led government, chafing under the EU's economic constraints, has turned to right-wing Russia as its savior. "If there is no deal [with the EU] then we will have to go to Plan B," Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said recently. "We have other ways of finding money. It could be the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could be China." According to Nikos Chountis, Greece's deputy foreign minister, Moscow has already stepped forward with "proposals, offers I would say, for economic support."

Russia has been courting Syriza for some time. In May 2014, Alexis Tsipras—now Greece's prime minister—was received in Moscow as an honored guest by Valentina Matviyenko, chair of the upper house of Russia's parliament. Since then, Tsipras has echoed the Kremlin line that the government in Ukraine is composed of "fascists and neo-Nazis," supported separatist referendums in eastern Ukraine, and this month repeated Greece's opposition to more European sanctions against Moscow. Nikos Kotzias, a former professor at the University of Piraeus who is now Greece's foreign minister, is also close to Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose doctrine of "Eurasianism" combines a mystical, anti-Western philosophy with Russian ultranationalism. In December 2014, a Russian hacker group named Shaltai Boltai released a trove of emails linking top Syriza leaders with Dugin and Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who has bankrolled the separatist movement in Ukraine.

Russia's new friends come from a wide—and bewildering—variety of backgrounds. But they all have two things in common: a disdain for the European Union, and a dislike of U.S. hegemony. Most are also social conservatives. "Everyone from Venezuela to China who believes the West is degenerate and rotted by homosexuality has Putin as their poster boy," says Daniel Hannan, a prominent eurosceptic Member of the European Parliament for South-East England.

Some, like Zeman—age 70 and a fluent Russian speaker—are old Communists who have made friends with Russia's new capitalists. Zeman's Party of Citizens' Rights, for instance, was openly backed by Martin Nejedly, the Czech representative of Russia's Lukoil company. And the Russian editions of Zeman's books were published by a Lukoil-backed publishing house, according to an exposé in Respekt weekly.

Most Kremlin supporters, though, are on the other side ideological spectrum. Gabor Vona, for instance, the head of Hungary's extreme-right Jobbik party, says his mission is "to liberate Hungary from the Euro-Atlantic slavery…and to expel liberal cultural policy and influence from the state sector." He has praised Putin for defending and fighting for "traditional family values, Christian morality and our common Eurasian heritage," and claims that the EU is supporting "ethnic cleansing among the Russian-speaking people in Ukraine."

A pedestrian shelters from the rain as she passes a neon sign displaying foreign currency exchange rates on a street in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. President Vladimir Putin struck an uncompromising stance over the crisis gripping Russia, accusing the U.S. and European Union of trying to undermine his nation and blaming external factors for the ruble's sharp drop. Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty

"The strengthening of Jobbik is useful for Moscow," says Peter Morvay, a political analyst at Hungary's ATV television channel. "It is a win-win situation." Prime Minister Orban's Fidesz party is already pro-Russian, Jobbik even more so. "Putin is eyeing Vona as a possible future partner who could possibly lead Hungary out of the EU," says Morvay. That's unlikely—the party scores around 20 percent in polls. And in May 2014, the party suffered a blow when the Hungarian government sought to revoke parliamentary immunity for Béla Kovács, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Jobbik, in order to charge him with spying for Russia and accepting illegal Russian campaign contributions (Kovács, who worked as a businessman in Russia for 15 years and has a Russian wife, denied the charges and his immunity was not lifted).

France's far-right National Front is much closer to power, with its popularity growing by the day. It supports Putin, and last year the party accepted at least 9 million euros in Russia-backed loans, including 2 million from a Cypriot firm owned by former KGB officer Yuri Kudimov, who is also a former director of VEB Capital, a state-owned Russian bank. Party leader Marine Le Pen described the loans as "perfectly legal," saying the party turned to Russia after being rejected by Western banks. Bernard Monot, a National Front MEP and economic adviser to Le Pen, said that support of up to $50 million—eight times the present annual budget of the National Front—had been discussed with Russian banks. Le Pen has also spoken out against Russian sanctions, while insisting that "getting a loan does not dictate our international position."

The list of Russian-backed parties goes on. According to the website Political Capital, of the 24 right-wing populist parties that took about a quarter of the European Parliament's seats in May elections, 15 were "committed" to Russia. Bulgaria's extreme-right Ataka party, which has been one of the organizers of anti-NATO protests in Sofia this month, was suspected by the U.S. State Department of ties to the Russian Embassy in Sofia, according to confidential cables released by Wikileaks. Joerg Haider, the late leader of Austria's Freedom Party, has been named by Austrian prosecutors in a million-dollar-residence-permits-for-bribes scandal involving Russian businessmen. Even Nigel Farage, head of Britain's anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party, called Putin "the statesman I most admire" and argued that the EU "directly encouraged the [Euromaidan] uprising in Ukraine" that "led in turn to Vladimir Putin reacting."

"For many it's a case of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend': people who hate the EU support the EU's enemies," says Hannan. "Its a crazy failure of logic, of course—look at the euroskeptics who ended up on the same side as Soviet nostalgics in Ukraine. I am astonished how people who call themselves nationalists can be so quick to subordinate their interests to a foreign power."

Does Russia have a grand design not just to break Europe's support for sanctions and alliance with the U.S., but to destroy the EU? You might think so from the radically euroskeptic bent of allies. But in truth Russia's friends today are on the margins of power—whereas a decade ago Putin's friends Gerhard Schroeder and Silvio Berlusconi were at the very heart of European decision-making.

What's more, though many of Russia's tactics for winning influence have been taken from a Soviet-era playbook, today's balance of power between Russia and the West is very different from a generation ago. "For this to be a Cold War, Russia would need to be a superpower. It is not," argues Brian Whitmore, author of Radio Free Europe's The Power Vertical blog. "Moscow would need to lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. It doesn't. And it would need to be offering an alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. It isn't."

In Minsk earlier this month, Angela Merkel of Germany and François Hollande of France put the squeeze on Putin. As squeezes go, it was a fairly gentle one: Putin signed off on a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, the Europeans backed off another round of tougher economic sanctions, and the U.S. administration suspended plans to send arms to Kiev. "I have no illusions," said Merkel, that the deal was anything like a lasting peace—but there was a "glimmer of hope" that Europe, standing together, could face down Russian aggression.

Now, Putin is clearly going on the counterattack—starting with his visit to Hungary. Chief among his weapons of persuasion is the old Russian trump card of cheap gas—and, in Hungary's case, a sweet deal to build Russian-designed nuclear reactors. But Russia's energy leverage was considerably weakened when European regulators last year blocked the South Stream project—a giant pipeline that would have made most of the Balkans and Central Europe into loyal Gazprom customers. True, the Kremlin has recently scored a success with EU member Cyprus—"an insolvent, risibly tiny Levantine backwater awash with Russian dirty money," in Hannan's view—which has offered Russia access to its ports and airfields, including military facilities, in exchange for Russian credit.

Russia has long been a master at the age-old diplomatic art of divide and rule. The current European consensus behind sanctions on Russia, and Germany's unexpectedly tough stance against Moscow, is the exception, not the rule, of East-West relations. In coming months Putin will do his best to cajole whatever Western allies he can find—or buy—back to business as usual.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Gabor Vona had worked in Russia for 15 years and had a Russian wife. It was Bela Kovacs who worked in Russia and had a Russian wife.